All posts for my Teaching Music category

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Singing through Allergy Season

You’ve waited for months for this night!

It’s your CD release party, Master’s recital, debut performance, big-deal conference showcase, month-long tour or something equally important. You definitely want to be at your best, and your vocal performance to be as flawless as you can make it. And on the morning of the “day of”, you wake up, and — uh oh……

You sound like this:

What do you do?

I live in Austin, Texas, the Allergy Capital of the Universe! (No, really!) Here, it’s always allergy season. Allergies are a way of life. But I sing and talk for a living.  I’ve had friends who were forced to cancel their CD release parties because of allergies, and could thereafter never get that all-important momentum going again. I myself have been known to skip shows in the middle of a tour, because I had no voice. In fact, part of that tour was a competition of performing songwriters, and I watched the judges write me off as soon as I opened my mouth. Sucks.

So in December 2014, I became part of a Christmas caroling group which has been in operation in Austin for 20 years. They now had more work than they could handle, and were starting a second group, which included me, to take the overflow. Before too long, we had a dozen shows all through December. We learned 30 or so of the nearly 50 songs that the original group had in their repertoire. We rehearsed once a month starting in May, and then once, or even twice a week in October and November to get ready. And during that last push, I suddenly remembered CEDAR SEASON!!!! (Put a lot of fear in your voice when you read those words).

It’s not real cedar. It’s called mountain cedar. No actual mountains, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s actually a form of juniper — or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Whatever it is, in December the trees “get busy”, resulting in yellow pollen in the air, on your clothes, on your car, everywhere. If you want oxygen at all, you’re going to breathe it. And lots of immune systems don’t like it.

Cedar season is accompanied by mold season, and other unidentified allergens, so if you escape one, another is bound to get you.

Well ….

I’m pleased to report that, after my initial panic, I did make it through December, never canceling for even one of the gigs. And did a few others besides the caroling ones. I was not entirely unscathed, so I’ll be looking in the comments for other ideas, but after all that work, both on my part and on the part of the woman who heads up this endeavor, I was damned if I was going to waste it.

Here’s what I did:

Far and away, the most effective thing I did was this:  I started warming up the minute I was out of bed, and I kept it up all day. I used to be afraid to do that, because I thought I would blow out my voice before the show, but I tried it this time and it totally worked! By the time I had warmed up a little at a time, I was able to sing. It wasn’t my very best voice, but it was the best I could do at that moment, and it worked.

I got a steroid shot that did help clear it up faster, when I was being assaulted by allergens. But you can only do that once a year. It didn’t keep it from happening at all. Good theory, but, no.

I cancelled all unnecessary talking on the day of a performance if my voice was fragile. For me, it feels like talking is harder on my voice than singing, so I tried really hard not to do any talking all day. (For me, that’s REALLY hard. I deserve an award!)

 

Siren-ing (Put your tongue over your throat. Start from your midrange and go up like a siren until you hit your top note, and then go down until you hit bottom, then back to midrange. On one breath, usually.), I started with a variation on that I tried early on the first morning. I put my tongue over my throat, and starting from the lowest note I could reach, I went up by half-steps, stopping each time I couldn’t get a strong note and starting again from the bottom a few minutes later. I kept that up all morning until I could consistently reach the highest note I would need. Then I just continued doing the sirens the rest of the day.

 

Tried to remember to breathe from my diaphragm all day long.

 

Entertainers Secret & Throat Coat Tea.  (Whole Foods sold me Olba’s pastilles, and I had a bottle of Singers Saving Grace. They might even have been effective, but they tasted so bad, I never did either one again after the first time.) You can get Entertainers Secret online, and Throat Coat Tea is available at most supermarkets, and definitely at Whole Foods and other stores like them.

 

Tylenol and/or Ibuprofen.  They’re both anti-inflammatory, and can be taken together, since they work two different ways. Helped to calm my poor vocal cords down.
Like I said, it wasn’t my very best voice, but it worked.

See? Much better. (Oh wait. That isn’t me….)

These ideas came from Mady Kaye, Art Kidd, Clare McLeod, Brenda Freed, and my mother (the “stop talking” one).

 

 

Please feel free to let me know your favorite remedy in the comments.

 

 

 

 

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Making Sure All the Kids Get Music

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Every once in awhile I get a call from a mom or dad who has recognized an interest in music in their son or daughter, and would like them to take lessons. It seems they have a little electronic keyboard, or what amounts to a toy guitar that an uncle gave for a birthday, or sometimes not even that. But the child has been picking out tunes on the piano at church, or at someone else’s house.

 

I personally believe that every child should receive some kind of music instruction, and I have lots of scientific evidence regarding the benefits of music education to make my opinion pretty unswerving (The abstract from one such paper is below. If you’d like to see the whole thing, just email me through this site, or request it in the comments section, and I’ll send it). But in order for them to get any benefit from lessons, private or not, they must have some way to practice.

I used to refer the parents to the band or choir director at school, if they didn’t have any instruments at home. And up until recently, there was time made weekly for instruction in music, art and physical education. (When I was in the school system, there were music and art classes twice a week, and PE every day.) But lately, a lot of the school boards across the country have been pulling the reins back on a lot of activities they consider “frivolous”, music, art and PE being in the vanguard of those headed to the chopping block. You’ll hear claims about the budget, mandates coming from higher up, or the like. But the fact is, despite all the various studies, there is still a strong belief among those controlling the agenda that those activities should happen outside of school.  That they are “extra” and “unnecessary”. I find that horrifying to say the least, as I know it means that not every child will be exposed to a skill that is increasingly important as their education continues. Or doesn’t.

In some cases, those things can happen outside of school, it’s true. If the parents have money for it, or the time and attention it requires for someone’s child to learn a complex skill at home. But sometimes not.

We are fortunate in our town to have the University of Texas, with its Butler School of Music. For a long time there have been programs like the String Project, that not only trains children as young as 3, but supplies instruments to them as well.  And I’ve been told there is a new program of free piano lessons taught by University students. So, if the parents can get the kids there, an opportunity exists.

But the other day, I was browsing articles about music in general from all over the country, and I ran across this one:    Ministry seeks musical instrument donations at Dana Point festival

The article describes the charitable work of a couple in Orange County, CA. They collect used instruments from the community and pass them along to children who otherwise could not access them.

What a brilliant idea, and so easily duplicable in communities across the US. Don’t you agree?

Now all they need is teachers to donate a little time. Anyone?

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Recital Time

When I first started teaching, giving a recital was simply a matter of gathering in someone’s living room, sending my little musicians up to their doom one at a time, and having cake and ice cream afterwards. Like a birthday party, except it’s everyone’s birthday and they get to be tormented first.

Since nothing ever stays simple, the recital has become an elaborate production, complete with collaborations, show-stoppers and a video tape of the whole thing afterwards. We have, for example, a brother-and-sister act (with mom accompaniment), show tunes, a large dose of ABBA, and a tribute to Nat King Cole. And that’s just the voice students. Even fancier offerings are available on piano and guitar, culminating in a combination of Mozart, Schumann and Coldplay. No dancing dogs yet, but I feel sure that lurks somewhere in the future.

We hold this extravaganza at a local church with a 9-foot grand piano (calculated to either delight the little ones, or scare them half to death), and a stage large enough to hold the Count Basie Orchestra. We’ll have sound equipment and mics, so everyone can play American Idol to their heart’s content — without the nuisance of Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul. All the parents will applaud as enthusiastically as they can, and hopefully all the performers will get addicted enough to that applause to want to do it again next year.

We’ll still have cake and ice cream afterwards, along with Piano Teacher Punch (sherbet and ginger ale) and I will thank them all for their bravery, give out their theory test awards, and breathe a sigh of relief that everyone survived intact, including me.