Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Singer Sings

I wonder about young singers who turn their noses up at an opportunity to sing because they feel that the audience or the venue or the event isn’t exciting or important enough. The way I see it, an opportunity to sing is an opportunity to sing. An opportunity to share my music and my love for my music and my singing is a golden opportunity. If my singing gives pleasure or comfort to others, that’s a bonus.

My memorable performances:

Singing with my high school choir for the Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital patients. Most of the patients assembled there were in wheelchairs. It was difficult to tell if they were enjoying our singing. I remember fighting back tears. I realized how important it was for us to be there, to bring youth and music to these people. I realized that we could be those people in the future, and they were us once. I grew up a little that day.

Spontaneous Christmas caroling with my high school friends at LAX. Something that couldn’t be done today, what with all of the airport security. We sang at gates and at curbside baggage checks. I’m not sure, but I think I recall us singing over a PA. There was a huge, flocked tree in what used to be the Continental Terminal, and the BEST acoustics. We made a few people smile. And we got a big kick out of our musical maraudings.

Also in high school, competing in the contest at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Incredibly, I was able to coax a phenomenal pianist to play for me. I sang a Burt Bacharach song and an Italian aria. Those two tunes complemented by pizza might have been enough to cause indigestion. I would have been happy just to sing. But I won! I still have the $25 savings bond. (It wasn’t about the money.)

In my 30s, singing the soprano solos in The Messiah for a small Seventh Day Adventist Church. I wasn’t prepared for the group, “Amen!” that followed the Rejoice Greatly. I almost burst out laughing. I must admit that I enjoyed the ‘cheer.’

Many of the Sundays I sang for various churches, because of what I saw on people’s faces.

In my 40s, singing as part of an (until then) all-male doo-wap group for a bar mitzvah. I was a last-minute emergency replacement singing a middle part with four other ‘guys.’ I remember singing “Splish Splash” with choreography. Me ‘taking a bath’ with the four of them had to look pretty funny.

Singing for my hometown Women’s Club when I was a senior in high school. There were only a few people there. My footsteps echoed as I walked across the almost empty room to the piano. The junior high school principal found out about my recital and showed up. I felt so special.

I was Tuptim in THE KING & I in a local recreation center production when I was 16. Breaking the silence at the end of my poignant love song, a child’s voice asked, “Is it over yet?” Ah, my public!

In my 50s, I believe, singing karaoke at Dimples in Burbank at my acting teacher’s (Steve Eastin) birthday party. I sang something ‘legit’ from a musical. Steve told me that while I was singing a friend leaned over and said to him, “At least SOMEBODY here can sing.” I’ve only sung karaoke twice in my life. The other time was in my 40s at an agent’s party. The only tune on the list that I was sure I could pull off was God Bless America. It kept going and going… I was so exasperated by the end of the song that the phrase, “God Bless America.” took on other than its intended connotations. It turned into a bit of a comedy routine.

I was about 18 or 19. I needed to sing and there wasn’t an outlet at the time. So I put together a recital. My mother helped me paste-up a master for a flyer with stick-on letters. The photography teacher at the high school took a ‘publicity’ picture of me. A friend from high school was my accompanist. My friends at the recreation center let me use the auditorium and the piano (on which I had taught myself to play whenever I could sneak in and use it). We sent word to the local paper and they printed a notice. I think there were 5 people in the audience. Among them was one man who I didn’t know who had seen the notice in the paper. My dad was there. He didn’t attend my performances as a general rule. I have a photo of me, my mom and my dad from that day that I treasure. Oh. I sang my heart out. Naturally. It was a chance to sing.

Other performances as I recall them…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Those Crazy Scalenes

The scalene muscles along the front and sides of your neck can make singing difficult if they are too tight. This has been a major issue for me in recent years. In the never-ending battle against the effects of aging and gravity, I knew that keeping a decent posture and working to tone my abdominal muscles – particularly the lower portion – were important work, if I expected to keep my voice in decent operating condition. But I didn’t realize the importance of stretching, or the importance of keeping the entire vocal muscle support system in tip-top shape.

Last year, after a battle with some strange temporary arthritic ‘event’ I underwent some months of physical therapy. Fortunately, my wonderful PT gave me some neck exercises that really seemed to open up my voice. This was an added benefit! I really wish that medical types would be a little more forthcoming with information. I would have loved to know the names of the muscles she was targeting when she was helping me. That was one of the very few questions I didn’t bombard her with. My HMO PTs are in big demand, and their time is limited. I learned that asking more than a couple of questions per session was not exactly de rigueur.

Apparently tension in these scalene muscles is very common. Sitting incorrectly at a poorly configured computer workstation (as I tend to do) and sitting at a piano (which I do so many hours of the day) are major contributors to the problem. My keyboard is electronic. With most acoustic pianos the music stand is placed higher. I tend to look down at the music. I’m still working out the ideal solution to this problem.

Car seats and backrests that don’t accommodate women’s bodies are a problem. This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve always said that somebody needs to create a ‘baby got back-rest’ for driving. (Someone please take the idea and manufacture one – soon!) My bottom pushes the backrest up, so that it no longer provides support in the lumbar area. We women need a backrest with an (ahem) ‘space’ for the cheeks to meet the back of the seat. Car seats with ‘no’ backrest are worse.

Driving and craning the neck in a forward position to check for traffic is problematic. I’m particularly tall. In fun, I’ve compared my shape to that of Big Bird on Sesame Street – pear-shaped, Nefertiti neck. The only difference is that my legs are longer. And I’m not quite as yellow… or feathered. The muscles of my upper body have always been weak. A sports chiropractor once tossed-off that I had no muscles in my back. (Talk about starting from zero and having to get up to 60MPH!) He also mentioned that women with my body shape tend to have problems when they gain weight. I’m up about 25 lbs. and I now see his point.

A note about dropping weight. I’m down about 7 to 10 lbs. over the last handful of weeks. It is critical to stretch and exercise while the body is readjusting to the weight loss. Also, we have to be careful not to lose too much weight too quickly, or the body will try to burn the muscle. (I am not a doctor. I’ve been told this over and over again. If it is incorrect, blame a doctor.)

Dependence upon backrests can be a problem. This makes so much sense. If we depend upon a thing to do the work, our muscles atrophy. Exercise, posture, stretching. We have to do it ourselves. Besides, chairs that really support cost over $1,000. That’s probably a laughable very conservative figure.

You might not feel the pain from the tense scalene muscles in the scalene muscles. The pain might manifest in the upper pectoral region (as it did for me), as tension headaches (me), and between the shoulder blades (me). This also explains my having one cold hand and occasional numbness when I spend too much time behind any keyboard.

Beware the mouse! Keep the chest high, the head on top of the neck, on top of the shoulders. Don’t cave the chest, curve the lower back outward, jut the head forward and reach for the mouse. Recipe for disaster.

The scalene muscles serve the breathing system. If they are tight and not functioning well, breathing suffers. If breathing suffers, singing suffers.

As I mentioned, the upshot of working on my neck muscles was that freeing the muscles seemed to free my voice. I recorded the sound, just to see if I was imagining things, and I wasn’t! My sound was rounder and ‘cleaner’ than it had been.

Keeping the scalene muscles in check is a never-ending process. But it is so worth it to feel better and to sing better as part of the bargain. What a deal!