December 29, 2010

A new year and an old friend: Hope 2011

Dear Friends,

A new year can signify any combination of things to any number of people. Some strive for better health, others seek new opportunities, while some desire to be better friends and loved ones. We embrace the belief that the coming year holds both improvement and change. But what is it that the new year really invites us to remember? What is that necessary something living at the core of every resolution, every promise, and every new intention for the coming year? The answer is no surprise or mystery.

Instead, it is a familiar and enduring force, an ageless torch that forever burns among the embers of the heart. It is the shield protecting us from the crashes of battle and the bright flag ascended at the peak of every conquered challenge. It is the substance of every second chance and the essence of each wish and aspiration. It is the mirror reflecting the fulfillment of our potential and the means that unveils both the obscure and invisible. We know it because it is the author of our pursuits and the happy horizon born from the rising sun..... It is hope, the most beautiful stitch embroidering our humanity and gently unfolding the fabric of every new year.

As you enter this new year, may you relish every joy, may you triumph every challenge, may you beat every odd, and may you remember that hope is never exhausted and always at your side.

On behalf of The Voice Within, the Voice Within Community Blog, and, Happy New Year!

All the Best in 2011,

Travis Whitlock

December 25, 2010's you, it's me

We all remember that trek through life-- part time jobs, driver's Ed, the SATs, homecoming, cheer squad, and glee club? And though not every high school will include the same mix of talented and angsty minors like those in FOX's Glee, we all can certainly recall that stretch of the journey as portrayed through their eyes.

Not aware of the show until its second season, at first, I didn't understand the hype. What was the show that had almost everyone tweeting, facebooking, and gossiping to no end? Fortunately, Hulu and a few extra hours will verse anyone in the Glee way of life and it's easy to recognize exactly what makes the show unique. It's a feel-good pop culture drama that rekindles moments in life that help us grow up. And to top it off... they sing for us? It's like box seats at the opera and all the performers are adolescent reflections of our past selves. What better metaphorical world can such entertaining and addictive television exist than in high school?

The Glee flag waves high in my entertainment life but not at full mast. At times, the plot can be somewhat hokey, its characters a tad sensationalized, and the drama a bit flat and predictable, but a satisfying and endearing 45 minutes of the evening nonetheless. But critiquing the show can be saved for someone else. Instead, Glee is a means that allows us to examine just how much has changed in our own lives since the days of geometry, first dates, class photos, acne, and prom. On some level, it's evident that the show helps us peer into our own past and remember the growing pains we endured. Perhaps most of us can appreciate how much we've blossomed. Yes, there is something for everyone in this witty and entertaining meld of music and personality and the Glee cast symbolizes something in us all.

Naturally, the performer in me identifies with the entire Glee club: the singing, the dancing, the tunes, the rivalries; and it's easy to be inspired by their panache and their in-the-moment performances. Devil's advocate, however, wants to scrutinize the school budget and identify just how they raise money for costumes, hair & make up, accompaniment ensembles, and choreography week after week. But the show demands nothing of us that Music Man, The Whiz, Chorus Line and Chicago hasn't already. It floats safely on the same imaginary tide.

So, what does this group of television teeny boppers teach, or rather remind, us about life? Apparently, a lot since the cast gears up for their third season. What compelling reasons is your TiVo set? Is it for reasons beyond simple song and dance?

Find your favorite Glee personalities here.

December 23, 2010

Recital and Program Planning... Bon Appetit

What makes an interesting and memorable meal? Is it flavor, texture, contrasting temperatures, the blend of savory and sweet? Well actually it's all these ingredients or at least as many as possible. Good meals include great moments but most of all there is continuity, an unfolding of dishes that, should, make diners anticipate what's to come without feeling bogged down by what's already been digested.

Programming a season of music, a recital, or even the service music for church requires the same attention and consideration and there are important musical ingredients to consider. Dana Brown, professor of opera and vocal coaching at Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University offered the idea that good programs are like planning meals, some center on a main dish; some are light all around; and some include the exotic and the unexpected. But, the best programs are those that are balanced keeping the volatile palate of the audience in mind. Too much starch, too little pepper, zest in the wrong sauce, and a sudden flambé interfering with a necessary frappé and poof... you're audience maybe reaching for the Zantac instead of that dessert fork.

Of course for seasoned pros like Dana the bread is timed, the table set, and all the chopping was finished yesterday. But until the kitchen is completely one's own what guides lead the musical intermediate? Books are a great resource, naturally, and one popular source is Sonntag and Emmon's The Art of the Song Recital. But this is simply one source and by no means the bureau of standard. There are volumes of reference sources out there with great advice but where exactly should the performer begin? As one solution, do what any cook would do to help make is own kitchen and menu unique...taste things! Discover what works and what you enjoy. The best programs start from a premise as simple as this. Sample music from all types of sources, who knows from where your next inspiration will come. As a guide, think about Dana's analogy of planning a meal. What do you want to say with the musical menu and how are you combining its flavors? What tastes and moments do you want the audience to savor the most? How many courses? What's the occasion? These are just some starting questions to consider. But remember, every good chef wants his menu to be recognized for its creative merit. Programming music, actually, is no different. Bon appetit.

Renée Fleming adds Chocolate to the resume....

"In celebration of Renée Fleming, Chef Daniel Boulud and his Pastry Chef Thomas Haas of the famed New York restaurant DANIEL created “La Diva Renée” for their favorite soprano. This sumptuous signature dessert is a multi-layered confection as delicious and complex as any Strauss heroine. “La Diva Renée” begins with a crisp... read more.

December 21, 2010

The Alchemy of Talent: Interview with Tenor Bill Bennett

Every once in a while we encounter those people in our profession that simply go above and beyond. This was the case when I met Bill Bennett earlier this year during a presentation he gave to a graduate seminar class. The class was comprised of 14 young graduate music students studying voice, all preparing to start their careers and all needing some advice and guidance about organizing the scrutinous details of being a performer in the 21st century. Boldly entering with cape and wand, Bill the entrepreneur and musician was ready to help.

Bill has developed a software, Velvet Singer, that competitively meets the needs of today's performers. The most fascinating point about Bill's software is that it was really designed with the singer in mind. With it, performers are able to organize lessons, run reports on their repertoire, keep a database of various contacts, and even sync with outside applications; and this is just the very tip of the iceberg. Essentially it's a tool that helps performers take control of their world and plan for results.

Fortunately, I was able to contact Bill and talk to him about his life, Velvet Singer, and his own performing. I must at admit he is an interesting guy with a lot of great advice and experience. Here is the interview we shared...

Bill thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I appreciate your help, we’re all so busy during this time of year so thanks for being a part of this project. Why don’t we go ahead and start. Tell me about yourself…where did you grow up and what role has music played in your life?
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Church music was a great influence for me. This is where it all started. I sang and took interest in musical instruments. Eventually, I started singing. My voice lessons began in 7th grade. This carried into high school. I was in musicals and show choir but not until I attended the University of Virginia did I switch completely to classical musical.

What was life like as music student?
Actually, I studied engineering but took voice lessons and was part of a men's glee club. I started getting lots of solos in the group so I thought maybe I should take it more seriously. I pursued job offers through engineering school and at the same time auditioned for graduate voice programs.

That sounds like it was a crazy time, lots of big decisions?
That’s for sure. I got an incredible offer to work for the Clorox Corporation and the same week received a scholarship from DePaul.

What instruments did you study as a child, did someone make you practice, and do you perform those instruments in public anymore?
Growing up I was much more into sports. I learned some piano and in junior high I took up guitar. I started a band and we played at lots of school functions. I even played in bars and recorded some original compositions. I don’t really play those instruments in public too much these days.

Did that type of experience help your classical arts?
Of course! It was all great preparation for performing. I would love to tie in classical music and folk guitar someday—maybe half recital, half concert. Music has to be fun or it’s not worth it. I pinch myself at every juncture, and I try to make something out of everything.

When did you know that you wanted to be a professional singer?
It wasn't until my senior year of undergrad that I decided to pursue singing. That’s when I really knew.

What keeps you motivated and why is such a characteristic important as a singer?
This job requires a personal commitment, you can't phone it in. You have to be in the present and create your own opportunities sometimes. It can be hard but that is what the job demands.

Can you talk about your product Velvet Singer, what is it?
It started with my own need. I wanted to organize my first auditions. I tried lots of different things, spreadsheets, note pads, but there was no universal way and I wanted to make sense out of the madness. Velvet Singer is a customizable vocal manager in many ways. There are features that help organize, tally, and report important aspects of a singer’s career.

Why was it important for you to create it?
I wanted to help solve a need that I saw. There are lots of traps we can fall into that can make our lives as singers inefficient and full of worry. So my primary goal in creating Velvet Singer began as a personal one. If I can build it into a sustainable company, that would be fantastic, but it all began with the desire to help.

Where can people find and buy it?
There is a website, Anyone can purchase a license code for themselves or as a gift. The code is transferable between computers and a free 30-day demo can be downloaded to try the program out. I sell license keys through university bookstores too, but these licenses are only available at select universities.

I have enjoyed using the program a lot. It’s pretty incredible and there are tons of features for singers at any level. What is on the horizon for Velvet Singer?
I have plans for big new features such as a version for iPhone and a resume producing tool. I’m really excited about it!

What music are you currently working on?
I am covering all the tenor solo music in Janacek's Glagolitic Mass with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I have been working with Pierre Boulez! These rehearsals have been really rewarding. I am also singing a Mozart Requiem in a few months and I am working on a role, Tonio, from La Fille du Regiment for the summer. It’s a busy time. I love it!

Do you have any pre-performance rituals/superstitions?
Hmm, good question…I used to repeat the phrase "I'm going to kill someone" before each audition—it was something we used to say to get pumped before soccer games. We thought we were cool. The idea was to get physical with my singing and pour in a ton of energy.

Do you still need lethal thoughts to get you amped?
Haa haa, actually no… I don’t use that technique any more. Now, I try to think of things that make me happy. This helps me focus and is a great method for reaching peak performance. The techniques came from "The Happiness Advantage," a book I’m reading with lots of great info. I recommend it.

Excluding singing and family, what are your biggest interests… favorite writers, painters, filmmakers, etc?
Running and golf are some of my favorite activities. I'm not too much of an artist outside of singing—but I love sport and competition.

Do you have time for sports in your life theses days?
I do. I ran my third Chicago marathon this year and ran a 10K last week. There are so many parallels with singing, like breathing and form. As soon as you start huffing, puffing and bobbing like Rocky… you’re going down.

Strong vocal chords AND strong knees, you've been doubly blessed. So…If I raided your fridge, what would I find?
Hummus, peanut butter, cheese, no caffeine. I used to drink a lot of coffee and started needing it in the afternoons. Had to kick that habit.

There are many challenges young singers face today, can you cite any that you think are pertinent and offer some advice. What was your experience?
Tough question. How about paying for lessons after school. Answer: find a way—it is the thread that holds things together, and you have to keep up with vocal studies. It’s a long, long process (longer than becoming a doctor), so you have to have high expectations, but be very patient and realistic. I have colleagues in their 40s and 50s still refining and learning how to sing better, and most of them are seasoned pros.

What advice do you wish someone would have told you when you were first starting out or leaving school?
“You totally know how you sound and what you need to improve.” I used to wonder why I wouldn't get gigs and think that there was absolutely no way to tell what auditioners might hear. I thought improving had little to do with my actual singing—like looks, my repertoire, height, or these kinds of things.

That’s an easy trap to fall into and we have all drifted in that boat, but how are things different now? What changed for you?
My attitude. Mikael Eliasen once told me “auditions are pretty much all about singing." I understand this better now, and I am in a good place to recognize my progress. I try not to listen as I sing; I record everything. Ultimately, I am the one who has to make sense out of how I’ve performed and out of the instruction my teachers and coaches offer me.

Does this attitude affect your performing in other ways?
Absolutely. I have a sense of empowerment and focus. Lessons and coachings have become more productive and I arrive with goals that I work towards. Having goals is a huge part of singing. They are really important.

Any other advice….
Singing opera is 90% about being able to do literally what is on the page, not a whole lot more. Arias can be challenging. Nuance, refinement, polish—these things all matter too, but “meat and potatoes” singing is what gets you the job.

If someone wrote a book about your life, your ideas, and your passions…what would it be called?
A Charmed Life
…I swear—I feel so fortunate and am very thankful. It is amazing.

Can you express what success means to you?
Wow, ok sure… I understand success to be a state rather than a destination—success is not something that comes when you win the Metropolitan National Council or land a spot in Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center. Success is perspective. And when you have the right perspective singing is incredibly rewarding. Make sense?

Yes, absolutely…
It is important to recognize the challenges that surround you in this profession and then, take them head on! It’s no good not to be challenged. Otherwise, you never grow. You never know your full potential and you never recognize your capabilities. Challenges are really blessings in disguise. Welcome them.

Thanks Bill. This has been a great talk. There are no more questions, only two situations where I’d like you to respond. So, take your time.
Ok, shoot

You have had a relatively quiet but less than ideal day. You aren't feeling 100%, your energy is low, and your singing voice isn't flowing with complete ease and comfort. You aren't sick; in fact, you're in perfect physical health, but for some reason you are just not all there. That night, you have some very important singing to do and have been rehearsing the music for months. You cannot cancel the engagement. You have a few hours before you are called to the theater. What steps do you take and how do you prepare?
I always start every warm up session with yoga. If my energy were low, working the breath low and wide with some physical activity helps a great deal. I shamelessly do yoga in the wings or in the hallway before an audition. Also, I find that a quick twenty-minute power nap is a great vocal "reset." It seems that my larynx—and my mind—relax best when I find even a few minutes of shut-eye.

You are standing on the top of a hill looking out over a huge valley. The sun is shining, you are warm, there are birds singing. You are completely happy and you feel pride, contentment, and peace. Suddenly you are handed an orb within which you are able to see the happiest moments of your life, moments that challenged you, and moments that you can never forget. A stranger approaches you, sees your face and sits beside you. He asks you what you saw. You reply…
I’d tell him that I saw stewardship, the ability to serve family, friends, and even my city. I would tell him that I also saw support and love and my intimate journey with music. I’d try to explain that, after seeing it all, I understand how each stage added something very valuable to my journey and that each moment was important. I’d tell him that I saw heaven and didn’t necessarily have to leave this world to get there.

September 20, 2010

What does fall mean to you?

Fall is probably one of my favorite seasons. What does fall mean in your corner of the world?

September 19, 2010

Strauss: Elektra, German Text

Allein! Weh, ganz allein. Der Vater fort,
hinabgescheucht in seine kalten Klüfte.

Agamemnon! Agamemnon!
Wo bist du, Vater? Hast du nicht die Kraft,
dein Angesicht herauf zu mir zu schleppen?
Es ist die Stunde, unsre Stunde ist's!
Die Stunde, wo sie dich geschlachtet haben,
dein Weib und der mit ihr in einem Bette,
in deinem königlichen Bette schläft.
Sie schlugen dich im Bade tot, dein Blut
rann über deine Augen, und das Bad
dampfte von deinem Blut, da nahm er dich,
der Feige, bei den Schultern, zerrte dich
hinaus aus dem Gemach, den Kopf voraus,
die Beine schleifend hinterher: dein Auge,
das starre, offne, sah herein ins Haus.
So kommst du wieder, setzest Fuss vor Fuss
und stehst auf einmal da, die beiden Augen
weit offen, und ein königlicher Reif
von Purpur ist um deine Stirn, der speist sich
aus des Hauptes offner Wunde.

.....Agamemnon! Vater...

Ich will dich sehn, lass mich heute nicht allein!
Nur so wie gestern, wie ein Schatten, dort
im Mauerwinkel zeig dich deinem Kind!
Vater! Agamemnon, dein Tag wird kommen!
Von den Sternen
stürzt alle Zeit herab, so wird das Blut
aus hundert Kehlen stürzen auf dein Grab!
So wie aus umgeworfnen Krügen wird's
aus den gebunden Mördern fliessen,
und in einem Schwall, in einem
geschwollnen Bach wird ihres Lebens Leben
aus ihnen stürzen -- und wir schlachten dir
die Rosse, die im Hause sind, wir treiben
sie vor dem Grab zusammen, und sie ahnen
den Tod und wiehern in die Todesluft
und sterben, und wir schlachten dir die Hunde,
die dir die Füsse leckten, die mit dir gejagt, denen du
die Bissen hinwarfst, darum müss ihr Blut
hinab, um dir zu Dienst zu sein, und wir, wir,
dein Blut, dein Sohn Orest und deine Töchter,
wir drei, wenn alles dies vollbracht und Purpur-
gezelte aufgerichtet sind, vom Dunst
des Blutes, den die Sonne nach sich zieht,
dann tanzen wir, dein Blut, rings um dein Grab!

Und über Leichen hin werd' ich das Knie
hochheben Schritt für Schritt, und die mich werden
so tanzen sehn, ja, die meinen Schatten
von weiten nur so werden tanzen sehn,
die werden sagen: einem grossen König
wird hier ein grosses Prunkfest angestellt
von seinem Fleisch und Blut, und glücklich ist,
wer Kinder hat, die um sein hohes Grab
so königliche Siegestänze tanzen...
Agamemnon! Agamemnon!

August 1, 2010

Christa Ludwig, Raul Gimenez, Susan Chilcott

Christa Ludwig, Mezzo Soprano
Lied: Cäcilie, R. Strauss
Link: Click here

Notice that not only are the technical challenges of the lied ironed out, but the legato and direction of the phrases help the breaths that she takes. It appears that she is more concern with how the line is moving and rather than how to move it; there is a difference. Let her performance show that how we breathe directly effects how we sing.

*Lied is the German word for song and is a separate genre than an opera aria.

Raul Gimenez, Tenor
Tancredi: Rossini
Aria: Pensa Pensa...
Link: Click here

One of my favorite Rossini tenors, Raul Gimenez is really know for his brilliant coloratura. But listen to what makes it effective: it is accurate and not rushed. He deliberately sings each of the notes and avoids being technically distracted by the orchestra. At every moment he dictates how the voice will flow out. Listening closely, one can tell that his coloratura means something to the character.

*Coloratura refers to the fast notes that elaborately ornament the melody he sings.

Susan Chilcott, Soprano
Cosi Fan Tutte: Mozart
Aria: Per Pietà
Link: Click here

Never have I heard a performance of this aria more pure and more honest than this. Chilcott takes the listener on such a musical and emotional journey. I do not see or even hear "Susan," but instead I completely see the character that is created and sympathize with her situation. One does not need to even speak one word of Italian to know how this young character feels. Rest in peace Susan, you are extraordinary.