Our voice is us.

Amy Cheifetz Billings - Voice Studio

Why Take Voice Lessons?

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 | 2 comments

Why Take Voice Lessons?

Why should we take voice lessons, or music lessons of any kind, for that matter? It is a frequent topic of discussion among my teaching colleagues these days as the economy continues to falter and money is tight for everyone. So why spend money on music lessons? Is it purely frivolous or could there be more lasting, substantive value to it?

At first the answer was obvious to me, after all, I’ve had a voice lesson almost every week from age 13 to 35 (and if Cornelius was still on this earth, you can bet I’d still be having lessons!). As a professional singer and voice teacher, I know that having a voice lesson is as essential as exercising, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and sleeping- it’s just what you do to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. It was always just something I did, had to do, wanted to do. I never questioned the need or the expense because it was a natural part of pursuing my dreams, the cornerstone of the regimen for becoming a vocal artist. The bottom line is, you go to lessons to develop your instrument; to (hopefully!) learn “technique”- that fearsome, complicated, magical word that means so much but can be so elusive. I didn’t discover how powerful and profound that word could be until I was in graduate school when I finally found a technique that actually worked for me. Developing a solid technique that you fully understand, that makes you sing better every week is indispensable and potentially life changing.

But as I thought more deeply about it, beyond the technical aspect, the other reasons for taking lessons are just as profound but not as obvious, having less to do with a career and much more to do with the development and discovery of ourselves as unique, thinking, feeling, creative beings. With every passing year, I realize that all those voice lessons over all those years helped shape and define me as a person as well as a performer.

First of all, my lessons were a wonderful outlet for me to express myself through music. Ah the beauty of an hour devoted solely to singing, communing with the music, delving into the realm of the senses and emotions. Through repertoire, I got to explore facets of myself that I didn’t know existed, or was too afraid to express “in real life;” being passionate, funny, angry, sensual…are all emotions that are not necessarily allowed in everyday life but are the very essence of music. Even with Cornelius, when my lesson was solely a half hour of technique, my mood was usually buoyant afterwards; remember that the throat is the center of our emotions and when you release tensions there and reveal truly free, vibratory sounds, it releases emotional tensions as well, opening a door for you to be a happier person as well as a happier singer. Frankly, just the act of singing has always filled me with great joy and any opportunity to do that is a plus in my book.

Lessons helped me cultivate better focus and concentration, expand my memory (a very underutilized and incredibly valuable skill), learn how to successfully multi-task (singing, acting, counting, listening all at the same time!), stretch my imagination, and develop interpersonal skills working with my teacher, accompanist, and fellow students.  I also developed poise, professionalism and confidence.

But perhaps best of all, my lessons allowed me to connect one on one each week with a professional who shared my passion for the art of music, singing and performing. I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents, but they did not know the first thing about this crazy musical world I was involved in. They relied on the brilliant, passionate musical professionals who taught me to guide all of us.  My first voice teacher, the wonderful Isabelle Goeser, was practically perfect. She taught me to be musical, vocally and theatrically expressive, introduced me to the great classical composers in a loving, supportive environment AND helped my parents understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, and gave them confidence in how I was doing it.

I spoke to bewildered and relieved parents all the time at AMDA’s graduation who were so thankful that their child had someone who understood them and could help them navigate this unfamiliar musical world. I now realize how truly important and vital that is, especially for young, aspiring singers. A teacher/mentor who shares in your passion for your art, who not only imparts knowledge tailored especially to your individual needs (this is key!), but also helps you to develop into an artist in your own right is truly a gift. I have been blessed to have worked with a handful of very special, amazing teachers whose teachings, guidance and spirit are always with me as I perform and teach.

And finally, I believe that cultivating your passion in one area develops your passion for life in general. Most of the musicians I know are intensely interested in multiple aspects of life, not just music, which makes them interesting people as well as great artists. To be a performing artist you have to know about the art, theater, philosophy, and history informing the music as well as just the music itself.

I confess that I miss having my own voice lessons terribly. I am now forced to be my own teacher since mine is no longer with us. But I feel Cornelius, Isabelle, Julian, and all the other wonderful teachers I’ve had in my life, are with me when I practice and when I teach, whispering in my ear, reminding me, exhorting me to listen, pay attention, strive for being my best self as a singer AND as a human.

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Sing out, Louise! (The Performer’s Instinct)

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 | 0 comments

Sing out, Louise! (The Performer’s Instinct)

I can teach you everything you need to be a better singer: how to sing healthier with solid technique, make more beautiful, interesting sounds, sing higher, lower, softer, louder, slower and faster. I can help you have excellent diction, teach you how to stand, emote, and act while singing, even how to dress for an audition. But what I cannot teach, what is frankly unteachable, is the INSTINCT for singing and performing. In my experience you either have it, or you don’t. Let me elucidate:

I am very fortunate right now to be teaching a wonderful young lady who is preparing audition recordings for getting into college music schools. She is a marvelous student, everything that a teacher could ask for: smart, motivated, musical, and possessing a lovely voice of enormous potential with consistent glimmers of the great beauty and depth that are in her future. I knew she had an instinct for the act of singing in the way she took my direction, consistently improving both on the spot and between lessons. But what I did not know about her until this week was whether or not she had a real instinct for performing. When the spotlight was on, how would she respond? Just because you can sing, does not always mean you can perform. We have been so focused on technical issues and getting all three songs learned and polished under a looming deadline that we didn’t have a lot of time to devote to performance issues.  So the first day of actually recording came…* the pressure was on, the deadline had come, it was time to deliver… And I am so thrilled to report that it was the very best singing she had ever done in the short time we have been working together. Even in the very first take, she exceeded all my expectations. Her instinct for performing, for making music, for bringing a song to life allowed all the elements we have been working on so painstakingly to come together into a harmonious whole that was infinitely better than the sum of its parts.

And to me, that’s what it’s all about. Yes, striving for continual technical mastery is a worthy and life-long goal, but being able to make music, to entertain and move your audience, is so much more important than everything being “perfect”, whatever that means. As Cornelius used to say, “There is no such thing as perfection until you are dead. And then you are perfectly dead.”

*I must say that recording can be 100 times more stressful than actually performing live; something about knowing you are being recorded “for posterity”, so to speak, and of course the dread of knowing at some point you’ll actually have to <gasp> listen to yourself! But that is a post for another time.

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Psst…Act!

Posted by on Sep 3, 2012 | 0 comments

Psst…Act!
“Acting for Singers.” I hate that title that is used so often for classes that teach singers how to act whilst singing. I hate it because to me singing and acting are synonymous; singing IS acting. If something has text, it HAS to be acted to some degree or another. And even without text, music is (usually) inherently dramatic. Just listen to a good film score to know that, not to mention the countless other incredibly dramatic instrumental pieces in the world (a favorite of mine that comes to mind is Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in Gminor). To me singing and acting have always been inseparable. This philosophy has both saved me and gotten me into trouble. Acting a song well got me through times when my voice was less than ideal and people noticed less because I was entertaining and emotional if nothing else. It is also one of the great joys of singing for me- expressing emotions that I could not put into words, trying on different characters and feelings= fun! But sometimes I used it as a crutch and put myself in vocal peril. Cornelius would often remark, “Now do it without the drama,” after I was crazy enough to sing a piece of repertoire for him. The first time he said this to me was after my rendition of Juliette’s Waltz. I was dumbfounded. How do you do that, I wondered?! How can you separate them, especially for such a character driven piece as that? Of course I quickly learned that you can and should use pure technical vocalism as an invaluable tool when tackling a song and THEN you can add in the drama. And more often than not, the drama can actually help the singing voice. The right motivation and thought behind a phrase, a note, a word, can make a difficult element come easily, a good performance into something extraordinary.

(It’s all about balance, naturally.)

But what brought this topic to mind now was my judging of the adult division at the Oregon State Fair Talent Competition yesterday. Most of the vocalists sang pop or country songs and a large percentage did not even attempt to “act” their song, emote in any tangible way, or allow their feelings about their choice of repertoire, the text, or even the very act of singing and performing to inform and enliven their performances. And it made me realize how essential some kind of acting/emoting is to a successful vocal performance no matter the genre. I mean, I always stress the importance of acting/emoting/expression to my students on a regular basis and teach them performing techniques as applied to Musical Theatre and classical music, but I rarely get a chance to address it in other musical genres. The worrying thing to me is the lack of “spark”/passion/emotion/feeling in these singers’ faces, bodies and most importantly to me, their EYES (as “they” say, the eyes are the window to the soul). Share with us your joy of singing! Share with your audience how much you love this song. You chose it, now tell us why through your performance. Tell us a story. Let us get carried away, lifted up, by the emotion, the drama, the comedy you are conveying. I knowit can be difficult, but it is as necessary as sounding good. No matter how beautifully you sing, if you are boring, I don’t care to listen/watch. Expression, emotion and musicality go hand in hand with good technical singing. Period. And if you find it difficult, seek out a coach like me who can help you do it! It will make you and your audience so much happier.

 

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Just plain brawn makes me yawn*

Posted by on Jul 14, 2012 | 0 comments

Just plain brawn makes me yawn*

I have had some wonderful, energizing weeks of teaching recently. Besides really liking and connecting with these lovely humans, one of the reasons I have especially enjoyed these past six weeks or so is that I have been teaching a number of the same students consistently and they are experiencing noticeably positive, fundamental changes in their singing lesson after lesson. There is always an initial improvement, but just like any other form of exercise, developing the voice takes time, consistency, hard work, and COURAGE to achieve results that last. I know this, I teach this, I witness it all the time with my students, have experienced it first hand in my own singing, so why is it I temporarily forgot about this process as I embarked upon a different but related course of training?

The big reveal: I have started working out with a personal trainer. (I know, crazy, huh?) At first it was terribly difficult and actually rather demoralizing and unquestionably humbling as I discovered how truly out of shape I am, how weak, how jelly-like! And then, of course, there was (is) the incredible soreness afterwards, sometimes to the point of immobility. However, in the past few weeks I have noticed both my body and my mind have changed suddenly and significantly. Yes, I am noticing more tonicity in my muscles, more endurance, etc…but it’s the mental aspect that is more profound. The first and perhaps most surprising change is that I actually look forward to the sessions now. (!) I approach them as an adventure and wonder what I will push my mind and body to do that day, with the essential element of Ed’s positive, persistent motivation and instruction, of course. Which brings me to the second huge realization and change in my thinking: the workouts are hard, sometimes seemingly impossible, but I have learned that I can do them, maybe slowly, but certainly surely. And I want to do them, which is perhaps even more amazing. I would never have been able to accomplish these physical feats on my own before embarking on this course of training, not only because I did not have the technical knowledge, but more importantly, I did not have the mental fortitude to do them. I needed the guidance of an expert teacher with the passion, patience and technical expertise to guide me through the dark forest of my fear, the stumbling block to all change. (Thank you, Ed Weamer!) Having someone help me get over my fears, making me literally and figuratively jump in with both feet, pushing my mind and body past their comfort zones is the only way to see true change and always brings me amazing, positive results. Which brings me back to the vocal corollary… (You didn’t think this post was going to be all about CrossFit, did ya?)

Since I started working out in this way, I have been reminded over and over again of my decade of lessons with Cornelius, especially the first few grueling years when he was completely restructuring my voice. (Oh how I miss my voice lessons and the exhortations of Mr. Reid!) In Cornelius, I found what I needed so desperately:  a teacher of unrivaled technical brilliance with unparalleled insight into both the vocal mechanism as well as into the psyche** of the singer as it relates to the act of singing. And, thankfully, he was all about the work, the discovery, the next level of achievement; no hidden agendas, no fatherly instincts, just professional and yet personal. Furthermore, since I completely trusted Cornelius, as I do Ed, I could totally give myself over to the experience, no matter how demanding, knowing that he had my best interests at heart and I would be that much stronger and healthier for it, mentally, physically, and vocally. For me there is something very exhilarating and motivating about submitting myself to this kind of focused, intensive work for a designated and finite period of time under the tutelage of a master technician/teacher. The lesson/session forces me to face my fears, confront obstacles and make positive, profound changes- no procrastinating allowed! Cornelius challenged me to uncover my vocal flaws, expose them to the harsh light of day and actually fix them instead of artfully covering them back up.  Just as I thought I could never in a million years make it through the “Filthy Fifty” (look it up, it’s horrific!), nor did I ever think anyone could ever solve my tremolo (a very fast vibrato, FYI). But I did in fact make it through the entire “Filthy Fifty” without expiring on the spot and Cornelius successfully eradicated my tremolo! So, it took me 53 minutes to do the workout and it took a few years of 3 or 4 lessons a week to get rid of all the constriction causing the tremolo. But when all is said and done, I have come to believe (grudgingly, I’ll admit) that it doesn’t matter how long it takes when the results are so amazing and important. Obviously I need to learn this lesson more than once: hard work, patience and persistence with the right guidance equals success! Here’s to the “Filthy Fifty” in 45 minutes and always more beautiful, healthy singing for everyone!

P.S For anyone in the Salem, OR area, I highly recommend PhysEd and Ed Weamer if you are interested in working with a personal trainer.

*A lyric from “The Body Beautiful” by Bock and Harnick

**I highly recommend reading Mr. Reid’s Voice: Psyche and Soma.

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Music, when soft voices die

Posted by on Jun 19, 2012 | 1 comment

Music, when soft voices die
I’ve been listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s wonderful recording of some of Schubert’s Impromptus a great deal lately for they have the perfect combination of melancholy, longing and restrained passion to fit my turbulent mind and heart as I take care of my elderly mother.
Watching my mother slowly fade away is like being slowly tortured with a thousand tiny cuts, most not particularly painful at first until you look down and they seem to be everywhere. It is a cumulative pain, a dull ache that never quite leaves you.
I don’t understand any of it. I never imagined this scenario could happen to my once vibrant mother, once so full of life, so engaged in the world. Four years ago my greatest wish was for her to live when she was given a diagnosis of imminent death. And now…it still is, since although she is alive, she is not truly living. I long for the mother I used to know. I want to see that sparkle in her eyes again, the brilliant, loving gaze. The Impromptu No.3in Gb Major seems to be the soundtrack for all my powerful, conflicting emotions about this whole situation: the gentle but somewhat ominous rustling of the bass, the hauntingly hopeful repeated notes in the treble, the beautiful but dissonant high notes that seem to hang forever in the air before they resolve; fear, hope, loss, acceptance and overarching all of it, remembrance.
Amazing and wonderful the power music has- to heal, to inspire, to commiserate, to bolster, to bring catharsis.
Music and working on music helped me through the first shock of her illness four years ago. Watching the Ball State University students I was teaching at the time rehearse Into the Woods was incredibly cathartic. I hadn’t remembered the second act being so dark, so emotionally wrenching. But then again, maybe when I had first seen it at age 18, there was no reason for it to resonate so deeply with me as nothing truly serious had yet happened to me in my young life. Suddenly facing a life without my beloved mother, of being terrifyingly alone (I had not yet met my dearest Kenneth), Sondheim’s music and lyrics stunned me, tears flowing unbidden and unchecked as I sat in my seat in the dark, empty theatre, ostensibly taking notes on the singing. Night after night I sat in those rehearsals, experiencing loss, confusion, pain, and ultimately hope through his Cinderella, the Baker’s Wife, the Baker and the Witch. “No one is alone” destroyed me and put me back together again every time I heard it. Come to think of it, I saw the revival of Sunday in the Park with George during that same period, and “Move On” had me overwhelmed with emotion as well. I needed courage and hope for the future so badly and Mr. Sondheim provided them so elegantly in that song.
How much do I love that I started this post talking about Schubert and finished with Sondheim?!
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Find out who you are and do it on purpose. ~ Dolly Parton

Posted by on Jun 5, 2012 | 1 comment

Self-promotion has never been my strong suit; I actually tend towards the self-effacing. I will tell you readily all the terrible things people have said about me as a singer, but it is like pulling teeth for me to be forthcoming about the praise I have received. (Tsk tsk!) And as a classical musician, you are generally taught that your work will speak for itself. However, as I have learned inadvertently throughout my life and especially in the branding workshop I just completed, it doesn’t necessarily, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling the world about yourself and what you have to offer. In fact, it is essential that you do so. Greg Sandow’s branding workshop was brilliant and I learned so many valuable lessons from him and my fellow musicians, but the brightest blinking neon-sign message I took away from the experience is that all of us have something uniquely wonderful and valuable to offer this world and it is important that we get the word out about our unique contribution to the arts.
With that in mind, I would like to share two projects I have on tap for this summer that I am very excited about: I am teaching two series of Musical Theatre classes starting in a few weeks, one at Classic Tap DanceStudio and one at Keizer Academy of Music and Arts. All the particulars can be found on their respective websites. Students will learn to cultivate healthy vocal techniques to sing the wonderfully vast, diverse array of Musical Theatre repertoire, all the while developing a tool box of dynamic performing skills to make that repertoire come alive. It combines all my passions: teaching voice, coaching repertoire and creating exciting, interesting performances. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching the technical part of the voice lesson- nothing gives me more pleasure than helping someone discover and develop their uniquely beautiful and expressive instrument. But I admit that I especially look forward to working on repertoire, delving into the musicality of the piece, exploring the character, the nuances of diction and vocal expression. And I particularly like teaching studio/performance/master classes (call them what you will) where I can help singers craft a complete performance from how they sound, to how they look, to how they make the audience feel. There is an energy in the room when we (the student, the pianist and myself) are creating a beautiful, compelling performance that is exhilarating. It is such fun to be a part of- it’s contagious!
So, if you know anyone over the age of 13 who would like to take one of these classes, please send them my way! The more, the merrier!
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She’s called little Buttercup

Posted by on May 24, 2012 | 0 comments

She’s called little Buttercup
I am moved to brag about one of my students again, this time a brand new one: Christie Jungling just got the role of Buttercup in Pentacle Theatre’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore. I am so thrilled for her! We’ve been working together for five or six weeks and I couldn’t be happier with what we have accomplished in such a short time. However, I’m not really surprised because I knew before we ever had a lesson that she was smart, motivated, and extremely hard working, three important ingredients to successful teaching and learning. And as predicted, she is a fantastic student (as well as one of the loveliest, most supportive humans on the planet)! (As I joked with her, she does what I tell her to do! What a concept!) But seriously, Christie came to lessons with no agenda other than to improve and develop her voice, to finally find out her full potential as a singer. And she is well on her way. From the moment we started working together, she was completely open to trying all the new sounds and approaches to her voice and immediately her voice evolved and developed into a full, beautiful and expressive instrument. And then when we worked on the song she was preparing for the audition, she went all in, immediately applying everything we had worked on in the purely technical part of the lesson. She (seemingly effortlessly) combined all the new vocal stuff with the new musical stuff with the new acting stuff, all at the same time. See, it can be done! Her audition piece had all the essential elements: excellent singing, good diction, musicality, theatricality and clear, audibly interesting interpretation. I love working with talented, motivated people who not only participate in the process of developing their voice but enjoy that process as much as the results. It is so rewarding. I am so proud of her and have opening night tickets to see the show!
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