I Am Officially a Master of Music! (So what does a singer learn in college anyways?)



Hello world! It is official, I just received my masters degree in music performance from the University of Michigan; School of Music Theatre, and Dance!!!  I’m displaying my diploma on my desk as I type.   Most people don’t really understand what types of things a person learns when they specialize the voice as an instrument.  Some assume that you were born with the talent and didn’t need to do a whole lot cultivate your “gift.”  So I would like to correct some of that confusion in this post and let you know what things you really learn in music school as a singer.

For the basics, most music majors learn advanced music theory (the mathematics of music), sight-singing (being given a sheet of music and without help being able to sing what is written), music history (from the beginning to the present), composition (writing music in the style of the classical composers), music technology (recording/computers etc), conducting (choir/symphony/band), score interpretation (which changes based on language, time period, and composer),  and basic piano skills.  Vocal majors take diction courses in at least three foreign languages.  In these courses we learn how to sing the language with clarity, correct pronunciation, no foreign accent, basic grammar, and translation skills.  It is of the up-most importance that a singer be able to communicate clearly in whatever language they are singing in and understand every word they are saying.  You also work largely with the international phonetic alphabet, it’s sounds, and writing out the text of each song in this alphabet. I have learned to sing in German, French, Italian, some Chinese, Japanese, and proper English.  I plan to learn Czech and Russian soon.  You also learn various languages.  I have experience speaking Italian, French, and German through formal language classes.  There are many classes focused on acting and polishing your repertoire.  A vocal major will also learn how to teach voice lessons to others.  I am currently able to do so.

Then there is the music aspect of things.  There are so many different styles of vocal music to choose from.  For the classical vocalist, they will learn French chasson, German lieder, English art song, Italian art song, oratorio (sacred classical music), opera, cabaret, modern works (this does not mean pop but music being written by modern composers), and musical theatre.  Classes are offered in all of these areas which must be completed by graduation.  Usually a voice major will be performing in operas put on by the school they attend.

Last, there are the voice lessons and working with a collaborative pianist.  Working with a voice teacher who can teach you well is the most important thing to consider when deciding which music school to attend.  In voice lessons one works on vocal faults, strengthening the voice, gaining range, flexibility, consistent tone quality, musicality (what is in the score),  breath management, and many other things.  Often times this work can be likened to that of an athlete learning to be flexible and train their body.  Some may think that being an instrumentalist is harder because they have to actually hold their instrument and learn how to produce each tone by moving their hands/fingers.  Singer just have to think about what they want to sing and then viola! This is not correct.  The vocalist has a completely different set of issues to work through (and this work takes years!); you can’t see, hold, or easily physically manipulate your instrument.  The vocal chords and surrounding muscles often work involuntarily meaning you can not tell your muscles to move in the same way you can tell your arm to raise or your hand to pick up an object.  So vocal training involves intense concentration, feedback from others (especially a coach), training your mind, trial and error, and using mental imagery to help the vocal mechanism relax/create balanced tone.  The goal is to eventually no longer need to think about your vocal technique when you go to sing a song, but to focus on the quality of text, and performance at hand.  Working with a collaborative pianist means learning music together, interpreting it, and making it a unique performance of artistic significance (not just playing/singing together in time).  Most people do not realize that the pianist accompanying a singer is just as much a part of making a meaningful performance as the main stage singer.

A day in the life of a vocal artist in training may look something like this:

~Get up, go to classes: German/French/Italian diction, art song class, oratorio class, conducting class, opera workshop, acting class, music history or music theory etc. (say 8am-3pm)

~Go practice two-four hours (both singing and score study) including technique and assigned performance pieces.  Score study includes working on the language of that particular song, which words would be emphasized, what would the composer ask for (dynamics, tempo, key changes, etc), pronunciation, memorization of text, why the song was written, what is the formal structure of the piece, and speaking the text like a native.  Musical study includes learning notes/rhythms, singing with consistent tone through entire piece, marking in where to take a breath..there are unacceptable places to do this, actually implementing what the composer has marked, creating a unique interpretation, creating a performance, working on acting, facial expressions, and creating a character.

~Attend voice lesson or coaching with pianist.

~In the evening go to opera rehearsal for another 3-4 hours.  This involves being a part of a show.

~Do written homework assignments (including conducting/music theory/composition etc) (for 3 hours).

Having lived through such a crazy full schedule myself it is a challenge to get through but very worth it.  I am so glad and proud to have finished strong.  There is still so much to learn and I look forward to continuing to hone my craft as a vocal artist.  Some of the greatest things about being a musician is that your work is always able to get better, you can always learn more, improve, and you get to learn/be in contact with your humanity (and that of other’s) every day…after all music is an expression of the soul and deep emotion!  Will I go for a doctorate? Not anytime soon, its time to get out there and start performing!

Fun and Flirty “Amor,” by William Bolcom (Sung by Elizabeth Robertson)

A fun and flirty song for all those who enjoy something on the lighter side! “Amor,” is a a great cabaret song written by composer William Bolcom. I truly enjoy his works for the voice, they are true gems! I performed this recently at the “I Sing Chinese,” concert event organized by the Confucius Institute of Ann Arbor and hosted by the University of Michigan.

Swallow Song

A lovely traditional Chinese folk song! I recently performed this at the “I Sing Chinese,” concert event organized by the Confucius Institute of Ann Arbor and hosted by the University of Michigan. I had so much fun working on this piece and I look forward to learning more about the Chinese language, culture, and music.

Joyfully Announcing Master’s Recital Repertoire!

I am so happy to announce the following program for my master’s degree recital!   The recital will take place in January and I am really looking forward to it.  In the mean time I have a lot of work to do!

Women in Poetry (title is still in progress)

Part 1:

Frauenliebe und leben by Schumann (all 8 songs)


Suleika I and II by Schubert (see earlier post on this set for some great youtube videos)

Part 2:

Casa Guidi by Argento (5 songs)

If you have never listened to the masterpiece that is Casa Guidi I highly recommend it!! 🙂 The music is just stunning.

What is history? Deconstructionist History and Truth

Can we find truth in historical accounts?

In my master’s patriotic music seminar we discussed a portion of a book by Alun Munslow titled “Deconstructionist History.”  He supposes that all history is historical narrative.  There are no true facts and history is a type of story telling impacted by our own personal bias.  He believes that because of this personal bias it is impossible for the actual happenings/facts of an event to be related to another afterwards.  The facts are never truly facts and the claimed truth is never supposedly truth.

I was shocked that so much of the class could agree with his theories about history.  I understand that no matter what one says it will always be presented with a personal bias of some sort (intentional or unconscious) and therefore historical accounts can be affected by bias.  This is what makes historical study or musicology a creative act instead of a regurgitative fact spewing one. History comes alive when you think of the various motives or ‘whys’ of a matter.  Or one can consider an aspect of history from the perspective of another culture or nationality.  However, so much of class was fearful of facts in and of themselves.  Simple claims like Francis Scott Key (the author of the poem “The Star Spangled Banner,” which is the U.S. national anthem) died in 1843 could not be trusted.

My question for Mr. Munslow is does he believe that there is a Truth? When I say Truth I mean to say that there is an actual historical past event that occurred and has defining factual characteristics.  If no Truth of any sort exists then everything (our senses, our idea of time etc) is a result of some sort of biological illusion created by evolutionary processes.

However, for the sake of my musing, lets say that Truth does exist (which is what I believe).  The question now becomes how well can human beings perceive Truth?  How well do we relate that Truth to others?  If one says that Truth does exist but we are incapable of relating the Truth of a past moment to others in any factual Truthful way then we have to conclude that we are too flawed to come to any conclusions about anything.  Even science falls under harsh scrutiny (like “does gravity exist?”).  If we cannot relate Truth to each other (and Truth is so tainted by our own bias that it is unrecognizable) then what is the point of going to college to learn?  This means no one can truly relate Honest facts to another.  Therefore teachers have nothing to say and people can simply draw their own conclusions.  These personal conclusions now become this person’s Truth and all is subjective.  Most of the people in my class (masters and doctoral level students) agreed with idea, all is subjective, and therefore history, even basic facts can not be trusted to contain real Truth.

I would challenge my classmates to actually live by this idea; all is subjective and basic facts are useless.  They say with their mouths that they believe this but in reality they don’t live by them.  The worldview that they express with their actions says otherwise, that there are facts, that there is Truth.  No one in my class would take up a Bach piece and decide one of the following:

“Oh, there are too many notes, I’ll just sing these, and omit the other ones over there.”

“I don’t like to sing in this style, I’m going to turn this Bach piece into a romanticized Brahms style song.”

“I don’t like the B-flat so I am going to change it a D!”

No one would do that, it sounds crazy!  Still, saying that you can’t trust a simple fact is the same as saying you can’t trust the score in front of you to tell you the composer’s most basic intentions for his piece.  A musical work notated on a score is not the same as the music itself.  A musical score is a piece of historical writing in a sense that the composer gives to you, supplying you with (hopefully) some Truth about the work, and some is up for interpretation.  But, if facts that the composer gives you can’t be trusted one could argue that you could play any note you wanted/any dynamic you wanted/etc because you decided that Bach didn’t mean what he wrote.  Or you decided that Bach’s work was tampered with as it was passed down through history.  Or what is written simply doesn’t match with your vision of the work so you change it as you see fit.
No music student I know would get up to play a Debussy piece like Mahler because they felt like that is their interpretation of the historical narrative/context of the piece.  We would have some very strange and eccentric music students at our school if they really lived by what they purport to believe.

If we as a society are so confused about the idea of Truth and a simple historical fact how can anyone be expected to have any backbone and stand up for what they believe in?  If we don’t believe in anything beyond our personal interpretation then how can we make a stand on issues that matter?

In reality there is one Truth.  A human being does have the capacity to understand Truth to its fullest extent when it is presented to them.  A human being does not always relate Truth to another person in an accurate manner historically speaking.  Not because they lie (hopefully) but because of unconscious or conscious bias that changes the emphasis of the story.  However, just because the story is distorted slightly through the narrative, the historical evidence of fact remains largely intact with Truthful content.  Even if the story is passed on many times (as in a game of telephone) one can go back to original sources or primary sources to compare reports.  If there are seeds of truth to that particular historical narrative then those will show up in the other accounts, no matter how others interpret the story surrounding the facts.  Fox news is always going to present their bias, so is NBC, and so on, but if you compare accounts you will see that key facts of Truth remain.  History is clearly not all subjective, nor is it all objective, but Truth is always objective.

It is possible to know a fact objectively, there is Truth, and I hope you all are out there finding it everyday! 🙂


Then Sings My Soul: Reflections of an Opera Singer

I am so excited to be starting my personal blog about singing.  I hope that many will come to share and read and comment/post about their own journeys as vocal artists.

I know I am just starting my journey in many ways.  I’ve been in choir for over 14 years, studied singing privately with various coaches and teachers for 4 years, and studied singing in college for a total of seven years (privately and in the classroom).  I am very pleased to be entering my last semester of my masters degree in opera performance at the University of Michigan.  Yet, despite all of this training and work and learning and thousands of hours in the practice room I am still just starting to reach below the surface to the depths of what it is to be a truly genuine artist.

No matter how much one practices there is always a new technique to try or a new song to learn, a nuance to add to an old song, or a mite of personal growth that is reflected in song.  To some this may seem a depressing prospect, to never be able to reach a true point of complacency, to say “I’ve done it, I’m good at it, I’m an artist, I am done learning.”  However, to me, it is empowering.  I don’t want to live a stagnant life, and say that I have somehow “arrived,” as an artist.

Everyone’s journey takes a different path.  Its not about being on the same road or being perfect or making it to one place in your career or another.  Being a vocal artist means always growing personally, spiritually, and musically.  I mean this truly.  Its not about where you are, your amount of success, that makes you an artist, it is your soul, your heart, and your depth of expression that makes you a true artist.

So lets put the superficial measurements aside (career achievements, naming contacts, numbers of rep. learned, numbers of songs composed, competitions won etc. all of which are wonderful things in themselves) and look at what our singing is telling the world.  Is that piece you just learned (old or new, classical or not) simply a pretty sound, a collection of notes you sing well? Is that really why you spend so many hours in the practice room…to sound pretty?  Or, is that song becoming a part of who you are with a deeper message?  With each piece I sing this is a true struggle to find within…but it makes the difference between being a pointless pretty noise and a true expression of art.  Sometimes I find my message, sometimes I don’t.

What message do you send the world when you sing?

My soul sings, does yours?

Truly Romantic: Suleika I and II by Franz Schubert

Suleika I and II set to music by Franz Schubert are such fine works of art.  They are strong examples of German lied (German art song).  Both songs were set to music in the 1820’s (with the first piece receiving the most attention).

The poetry originally credited to Goethe was actually written by Marianne von Willemer.  The two had a literary romance over about a year.  Ms. Willemer wrote the text to the first poem (Suleika I)  prior to meeting Goethe and the second poem (Suleika II) after the their weekend meeting.  Interestingly enough, after the intense weekend romance they never met in person again.  Once the poetry had been written Goethe edited it and submitted it to be published in his poetry collection “Westostlichen Divan: Das Buch Suleika.”

Suleika and Hatem are characters from a Persian love story which Ms. Willemer and Goethe adopted as pseudonyms while trading poetry.  In the first song Suleika I addresses the East wind asking it to bring Hatem’s love to her.  The second song, Suleika II, addresses the West wind, as Suleika asks it to send Hatem her love.  Although Schubert never indicated that these two were to be performed together as a cycle or set they compliment each other quite well.

Check out the videos to listen to  Suleik I and II.

*Although these settings are both sung by sopranos they are often transposed to fit the mezzo voice as well.

Suleika I:

(Sung by Kathleen Battle)

Suleika II:

(Sung by Arlene Auger)
The Text and Translation (Suleika 1):

Was bedeutet die Bewegung?

(What does this movement mean?)

Bringt der Ost mir frohe Kunda?

(Does the East-wind bring me glad tidings?)

Seiner Schwingen frische Regung

(The fresh stirring of its wings,)

Kuhlt des Herzens tiefe Wunde.

(Cools the heart’s deep wound.)

Kosend spielt er mit dem Staube,

(Caressingly it plays with the dust,)

Jagt ihn auf in leichten Wolkchen,

(Lifting it up in little clouds,)

Teibt zur sichern Rebenlaube

(It drives to the secure grape arbor)

Der Insekten frohes Volkchen.

(the happy little insects.)

Lindert sanft der Sonne Glühen,

(It soothes the sun’s hot burning,)

Kuhlt auch mir die heissen Wangen,

(it also cools my hot cheeks,)

Kusst die Reben noch im Fliehen

(It kisses the vines in its flight,)

Die auf Feld und Hugel prangen.

(the fields and hills which are resplendent.)

Und mir bringt sein leises Flüstern

(And brings to me its soft whispers)

Von dem Freunde tausend Grüße;

(from my friend a thousand greetings)

Eh’ noch diese Hügel düstern,

(And before these hills grow dark,)

Grüßen mich wohl tausend Küsse.

(Will surely greet me with a thousand kisses.)

Und so kannst du weiter ziehen!

(And so you can do on your way!)

Diene Freunden und Betrübten.

(You friends and sad ones.)

Dort wo hohe Mauern glühen,

(There where the high walls glow,)

Dort  find’ ich bald den Vielgeliebten.

(There I will soon find my beloved.

Ach, die wahre Herzenskunde,

(Ah, the hearts true message,)

Liebeshauch, [erfrischtes] Leben,

(Love’s breath, and life refreshed)

Wird mir nur aus seinem Munde,

(can come to me from his mouth,)

Kann mir nur sein Atem geben.

(Can be given to me only from his breath.)

Suleika II translation coming soon…. 🙂



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