The Daily Slog

Living the life of a musician - but particularly one whose instrument is housed inside their body - is such an odd existence. "Work" as we know it as humans (and especially as Americans, who are trained from birth at the fine art of HARD WORK) is a strange way to define what we do, even though that's how we make our livelihood. My last facebook status update said, "Does listening to a recording of a coaching count as practicing?" and although it was meant to be funny, I was also kind of serious. Is it possible that something as passive as listening to yourself sing could be productive?

I can only answer for myself, but for me the answer is HELL to the YES (maybe that phrase only works as HELL to the NO - in which case, I apologize for my obvious nerdiness in trying to employ it incorrectly). I've found that when I'm learning a new piece of music, one of the single most productive things I can do is to have a solid coaching on the piece, but one where I make whatever mistakes I am apt to make, and then listen to a recording of that coaching. All I have to do is hear myself making that mistake (whether it be diction, music, rhythm, style) a couple of times, and my brain miraculously fixes it. I don't know the science behind why this works, but it's a really handy trick for singers since repeating something over and over tires out your voice and can only be done for a certain length of time. I'm always totally amazed by how much better I seem to know a piece of music after having just one coaching and listening to it a couple of times. By the next coaching I'm in a completely different place with the piece and can actually start making it my own musically and stylistically.

So last night, feeling a little sedentary in my apartment (and also feeling guilty for not having sung a note all day but feeling a little too wiped out to actually sing through anything) I donned my raincoat and walked the 25 blocks it took me to listen to my last coaching of Kindertotenlieder all the way through, and then wash, rinse, repeated the whole procedure back up to my apartment. And today when I started singing through the pieces they really felt they were in me and I was barely looking down at the score.

I'm still having trouble internalizing the texts however. The only way to memorize a piece is to know what you're singing (trying to memorize something without knowing what the words mean takes much longer) and my brain just doesn't want to KNOW know what these words mean. I mean, of course, I have translated them, and I know what the words mean, but when I try to infuse my own emotions into the texts and connect my own feelings with them, I get very upset. It's partially because the poems themselves are just heartbreaking, but it's mostly the way Mahler set them that gets to me. His music is so incredibly nostalgic - most of the songs are remembering moments from the children's lives or imagining what the world would be like if they were still there. There's this one song where the poet is talking about how sometimes he forgets that the children aren't just out on a walk, and keeps expecting them to appear from behind the next hill, and Mahler does this horribly evocative thing where he doesn't let the singer finish the phrase harmonically, but just has the vocal melody stop in the middle of the harmonic phrase, allowing the orchestra to take over and finish. It's impossibly devastating. This idea of an unfinished life, so shatteringly illustrated with one small harmonic device. Honestly, if the songs weren't so genius musically, I don't think anyone would ever be able to listen to them because the subject is so horrible. It just demonstrates how transcendent music really is.

Oh, how I long for the day when I'm just singing The Barber of Seville again, and my blog posts can be about eating sugar and slipping on the ice in Berlin!

P.S. I'm fooling with some design options on my blog, so you might see some strange stuff going on in the coming days.....