A Very Merry Unbirthday- 6 months

Today is the 6th month anniversary of Geraldine in a Bottle!

Today is the day that I want you to make this blog yours.

That's why I wish I were able to read you guys' mind so that I could give you just what you're looking for and what you need.

Help me in my quest to please you by sending me some constructive criticism and feedback.

What do you like best on this blog? What kind of posts are you most interested in: tips, interviews, reviews, etc? What topics would you enjoy reading about that haven't been covered yet? What would you like to see less of, more of?

I raise my glass to these six months and I thank you all for your encouragement and friendship!



Are you a victim of value attribution?

Let's imagine that you're hoping that one day someone important notices you so that your career can take off. What if it actually happened, and you didn't recognize the opportunity?

If you take in information differently depending on who delivers it, you're setting yourself up for missing a ton of opportunities. Doing so is called "value attribution," "which simply means the inclination to superimpose or imbue a thing with certain qualities or characteristics based on our initial perception."

Let's say you have a master class with a great Broadway star and his pianist. At the end of the masterclass, the pianist takes you aside and tells you that he is involved with a great project that needs someone just like you. The only thing you have to do is send an email to the producer with your resume, headshot, and a video of you.

What would you think?
"Oh, I don't know anything about this project, it might just be a waste of time, we'll see...," or "wow, this pianist has connections, noticed me and even though I still have to audition, he will put in a good word for me which can really help me get a foot in the door."

Now imagine that it was not the pianist but the Broadway star himself that tells you about the project and suggest you audition for it.

What would you think then?
"Oh, I don't know anything about this project, it might just be a waste of time, we'll see...," or "oh my God, this super star just noticed me and will tell the producers about me. I am so in! Can't wait to audition and prove them all that I'm great! I'm so lucky! I better not screw that one up!"

Here is the thing, both the pianist and the Broadway star noticed you, and with both of them you get a leg up from anyone else auditioning. Next time you get an offer, don't judge where it comes from. If you already have something going on, be incredibly grateful and thank the person for the offer, no matter who offered it. Because next time, they might contact you again or suggest your name, unless you act like they're a nobody and you don't even have the time to say thanks and mean it. Don't make yourself a victim of value attribution.


Picture from http://www.poetryhere.com/midi/


Who should you try to please?

Who should you try to please? The audience or the person who hired you?

As a performer, I always think of the audience as the people I want to please.
But as an accompanist hired privately by an individual, my customer is that individual. And the customer is always right. Which becomes quite problematic when that individual has a completely different idea from me as to how to please the audience. And it gets even more complicated if that individual has a teacher, who often adds a third view on how to please the audience. And when I myself had a teacher... you know where I'm going with that.

As musicians, it is often a real dilemma to figure out who our most important customer is, and many questions and doubts come directly from that dilemma.

Of course you're gonna follow your conductor even though you're not convinced of the interpretation. But how do you stay connected and interested in the music you're making when you know that the audience's response is to somebody else's decisions?

For us musicians, the importance of knowing at every gig who our customer is is one of the most important decisions we have to make. It's not just about pleasing them, but more importantly about keeping ourselves sane by accepting the fact that as much as we always want the audience to come first, many times in our lives, there is an intermediary who is our true customer. Embracing that fact will make it much easier on us than fighting in our heads for the audience's enjoyment against our true customer's opinions, whether right or wrong.


6 basics of music directing

Here are the six basic aspects of music directing.
    1. Be a vocal coach. Merely teaching the songs to the cast does not qualify as being a vocal coach.

      You have to help a singer understand why they're not reaching that note, or why it cracks, or why they don't seem to have enough breath for that phrase, or any of the thousand things that make singing hard. You have to know why and be able to fix it.

    2. Be a musician. You have to decide what the dynamics should be, make sure that diction is clear and that the ending consonants are perfectly together and make sure that the cast uses the same diction on vowels.

      You have to decide where the accents are, and what words matter for the action and decide what style of singing the singers should use (belt, mix, head, etc.).

    3. Be a teacher. Understand the level of the cast and use the appropriate vocabulary with them. If most people in the cast can't read music, don't start talking about key changes and chord progressions and analyze the music in a theorist way, it will confuse them and you will waste everyone's time.

      Rather, use your hands to show where the pitches are, and if the rhythm is tricky, make the cast speak the line in rhythm before adding the pitch onto it.

      If your cast is made of brilliant musicians with perfect pitch or great ear training ability, teach quick and don't start singing along everything with them. Get out of the way, and they'll be grateful for it.

    4. Be a conductor. Sure, when you're in front of the orchestra you can fake your way through, and after a few rehearsals all of it. Simple things matter before then.

      You have to be very clear when you count off to start in the middle of song. This is very important as to keep things moving quickly and clearly during staging and dancing rehearsals. Be consistent with what you do.

      Singing the being of the phrase and hoping that people will join in won't do it. If you have a pianist during rehearsals, don't "conduct" her by counting out loud every single beat of the measure. Give her the correct tempo to start with, conduct with your hands and don't sing along.

    5. Get what theater is. You have to put your musician and vocal coach hats on the side and understand that the role of the music and of the singing is to enhance the story. You've got to let singers play with different character voice choices and help them figure out which one works best for both their voice and the story.

      You have to appreciate the importance of some of the singing being purposefully not "beautiful" in order to make it more efficient and clear in order to tell the story; know not to fix those moments, because they are perfect theatrically.

      You have to be able to offer solutions if music needs to be cut or added, and to know how to do so in a way that keeps on enhancing the story.

    6. Be available for rehearsals. Some theaters will hire you even if you can't make most of the first weeks of rehearsal, because they think that having a rehearsal pianist there will allow for the process to carry on. It is tempting to say yes to the gig because hey, that's money. Don't do it.

      Once you're back, you won't be given the time you need to teach the music because singers will have already kind of learned the songs on their own, but it will drive you nuts that you can't seem to be able to create an ensemble out of them without rehearsals.

      You will have missed a ton of important information: when music is cut or added, important change of tempi in some songs, acting and directorial choices that influence the music, etc. The music won't sound good in the end, and you will be blamed for it.

    Picture from http://www.flickr.com/photos/thewendyhouse/252987428/


    Can't read music? Don't have any technique? The Blue Man Group Band will hire you!

    Can't read music? Don't have any technique? The Blue Man Group is looking for you. Here are some  quotes from the Blue Man Group Musician Casting Website:
    • "If you do the right thing and put your mind, body and soul into the music, then it really doesn't matter (...) how technically skilled a musician you are," Todd Perlmutter, Creative Development Music Director. 
    • "You need to have a good ear; pick things up quickly by ear. We're not necessarily looking for people who can read music," Byron Estep, Associate Music Director.
    • "It takes talent to play with another drummer because that's an unusual situation. Your technical skill level doesn't have to be astronomical. Your musical level has to be astronomical." Tood Perlmutter.
    • During casting, "we study your physical characteristics while playing. (...) Is it with power? Grace?"


    What if you couldn't play or sing anymore?

    What if adversity struck and you were told that you could never practice your art ever again? Would you let it go or would you fight to find a way to carry on as an artist?

    Here are two amazing stories about performers going to incredible length in order to keep on making it as artists.

    The first story, here, is about the principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who suffered from one of the worst injuries musicians can have, focal dystonia.

    The next story is about a drummer who became paraplegic and invented a new way to play drums without the use of his legs.

    What is the most dedicated thing you have ever done for your art?



    What it takes to be an opera translator- Part 2

    The first part of the interview of Jeremy Sortore focused on his training and on what the job entails. This second part gives advices on how to become a translator, how much it pays and what is great about it.

    How should a young person go about being an opera translator?
                  Obviously, languages are really important. I minored in French in college, and Italian wasn't a difficult step to take from the French, because so much of the grammar is similar. When I sat down with a dictionary I found that I could translate an Italian libretto fairly easily. Language coursework was indispensable for me. I was always the voice student who was really good about doing a lot of translating of my own material, so that was something that I was used to doing. So it didn't seem like such a daunting task to sit down with an entire opera score and try to do the whole translation. It still takes a lot of time and sometimes it is very tedious work, but that was something I was willing to do because it wasn't completely foreign to me. So language and practice, and asides from that, the best advice I have is to do what I did. Talk to someone local, to someone you know already and see if they're going to need a translation and if so, if you can find a win win situation. They might pay a little less than they would normally and you get your first job.

    What else did you do in terms of advertising yourself?
                  I found a list of opera companies through Opera America. They have budget tiers, and I knew that the Met wasn't probably gonna be interested in my translation right now because I'm sure they have a lot of people to do that, so I started looking at some of the smaller companies and some of the companies that may not have used sub titles up to that point and may be interested in going in that direction. I also contacted a lot of university departments. I went online and got the contact information of directors of various opera programs in academia.

    "My rates are extremely flexible"

    What is the pay scale of a title translator?
                  My rates are extremely flexible depending on who I'm working with. I charge a lot less for university programs or my alma mater. I sort of know what their budget is and how much they can afford. I try not to price myself out of range for those companies. Often I base my rates on how many performances, how large their venue is, and from there I can get a sort of a rough idea of what they might earn in revenue and ticket sale, and from there I can judge how much they might be willing to spend. Some smaller companies may only be able to give you $500 for the rental and then they will find their own person on staff or volunteer to run the titles. Some of the larger companies will pay you royalties like any of their other designers, so you're talking in the thousands for that. That's for rental and licensing. I get two contracts from Opera Colorado, an authorship contract and an operator contract.

    Can anyone make a living doing just that?
                  Probably not. There might be one or two people in the States that make a significant amount of money from that because they rent all over the place. I remember before I started doing titles for Opera Colorado they had somebody that they had worked with for a very long time. I think it's harder and harder to make a living at it, because in 1983, 1984, around the time when opera companies first started using titles, there were probably only a few people that knew anything about it. Now, most companies hire somebody in house to do their translations.

    "I try to make the slide transitions happen at 
    logical places in the phrase structure" 

    Could a non-musician do that?
                  Non musicians could, but I find  that being a musician is so much more helpful. Part of my process in preparing the score is listening to it without really looking at the text, and making marks in the score where I feel that a slide transition would not be distracting. I try to make the slide transitions happen at logical places in the phrase structure. I think that it takes somebody with some musical sense to operate the titles because the timing of the operation is very crucial in that aesthetic so that it doesn't look mechanical or on a timer, like a machine is doing it. So that if it's a slow and soft aria, maybe the singer comes in with the first phrase and the slide might lag behind a little bit, or fade in more slowly instead of popping up there.

    "When I run titles I get to feel responsible
    for the audience reaction" 

    I've been to so many operas where there might be humor and the audience will laugh before the right time because they're done reading the title. Is that something you're aware of when you write, to make sure that people laugh at the time where it makes sense  in the music?
                  I do try to do that, both as an author and as an operator. That's one of the most satisfying things when I'm running the titles, and that's one of the reasons why I prefer running a comedy, because you get to feel responsible for the audience reactions sometimes. As an author, what I try to do is if there is a funny line, I try to break it up into two slides so that the operative word of the punch line begins its own new slide, so that I can time that to happen with the corresponding operative word in Italian or French, so that the audience laughs at the right time. I have had singers thank me for that, because it is so much more fulfilling as a performer to have the audience laugh in the place where it makes sense.

    "I make sure the companies know that I am not
    a hardware person, or a software person" 

    So you have to be good at languages, good at music and you have to be good at technology as well because you program it all yourself. 
                  The technology isn't too terribly difficult. I make sure that the companies that I rent to know that I am not a hardware person, or a software person. I just send them the files and they need to have their own technical staff make sure that it runs with their system. I'll do everything that I can to help that, but that's not my expertise. I write in power point and I also write in a program named Innovation by Figaro system that a lot of opera companies use for their seat back titles, where you get to read the titles on the back of the seat in front of you.

    What is your most favorite aspect of the job?
                  I love that I get to be involved in productions that I wouldn't otherwise be involved with. I get to have some passive income when I get to rent some of the translations to some other companies. I've already done the work and I send a score in the mail and collect a check. I like the sense of being connected to many companies all over the country and having some contact throughout the industry.

    "Having another job is not something to fall back on, it's something to do in the field before you succeed." 

    Any last piece of advice?
                  Having a lot of different skills, especially as a music student, has really allowed me to have a lot of freedom to pursue my performance career to a certain degree. I think that a lot of students feel that there is a stigma to developing insulary skills that are not purely related to your ideal career path, as if that's some kind of cope out or admitting defeat. But having another job is not always something to fall back on, it's something to support you in the time that it takes for your performing career to manifest itself. It's about having something to do in the field before you succeed.



    What it takes to be an opera translator- Part 1

    It was on a hike in the Colorado mountains that I first talked with Jeremy Sortore about what he does as an artist. As impressive as is his background in voice (he holds a master's degree), acting and teaching, what really intrigued me was his experience as a translator for super or sub titles for operas. This interview is an extension of that original conversation, focused on what the job truly entails, how one gets to do it and what are the pluses and the minuses of the job. 

    "I asked the director if I could do the translation 
    and they offered to pay me" 

    How did you get to work as a translator for opera super-titles?
                  I'd always been around an opera company because my mother worked for an opera company when I was a kid, so it was always in the back of my mind. When I was in school doing my undergrad in music and voice, I was cast in an opera and realized that the opera company at the school was gonna need title and I stepped in. I just asked the director if I could do the translation and they offered to pay me, probably a little less than they would have had to pay someone else, and that's how I got started. So I built up quite a library as I was going through school and then started advertising when I was done with my masters and already had a library available to rent.

    "I had enough experience that professional 
    companies started to take notice" 

    How did you end up becoming a professional translator?
                  It was a process. At first I was just working with the university music departments, and then other universities' music departments, and from then it went on to small semi professional companies. After a certain point I had enough experience doing that that the professional companies near by started taking notice when they needed somebody to operate the titles. From there I started doing their translation as well. It was step by step.

    Do you specialize in one language or do you translate them all?
                  My most comfortable language is French although I end up translating a lot more Italian than French, simply because it seems to be what is produced a little bit more, so I'm becoming more comfortable in the Italian. So far I just have French and Italian libretti, and a translation of the Magic Flute because I had done the show couple of times and I knew it very well, but German is my worst language.

    "The most difficult thing is to show up to work"

    What are some of the main challenges you encounter when you translate?
                  The most difficult thing is to show up to work because I do it all by myself, so consequently when I get up in the morning, the hardest thing, as it is for any writer I think, is to sit down and start. Once I've made that commitment and sat down for the day and decided that I'm at work, then it's fairly easy to stay focused. It's a discipline because nobody is really keeping track of me, how much I work or how little I work. So that's the most challenging thing. But for a most technical standpoint, the main concern with translating is trying to find a balance between being too literal and taking too many liberties.

    How much creativity do you have when you translate?
                  Some. Certainly nobody, from an audience's perspective, wants to sit there and read a word for word translation of what's on stage. It doesn't flow very well. The purpose of the title is not to give you the complete libretto, it's just to help you follow along. It's not supposed to be  a poetic device as much as to help an audience member follow the plot and not be lost. So often I have to work with directors who have really disparate views on how literal or non literal the translation should be.

    "Older directors leave me to my own devices, 
    younger directors are very hands on" 

    So it is a collaborative project.
                  It can be, and it is becoming more so for better or for worse. When I first started I would just show up at my job and nobody paid any attention to the titles, so I had complete freedom in what I was doing. With some of the younger directors that are coming along now, directors who have never known opera without titles, the titles are a real integral part of the production. A lot of the older directors still leave me to my own devices and some of the younger directors are very hands on. And it's difficult because sometimes they have very different views about the translations.
    I worked with someone recently who wanted a very literal translation, and so I had to end up re-writing most of the translation to be nearly words for words and I hated it, but as the super titles author coordinator, I'm not particularly high on the totem pole as far as getting to make those decisions, so I had to redo that one. And I found that the next time I tried to do a translation, my bias was a little more literal. So the next director told me:  "you translated too much." So I had to go back and redo that one. So it taught me a lot. It taught me to stick to my guns.

    "I write the English translation and send it to a Spanish translator who translates my translation" 

    How much in advance before an opera is produced are you given the job?
                  I do most of my translations right now for Opera Colorado. They have been very  generous in the past year or two to give me my contract for the entire year all at once. So that gives me a lot of time to plan and figure out when I'm going to do the translation in between other jobs and performances. At Opera Colorado we do both translations in English and in Spanish. So I write the English translation and send it to a Spanish translator, and they translate my translation. It's not the ideal situation but it is much easier to find and English to Spanish translator than it is to find a French to Spanish translator. I like to give that company a month before I will need it back a week before using it in tech rehearsals.
    I like to give myself about three weeks to get through the score. The preliminary translation takes me one and a half to two weeks, and then I spend some time polishing it and making it more readable.



    Why you feel less confident the better you get

    When I was in high school, I used to think that I could become one of the best pianists ever, and that I could even potentially write the best songs ever and sing them better than everyone else. By my masters degree, I thought that I was doing quite well, and that I was good enough to be better than some people, but not necessarily the best anymore.

    Now, only one exam away from getting my doctorate, I feel that I am just one pianists among many other pianists, that any few songs I've ever written don't mean a thing, and that I don't make much a difference anywhere.

    I blamed that progression from being confident to lacking confidence on an education based on competition rather than on real life experience. Then I blamed it on the people I worked with. I also blamed it on my age because the older I become the more scared I get. I blamed it on my teachers, my friends and finally myself. Now I know better than to blame all the wrong people and all the wrong things. I should blame the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    The Dunning-Kruger effect is this "cognitive bias where unskilled people suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority."

    So the less you know the better you think you are, and the better you are the less good you think you are.

    So next time you think you suck, remember that it's the sign that you are actually good!



    Do you need to go to musicians' rehab?

    According to the A.R.T.S Anonymous, some of us might need to go to music rehab. Here are the questions to answer to know if A.R.T.S is for you or not.
    • Have you grown up in an environment where your creativity was not validated?
    • Have you made needless sacrifices for your art but not the needless sacrifices?
    • Do you think that you are too old, not enough, not ready, that you will starve, making it hard for you to pursue your career as an artist?
    • Being multi-talented, do you have a hard time finding your true artistic vision?
    • Do you become impatient with the process and have difficulty following on projects?
    • Have you felt intimidated by other artists' success and did that block you creativity?
    If you answered yes to some of these questions, you should follow the A.R.T.S. program.


    Picture from http://artvsrehab.tumblr.com/


    Are vocal warm ups just for the voice?

    As a music director, I plan warm ups that are specific for the particular show, as I wrote in this post.

    Besides the vocal aspect, here are the top three things I look for before deciding what vocal warm up to do.
    1. Time of day: If rehearsal starts in the morning, I spend a lot of time on gentle warm ups, such as: 123454321 on "n," scale up and down on lip trills, 13531 on "ah," 54321 on "zi-i-i-i-i," 16765654541 on "ee."

      I warm up the middle range, and start by going to only about the e a tenth above the middle c before going down by half step.

    2. Vocal health of the cast: This really depends on how (un)healthy the cast is. If a few people are congested, I have the cast block one nostril, and sing through the other one on "n" 54321, going up to no more than d (11th above middle c), before switching nostril.

      When cast members have done too much belting too suddenly, I emphasize warm ups on mixing. If they're feeling tense from the rehearsal process, I have them jump on the word "love" for "I love to sing" on 18531.

    3. Energy level: When a cast spends all day in cue-to-cue or in tech and gets into relaxed mode, it can be hard for them to transition back into the energy necessary to do a run.

      I do more of quick warm ups, with emphasis on diction. belt and mix, such as: 54321 "how are you," 13531 "gna gna gna," 132435421 "bee dee bee dee," 135---31 "ay" (with no diphtong, IPA epsilon).  
    Vocal warm ups are for both the voice and for the transition between  life and rehearsal.

    Picture from http://www.vocaltrainingsecrets.com/vocal-warm-up/ 


    Is there heat in the theater?

    Tonight is our opening night of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Creede Repertory Theater, which should be a fun night as we have an awesome cast.

    We had a lot of our rehearsals in the theater, and as are so many theaters and pits the theater was not heated. I would not have been able to play the piano due to frozen fingers if my friend Susannah had not let me borrow her amazing gloves for each rehearsal.

    If you are a pianist, you can understand why I'm so in love with these gloves!

    First of all, they're regular gloves

    But during blocking rehearsals, you can cover your 
    fingers while keeping your thumb out

    And they're comfortable to play the piano with

    It's about the little things people!

    Update (06/07/10): Before the show I gave Susannah her gloves back. We had a wonderful opening night, and the cast was so nice as to give me a gift basket filled with cheese, bread, and... those gloves! Thanks Susannah!



    Whose personality is more important? Musicians or actors?

    I started reading the book "The Empty Space: A book about the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate" by Peter Brook when I came upon the following paragraph.
    There is a "conflict between theatre directors and musicians in opera productions where two totally different forms, drama and music, are treated as though they were one.  A musician is dealing with a fabric that is as near as man can get to an expression of the invisible. His score notes this invisibility and his sound his made by instruments which hardly ever change. The player's personality is unimportant; a thin clarinetist can easily make a fatter sound than a fat one. The vehicle of music is separate from music itself. So the stuff of music comes and goes, always in the same way, free of the need to be revised and reassessed. But the vehicle of drama is flesh and blood."
    Wow! I never thought of comparing music and drama, but if I ever did I would not have tried to decide which one of the two was the "truest" and hardest art form. 

    Musicians are always revising and reassessing music, deciding where to put accents, the same way actors decide what word to accentuate in order to best express and idea. 

    As an actor's technicality comes from his ability to change the physical language of his body, a musician technicality comes from his ability yo change the physical language of his fingers, hands, arms, shoulders and back for each piece. 

    As an actor's artistry shows through the understanding of his character and of the entire play, a musician's artistry comes from the understanding of each individual voice, line and of the entire piece. 

    And as an actor's personality is important, so is a musician's personality.


    Do you have an excuse?

    When we someone asks us to do something different or to correct something in our interpretation, we don't need to explain why we didn't do it in the first place.

    We just need to do it differently.
    That's all.

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