Sunday, January 22, 2017

How to learn music in 10 easy steps

A few months ago a new student of mine was feeling frustrated with the effectiveness of their learning style. I decided to sketch out my own process in order to assist my student in having a template from which to work. Being systematic in our learning styles builds confidence and craft, and enables us to arrive more quickly to joy of expressing the music.


Take a listen to the piece to get an overall feel for it. Is it for me? 
Does the artist who sings the role/ song have a common voice quality to me? Is this important in this instance? Make note of the poetry/ storyline/ character.


Look at the score, this can obviously be done simultaneously with the step above. Note the tessitura, note the range, note the orchestration if applicable.


Make a decision if it is a good piece for you in consultation with your teacher and/or coach.It may be a great piece for you one day but developmentally not right now. 


 Prepare the score. Read it like a map, marking in all of the beats,highlighting the important tempo, meter , key changes etc.


 Read the poem/story like a piece of literature. Write in the translation being sure that you have it word for word as well as
syntactically correct.


Read your lines aloud numerous times to feel the language in your mouth and in your ears. Now read it in rhythm.


Learn the melody by playing it on the piano AND NOT SINGING while playing as much of the accompaniment that you can. Even just a bass line is good. Teach it to your ear first.


Stand up from the piano, give yourself the first note of a phrase and try to sing it on solfege or la. Check to see how close you were, repeat as necessary. Do small increments, one page at a time. It may seem slow at first but you will learn it deeply.


When you feel that you have the spoken rhythm and melody parts accurately learned  try it 'hands together'. Repeat as necessary. Be patient with yourself. Do small chunks, you will begin to see what is possible in a 30 min window, a 60 min window or, believe it or not...a 10 minute window!


To aid in all of this create a chart in the front of your score ( if you are learning a whole role) listing each scene or part of a scene.Leave room to the right to make a check mark every time that you look at this part so you see what is being worked on. You can also do this for your recital program in the front of your binder. 

Make a mini chart of the bits that scare you, the bits you should sing everyday. Things may move on and off this particular chart as time goes on. For example, the scary high C in the duet needs to be 'yelled' out a couple of times a day until it doesn't scare you anymore.

Fear and nerves are abated  because you are immaculately prepared. Once you really have your version of the piece in hand you can listen again to a variety of recordings to compare and contrast.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


This was a challenging project for the team at COC but we persevered and this was the final product.

Click on image above or here:

Friday, June 24, 2016

What a blast I had choosing music for this wonderful program that CBC Radio 2 presents! A real walk down memory lane in so many ways and difficult to narrow down the list. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

First Dates and Auditions

I've often joked with my students that auditions are like first dates and that many of the 'rules' are the same. You want to look and act your best but you also don't want to pretend to be someone that you are not. We, the audition panel, want to get to know you as an artist in those brief minutes at the audition so do your best to be open and relaxed.

 Show us your good side! Sing a starting selection that you would be sorry that we didn't hear, something that shows us the beauty of your voice immediately. Your calling card. On Broadway after hearing your monologue and seeing if you can dance the call is 'give us your best 8 bars'. That feels rather crass to an aspiring opera singer BUT we do want to hear your best bars and the sooner the better.

Wear something in which you feel comfortable and attractive. Flashy and trendy is not the best idea, go for classic. Guys, a nice dress shirt and pants are quite acceptable these days. Suits are not necessary. Girls, a dress that goes to the knees please. You would be surprised that what looks great going out on the town( even on a first date!) simply looks inappropriate on stage. Mezzo trouser role types can certainly show up in pants if you predominately sing those type of roles. Wear shoes that you can walk in , if you are having trouble navigating the stairs as you come into the space it all seems rather unnatural.

About that first, be open, let us see you and experience your artistry.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Football and Opera: Twins separated at birth

 I was reminded of the topic of opera and football by a recent posting by my friend and colleague Rebecca Hass. Her post included a link to an article about the coaching style of Chuck Noll and drew parallels in terms of habit and practice as well as keeping focused on what is ahead. My son and I have long joked that the 'real' common bond between opera singers and football players is that they all have big heads!  

People have been riffing on the topic of the link between football and opera for years and there are several wonderful examples of amazing people who actually have done both!  Morris Robinson, the wonderful American bass, was a colleague of mine at the Met and a nicer man you will never meet. When he found out that my son was into football, he offered to chat with him a bit about it and give him some tips. He was true to his word: we snuck into List Hall at the Met ( where many a singer has sweated at an audition) and Morris showed Julian some moves. My husband snapped a pic which we proudly title "The Met Bowl" ( see stylized photo above). Morris was an offensive guard at The Citadel before he was lured to the opera stage.

Keith Miller is another Met colleague who played ball, he was a fullback for the University of Colorado  and went on to play a bit in Europe and was scouted by the Denver Broncos. He has done wonderful things in terms of melding the physicality of the athlete to the opera singer. See the link below and his Puissance Training Program. Keith also helped my son on a visit to NYC by suggesting an off season training regime for him.

Thanks again to both of those great guys for their football advice and amazing singing!

The opera/football connection scored a touchdown for me one day in the studio. I was trying to find a more tangible way to explain the concept of spinning the tone in the sound column. I think we can all agree that the desired result is for the tone to be sent forward.  The ( get ready for the 4 letter word)          
B A C K space concept…it seems so, so, so…counter intuitive. EUREKA! It is just like the quarterback. He wants nothing more than to get that ball down the field and yet the first thing he does when he gets the football in his hot little hands is to…back up! Why?

There are a number of reasons but the most important one is to buy time so he can really gain some trajectory with the ball. Are you with me on this? He gains perspective of the field and momentum; not to mention avoiding the defensive hulks who are on their way to sack him. If he stepped forward he would get short term gain but no long term spin and arc in his throw.

The place that the QB steps back into is called the pocket. Imagine that your sound column is the pocket, a secret place where you can observe and let your sound pick up colour and spin so that it really projects. The sound needs to bounce off the pharynx, ricochet off those fantastic cheek bones and sail to the back of the house. Hail Mary!

Rebecca's blog : 

Morris Robinson:

Keith Miller:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Competitions P.S.

I found the ribbon after a small search. For the record it says: New Brunswick Provincial Livestock Show 19( ahem)71. Grand Champion Team.

Thanks to Gilbert Robinson and his prize winning Jersey cattle from my home town of Harvey Station, NB for the incentive and support all those years ago!

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Hot on the heels of the announcement of Toronto's Dora Awards I feel the need to comment on competitions. I've been percolating on the subject for awhile and the topic certainly is an important one for singers. What is the function of competition and whom do they serve... particularly in the arts? With the World Cup of Soccer in full cry at the moment it gives one pause. Are we, in the arts, trying to compete to compete? Is it a basic human need to see who is the fastest, highest, or- heaven forbid- loudest?  Ack!

This brings to the fore the main flaw in arts competitions. Aren't we all trying to create and when we focus our attention on competing for a prize isn't the natural inclination to be distracted by that quest? The Dora Awards , like the Oscars, award the prizes after the season is completed so that when the show is on it is simply an act of creation and not trying to 'win' anything other than the audiences appreciation and attendance. Is that, in and of itself, a competition?

Singing competitions…sigh. We've all been in them, many of us since our tender years in the local music festival. God bless the Kiwanis Club of Canada for perpetuating these and the many other organizations who support music festivals. I, myself, first competed with the allure of winning…a ribbon as big as my head when I was at the tender age of eight. A local farmer , and friend of my parents, heard me sing in church and told me that if I simply entered the music festival that he would give me the largest of his prize heifer ribbons( I hear you sniggering!). I succumbed to the challenge, won the class and won the ribbon that I still have to this day. The beginning for me. I realized that I had an ability that might be perceived, on a particular day, as being exceptional or at the very least ( shudder) somehow superior to those of my peers. I would be lying if I said that this music festival experience in Harvey Station, NB was not formative. I eventually 'graduated' to the Fredericton Festival and onwards. The goal of the spring music festival and the possibility of winning some money and trophies was appealing and certainly kept me motivated toward something tangible.

I returned to adjudicate the Fredericton Festival this year. It was a very interesting experience as my former voice teacher is still teaching voice there. How well I remember her observations of me in festival. She recognized that I had a competitive nature she said when she saw my side long glances when others received praise. She was right though I tried my best to hide it. Perhaps one has to have a competitive urge in order to improve but could it exist in a vacuum, that is without others to spur you on to better them?

I would like to think that with maturity I learned to compete with myself but I can't say that I always resisted the urge to see what and where other sopranos of my ilk were singing. I didn't do particularly well in the few big competitions that I did enter with a couple of exceptions. I didn't take part in the Met competition but then they didn't seem to be at the forefront as they do now. One year, when I was singing at the Met, I attended the finals and wondered how I would have fared in such a high pressure competitive situation. I have heard it said that there are certain personalities that really thrive in the competition atmosphere, I was not one of those people so I avoided most of them. I preferred to do my work and hope that I would be hired based on an audition or better yet, someone seeing and hearing me in performance.

And yet…these big competitions can be a fantastic launch for singers! Several of my students have participated in some big national and international competitions in the past year. When we discussed them afterward, both those that won and those that didn't, seemed to be aware of a certain 'it is out of my hands' kind of circumstance. There are so many factors that go into the decision making. I have a bit of insight into this now that I have been on the COC jury for the COC Ensemble Studio Competition. Several of my Canadian colleagues and former Ensemble members as well as some very recent alumni felt that they would not have fared well in such a spotlight. Indeed!  On stage, at the opera house, with orchestra and not a lot of rehearsal…it takes nerves of steel and a lot of preparation to thrive. This is a typical competition scenario.

I don't think I have any particularly new insight on this topic but I will say that I council my students to focus on their  own artistry and performance knowing that the outcome of the competition is a crap shoot. BUT, these competitions are often a terrific means to be heard by a wide range of people. Many a singer has not won the competition but ended up being offered work as a result of their appearance in this high profile platform.