Thursday, May 26, 2016

singing is hard

A couple years ago I got the idea to take voice lessons. This is something I had been thinking about for a long time. After all, I frequently work with singers, so it makes sense professionally to learn more about the actual technique and physicality of vocal performance. My real reasons are more personal, though. I am deeply moved by beautiful singing. I'm such a sap, I get all choked up at the most random stuff, like Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year (seriously, she was pretty good) or an exceptionally good performance of Der Hölle Rache (Diana Damrau totally owns this). I can sing but never had any real training, and I guess I just want to get better at it.

So back when I first got this idea to study voice, I contacted a teacher I know in town, and tentatively set something up with her. Then I promptly got a rotten cold and lost my voice completely, and once I got better the teacher in question didn't get back to me (I don't think she was trying to avoid me; I think she was just really busy), so I put the whole thing on a back burner for a while.

Last summer, I decided to have another go. I had a trial lesson with another teacher (my friend Jane, whose students I've accompanied on many occasions), and the one lesson was fantastic! But then the house remodeling started and I got busy with work in the fall. Not only did I feel quite self-conscious about practicing singing with burly contractor sorts going in and out of my house with their country music blaring on the portable radios, I was spending every spare minute either answering their questions about stuff like where did I want the light switches or practicing my own collaborative piano repertoire to a noisy background of air compressors and nail guns.

Now, finally, my semester is over, the inside of the house is done (another time we'll discuss the landscaping that hasn't yet happened) and I've started voice lessons with Jane for real. It's so much fun, and in just those two lessons, I learned SO MUCH. Jane is a wonderful teacher. She is a warm and kind person who can put anyone at ease, which is really quite important when you're about to do something vulnerable like sing. At the same time, she is extremely knowledgeable and has decades of teaching experience under her belt, so she doesn't miss a thing. She can tell in an instant just where I'm holding tension and has a dozen suggestions for how to fix it.

Singing is hard, and doing it right does not come naturally. I have certain advantages over many beginning singers in that I already read music fluently and have a basic knowledge of the major languages of vocal literature (German, French, Italian). I also have a pretty good handle on breathing and a fair start on breath control. Beyond that, though, I'm a total novice. Here are a few basic principles of singing I have to work on over the next month before my next lesson:

1. Open your mouth. I know this sounds obvious, but it's very strange to open your mouth enough for the sound to come out. We don't open our mouths that much when we talk, so it feels like a huge exaggeration to open it wide enough to sing. Wow, does it make a difference, though.

2. Stand up straight. I tend to shift my weight from side to side. It's better to be centered.

3. Relax. This applies to pretty much everything but the diaphragm, which controls the breath. It's nearly freaking impossible, still, for me to relax all the parts that need to relax. I have body parts I didn't even realize could even be tense until Jane pointed them out. I tend to point my shoulders forward, jut my chin out, tighten my jaw (this is common among singers; I hear voice teachers tell their students to drop the jaw all the time), pull my tongue back and try to control everything with my neck. This leads to breaks and squeaks and other embarrassing noises.

4. Warming up is fun. I think I'm enjoying the purely technical exercises more than anything at this early stage. I did not expect this. I expected that I'd want to get right to the repertoire and sing some lovely Schubert already. Instead, experimenting with scales and arpeggios on different vowels and nonsense syllables is the best way to find my voice, focus on all those physical challenges like posture and tension, and figure out how to make the sounds I want. I've ordered a couple of vocal method books (this one and this one) to change it up a bit.

5. If you do all that stuff right, you can even sing through phlegm.  The pollen count is really high. I don't need to elaborate further, do I?

6. Stop while it still feels good. There's no reason to sing yourself hoarse. Better to stop early and stay healthy.

Who knows where all this is going? I have no particular desire to sing in public. Heck, I don't have an end goal with voice lessons at this point, and that's okay. I have enough goals and deadlines in the rest of my life that it feels good to do something purely for the joy of doing it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Michael: Is this about the money?
Gob: No.
Michael: What do you want?
Gob: I mean, it's not about money in the sense that I'm coming here saying, "Here, Michael. Take some money." It's just more of a "may I have some" kind of visit.

So, money. This has always been an uncomfortable topic for me, but I have to talk about it a lot. Most of my income is from freelance work. This means I set my own rates and I constantly tell people how much money they are supposed to give me at the end of the month, or after an audition, or when I'm done editing a paper, or whatever it is that I have done and in turn need to be paid for.

It has taken me years to get to the point where I feel okay about charging what I'm worth. (Actually, I'm probably still lowballing it, but I'm getting there.) There are many reasons for this: I'm a woman freelancing part time in a field that is chronically underpaid and undervalued, where every move you make is scrutinized and your reputation hangs by a thread at any time. There are also a lot of gender divides within the field of music, and areas in the "helper/nurturer" category such as teaching piano or working collaboratively, are predominantly women. Additionally, I'm a mom with lots of family responsibilities that take up a lot of my time, and my meagre earnings are not our primary income, not by a long shot. 

Furthermore, I am still living and working in the same city and community where I went to school, so even now, years after finishing, I'm still trying to shake that feeling of being a student and all the inferiority and self-consciousness that comes with that. 

There's a whole lot to unpack up there. Basically, I am still working on maintaining my professional integrity, and a lot of that has to do with how much I get paid to do stuff that I'm trained to do and am good at.

In recent months it's really been a struggle. I've had several situations in which people balk at the fee I quote, or even the request to be paid at all. I can't get into any specifics, obviously. But the really sad thing is that the most problems I've had are with people who really should know better, like other musicians and colleagues. 

I have learned that I have to stick to my principles, even when it makes me feel like a jerk. I charge a rate that I think reflects my professional training and expertise. I almost never do gigs for free. I don't have written agreements with most of the individuals I work with, but I'm thinking it's time to implement, if not an official contract, at least policies in writing so the expectations are clear on all sides. In return, I deliver. I come prepared, I show up on time, and I never, ever commit to anything I'm not absolutely sure I can handle. 

It's still hard. I've had students pay me in installments because they have to wait for loans to come through. I've had parents post-date checks until after payday. I've had people skimp on rehearsal time to save money (and then panic during performance because we haven't rehearsed enough). I've had to turn away gigs because certain individuals or entities could or would not pay a fair rate. 

This whole professional self-worth thing is so complicated. After all that, the truth is that what I earn is a fraction of Stuart's salary, even though I feel like I work all the time.  Recently, someone pointed out that my work at home has value, that being available for our children before and after school (and during, sometimes), and cooking dinner every night, and generally keeping our lives organized and running smoothly is every bit as important as going to some office and bringing home a paycheck. I appreciate that sentiment in theory, and I know that having me as the primary caretaker saved us thousands upon thousands of dollars in daycare expenses. But not paying for daycare does not equal actual income that I'm earning. That does not make me economically equal to my spouse.

I love what I do, but it contributes exactly zero dollars to a pension or retirement fund.  We have a retirement investment account set up for me that gets a contribution every month from his salary, and you can imagine how I feel about that (not very comfortable). I will have to work until I die.

Friday, April 15, 2016


There was no school today (teachers had PD) and for the first time in I can't remember how long, I had no obligations aside from hanging out with my kids. No rehearsals, no lessons, no papers to edit. Sure, there is music to practice (always, always), but this week I've hit a point where I feel more or less caught up with the music I've got. (This could mean one of two things: I need more work, or I've somehow developed such superb time management skills that the end of the semester isn't making me as nuts as everyone else. Alas, I think it's more the former.)

We had a very low key morning, then took Stuart out for a long lunch, and then, because today is the first warm, sunny day we've had since, oh, last September, we spent the afternoon at the park. Several friends from school showed up, along with what seemed like half the neighborhood. I swear in over a decade living in this neighborhood I've never seen so many people at the park at one time. I guess a day off and some sunshine brings us all out of hibernation.

The afternoon was not without drama. I think fourth grade is the new adolescence. As I watch my son's social relationships develop and evolve, I try to remember what it was like when I was 10 years old and trying to decipher the hierarchy among my peers. It wasn't easy, I can tell you that much, and I spent most of my years of late elementary school and early adolescence feeling left out and isolated. Daniel is certainly more socially adept than I ever was, but he is still sensitive and vulnerable and I wonder sometimes how he feels about fitting in.

But then, most people feel like they don't fit in, right? It's just that some are better at hiding it than others.

So there we are at the park, Anya is wandering around with her friend, Daniel has gone home already because he's hot and tired, and I'm chatting with the other moms, and a couple of police cars pull up. At first, my friend is worried and thinks maybe she parked illegally, but no, the cops don't seem concerned with her car at all. Plus, there are two of them - definitely overkill for a parking violation. A few minutes later, another car pulls up and a woman gets out with a little kid, and chats a while with the police officers. Those of us clustered at the "mom bench" wonder what's going on and try not to stare. There isn't any evidence of anything that would warrant a call to the police (no traffic accident, no shifty teenagers!), though we can't help but notice an older couple loitering in the picnic shelter; they are watching the police very carefully, and even have a phone out to take pictures, plus they have a wagon full of toys and snacks but no children with them. Eventually, another man approaches the woman with her kid and the cops. She hands over the kid, he starts to walk away, and then she charges at him and tries to grab the kid back. In a flash, the policemen pull her back, yell at her to stop and step back and seconds later she's in handcuffs. The kid is screaming as he is carried away by the man who by now we all presume is his father.

Of course by this time we have given up any pretense of not noticing. It's full-on gawking. There are over a dozen people on the playground, all staring up the hill and wondering what had just happened. Of the moms grouped by the bench, our best guess is a contentious hand-over of custody, thus the police  presence and public space.

We took a moment, all of us, and shook our heads and wondered what will happen to that mother, what will happen to that child, what must it be like to be a police officer in that situation.  What is it like to see families in distress on a daily basis? Sure, each family has its problems (what's the Anna Karenina quote? Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way...or something like that) but of all of us huddled awkwardly around the park bench this afternoon, witnesses to this scene of what must be a profoundly dysfunctional family situation, we're all ok. Our kids are all ok. Even when things at school are not ok, their homes are safe and loving and supportive. At the very least, the police are not involved in our family lives.

Sometimes it's hard living among humans.  Sometimes I want to go build a yurt in the boonies and live there with my family (and decent wifi) and just forget the rest of the world and the awful things people do to each other.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

flash and dazzle, life lessons

I haven't blogged much about parenting lately. I suppose that's because the kids are old enough that I have to be careful about what I splash all over the internet. Privacy and all that. It's one thing when your life is all diapers and lack of naptime, but quite another when you're helping to navigate tricky social situations.

But this evening something came up that I really want to write about. It was science night at the kids' school, an event where kids can do a project or research and present their work on a poster, plus there are visiting scientists with fun and yucky demos. UW Entymology students bring mounted bugs and live hissing cockroaches, someone from the Ag department has a lamb heart, cow kidneys and chicken feet to look at and handle (with gloves). Serious ick factor here. I mean, the slimier the better, really. Also, there is a real actual rocket scientist with real actual rocket boosters to look at and touch.(There was no actual rocket launching from the school gym, sadly.)

The student do I say this tactfully?...they vary widely in scope. Some are quite clever, some have tenuous connections to actual science, a few are obviously mostly done by parents, and there are always a few that are more like art projects than science. I appreciate the intent of the event, which is to encourage kids to ask questions and make observations and find information about things they are curious about. Get kids excited about learning and about science. Of course, everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Anya did not participate this year, and Daniel wasn't planning on it, but at the last minute his best buddy asked him to do a project together, so they spent an afternoon putting together molecular models and writing up blurbs about them for the poster. He had fun and probably learned something, though I suspect his write-up about propane was mostly copied and pasted from whatever he found on the internet. He spent a good part of the evening sitting by his poster waiting for his ribbon (never got around to him) and waiting people to stop by and ask questions. Very few did, and he was really quite disappointed by it.

I was surprised at his disappointment, actually. He really seemed to take it personally. As far as I could tell, most of the other kids there were mostly interested in eating all the treats (because of course every school event has to have not only prizes for everyone who bothers to show up, but a table full of sugar, too) and playing with cockroaches and gak. So on the walk home, I told him that he had done good work and learned something and got to spend time with his friend, all good things that he should feel good about. Try not to worry about people not stopping at your poster, I told him.

This didn't help. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is tell someone that they shouldn't feel bad about something. You feel what you feel, right? Telling someone their feelings are wrong just makes them feel worse. It's how you handle your feelings that matters.

So then I asked him, Which displays get the most attention? The ones that reflect the best work, or the ones with fancy equipment (microscopes, dry ice, anything with an iPad) or treats (The Science of Popcorn! Chocolate Chip cookie taste testing!) Sure, sometimes good work and flashy posters overlap. You can have solid research and engaging presentation. But not always. It's hard to see a lot of attention and praise go to someone else when you deserve it, too.

This happens in science, I told him.  Lots of brilliant people do years of research and get basically no recognition for it, while others know how to work the publicity and get all kinds of attention. Sometimes the most important work never really gets proper recognition It's unfair, but it's the way of the world.

It's not just science, either. I constantly feel like other people in my line of work get all the attention and that I deserve more and yet self-promotion makes me extremely uncomfortable (the reasons behind these feelings are complicated and personal, so I won't get into that...).  You see it in science, you see it in performing arts. Hell, look at the GOP primary, where a certain someone is the front runner because he's running a campaign based on flashy bigotry and outrageous tweets.

By the time we got home, Daniel seemed to be in better spirits, but there is still something about this whole situation that I find unsettling. First, I'm not sure the school science night is all that beneficial in its current model, but unless I'm willing to start running it (I'm not, my volunteer time and energy is devoted elsewhere) I'll leave that particular issue alone.  Second, and the more troubling part of this, is his disappointment that so few people visited his poster. Why did he take it so personally?  Is he really that self-centered? Is this a symptom of a larger problem, that we humans in the western world crave attention and external validation so badly that every minute spent out of the limelight causes anxiety? That our self-esteem is dictated by the number of likes every time we post a selfie? (Not that D is old enough for a phone or social media account, but that's not far off, I realize.)  That good work is secondary to self-promotion?

It's possible I'm over thinking this, but I do see the way our evening played out as a piece of a much bigger puzzle of how we navigate the modern world, even if it's only in a metaphorical sense. It's like you have to be self-centered, willing to flash and dazzle, in order to stand out in our very crowded culture. I don't like that. It makes me want to curl up in a hole and forget about everyone and everything, but I can't, of course. I have children to raise and meals to cook and job(s) to do.

What do y'all think?

Sunday, April 03, 2016


My goodness me, I'm having a klutzy week. In the span of seven days I banged up my knee and my car. We're patched up and surviving, but I still feel a tad foolish.

Last weekend, Anya and I were out for a run together (we do that from time to time) and she said, "Mom, what does graceful mean?" I laughed and told her that "graceful" is the last word anyone would use to describe me. I said it means that you move easily and smoothly and don't trip or run into things. Dancers are graceful. Stomping through puddles while running, as we were then, is not particularly graceful.

I am not graceful and illustrated this aspect of my physicality quite splendidly on Monday at the park. It was the kids' last day of spring break on Easter Monday, and we went to the park with a soccer ball. I tried to dribble the ball down the sidewalk on the way home, but as I trotted along I lost control, tripped over the ball, and went down on my hands and knees on the asphalt. My left hand is bruised and my right knee rather badly skinned. Almost a week later, my hand is healing fine but the knee still smarts every time I bend it or touch it with anything, even soft fabric of PJ pants. It's very tender. I ruined the leggings I was wearing at the time (though I may cut them off and repurpose into running shorts because I'm resourceful that way). 

Now, almost a week later, my poor car is the victim of my klutzy tendencies. I'll spare you the details, but let me just say that the lane at the ATM is narrow and unforgiving and now I need a new sideview mirror...

Since I snapped this picture I've patched up the mirror with some bright blue duct tape and a rubber band, but I think a more permanent repair job is in my near future. I hate parting with my hard-earned money this way, to fix my stupid, klutzy mistakes.

It could be worse. I can still walk. I can still drive my car. We're both just a bit worse for wear.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

I iz a dummie

You know all those "For Dummies" books? I need one or several. Something like "Freelance Accounting for Dummies" or "Excel for Dummies" (wait, there probably is one of those. Or a few. Yup.) or "How to Keep Track of Shit for Dummies" because right now I am failing miserably at that.

I have been earning money as a freelance musician since I started graduate school many years ago. At first I was a full-time music student getting a few gigs on the side, then I was a mom and student with very few gigs on the side (turns out you can't very easily practice while breastfeeding), then I finished up and had little kids so I still just had a few gigs on the side. In the last two years my work life has ramped up somewhat as the kids have gotten older and slightly more independent. I have a part time teaching job and I gig a little more. It still doesn't all add up to full time work, but it's certainly enough to have me turning into a ball of stress as the end of the semester nears, and managing my rehearsal schedule with the family schedule is kind of a nightmare.

I can feel the fingers wagging at me now. All those of you with teenagers who are about to say this is only going to get worse, spare me. I work with teenagers all the time. I'm aware, believe me.

My problem right now is bookkeeping. I suck at it. HARD. I am working with enough different people at this point and doing enough different jobs (I accompany pre-college students, work collaboratively with college/grad students and edit papers for ELL graduate students, all freelance) that I really need to develop some skills with a spreadsheet. But every time I open Excel (can't use Numbers because for some reason it won't let you save files...which seems to defeat the purpose entirely of using it at frustrating) I stare blankly at the little boxes and all the calculating options and I want to cry. I need a way to track hours per student (you might call them clients, but that feels weird to me) per month and generate separate invoices for all of them. Surely there is a way to do this. Surely I am not the first person to have this particular need. But I can't figure out a way to do this efficiently.

Tonight I sat down and opened an Excel file Stuart helped me set up to try and get started.  It's not perfect but it was theoretically going to have the information in one place. Welp, turns out the program didn't save anything the last time I closed it, so now that I have to tell everyone what they owe me for the month of March, it's going to be my best guess and they'll have to take my word for it. Since my schedule changes every week (depending on who was sick and had to cancel, how many extra studio classes I had to play for, how many rehearsals ran long, etc) this is going to be a nightmare.

I'm almost at the point where I think I should hire an accountant, if only for a consultation. Or maybe take a class. Or find a career counselor. I'm not stupid. (Right?) But I'm afraid to spend the money. I used to think that when it comes to business, I am automatically terrible at it because I'm not extroverted, nor am I a gifted marketer. I have been told this to my face, in fact, and always believed it. I believe the exact words were "Susan, if you try to run a business, you'll be a dead duck."

But now, I'm not so sure that's true. I'm not stupid. I just need to learn how to use a spreadsheet, or something. I think that I am smart and capable enough that I should be able to figure this out, but I'm feeling overwhelmed and don't know where to start.