Runnin’ da marathon…

There’s a recurring phrase I’ve heard or read during this COVID-19 pandemic: This is a marathon, not a sprint. In this time of self-isolation/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place – even as states hit hard in the first wave are starting to re-open, and there are protests in the streets against racial inequity and police brutality – we have been grieving. We are grieving lives lost unnecessarily, and we are also grieving the abrupt change in lifestyle. And the grief is exhausting.

It is a stressful time and an uncertain time, and many of us seem to be unable to do anything about the stress or the uncertainty. We are so conditioned to be doing something or going somewhere to do something. The stay-at-home guidelines have forced us all to function against that conditioning. Well, maybe we don’t need to function. Maybe what we really need to do is… be still.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Many of us are able to work from home which should free up some time that would normally be consumed by the commute to and from the office, school or shop where we would then put in the obligatory 8 or 7.5 hours of work. How does that translate to working from home? Does it even need to? What do we do with that “extra” time? Was that “extra” time really extra? I don’t have to get up as early as I used to, so I get about two more hours of sleep… I am happy to say.

There are dozens of blogs and articles with suggestions about working from home. But do we run the risk of over-working ourselves in order to compensate for not having to make the commute? Therapist Lori Gottlieb says we should “center ourselves before bedtime and think about one or two things we want to get done the following day. Just one or two things.”

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Many musicians have been posting videos of live at-home mini-gigs with links to their websites or donation apps. Many of us have found ways to do at-home performances on various social media platforms. Some churches and music festivals have worked within the social-distancing guidelines and pre-recorded/videotaped soloists, small ensembles or bands to add music to live streamed services and concerts later. But if you aren’t one of those singers who has the at-home gear and the high speed bandwidth to do “challenges,” or Zoom duets/ensembles, or Facebook Live or YouTube concerts, don’t feel bad. Give it time.

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Let ideas take shape in your mind and, if the ideas don’t seem to be flowing right now, take advice from a recent Instagram post by former NBC/MSNBC host Thomas Roberts, “Remind yourself why you started and see if that doesn’t settle your soul just a little.”

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Don’t stress yourself into doing more or working harder. In fact, here’s a thought… Stop for a moment. Do what you can do in an hour or two and then stop. Take a break. Take real breaks though. Not to check email or social media. Not to call or text someone. Especially not to watch the news or click/tap on the latest alert. Not to do anything in particular. Take time to just check-in with yourself for a moment. Take time to just… be.. and, you know… don’t forget to breathe.

Staying healthy check-in…

Just checking in with some links and ideas for self-care as we all try to handle conflicting reports, increased shut-downs, self-isolation, and social-distancing in order to avoid the Coronavirus.

The Network page continues to be updated with audition notices. It would be a good idea to try to contact casting companies and inquire about audition cancellations/postponements or video submission options to in-person auditions. The Performances page has been re-arranged so that TV/Cable listings appear just under CD Releases while bars/restaurants are limiting service to pickup/delivery, and we are all urged to stay home and practice social-distancing.

COVID-19 & Freelance Artists is an aggregated list of FREE resources, opportunities and financial relief options available to artists of all disciplines.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a podcast called “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”

Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project suggests these four critical things to care for self during these uncertain times:

  1. Sleep: To get eight hours of sleep now is enormously positive for your immune system and psychology;
  2. Intermittently rest during the day. Take time to renew;
  3. Move: Physically move, do exercise;
  4. Connect: Find ways, even in this social-isolation period, to stay connected to people you love and who love you.

Consider doing vocal lessons, rehearsals, collaborations remotely. Utilize videoconference platforms like Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc.

Trudie Styler (aka Mrs. Sting) has posted a great suggestion that, if/when concerts/shows are cancelled, that ticket buyers consider donating the ticket prices to the theater/concert venue instead of requesting refunds. She wrote, “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations. Thousands of theatre professionals’ jobs and health care are at stake.”

Keep singing!!! Continue taking remedies that you know work for YOU! Don’t forget to wash your hands & use hand sanitizer; don’t touch your face with unwashed/unsanitized hands; practice social-distancing (especially from elders if you are experiencing a cold/flu); use disinfectant sprays & wipes in your home/office. SING ON!!! and Don’t forget to breathe…


Staying Healthy… Vocally and Otherwise

Singers are always on a mission to stay healthy enough to sing well, especially during cold/flu seasons. This has become even more of a challenge with the current outbreak of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, that is spreading globally.

Through trial and error, singers find what rituals, practices, remedies and products work for their own vocal health. So, many of us could already be ahead of the game of prevention. Still, it’s worth it to be cautious, follow the guidance of local health officials, and avoid unnecessary risks.

Simple precautions to take:

  • Practice good hand and respiratory hygiene at home and at work;
  • Do not to touch your face after touching door handles or elevator buttons until you have washed your hands or used a hand sanitizer. Some office buildings and businesses have begun placing hand sanitizers in lobbies and at entrances;
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. A colleague suggested to wash your hands as if you have been peeling jalopeños and you need to remove your contact lenses;
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Get in the habit of coughing/sneezing into your sleeve as opposed to your hand. Also cover your yawn in public or around other people. I know that’s nursery school, but it was a good idea back then and an even better idea now.
  • Dispose of tissues properly after you cough or blow your nose;
  • Reduce close contact greetings such as handshakes or hugs;
  • Use disinfectant sprays and/or wipes that kill germs as oppose to those that just neutralize odors;
  • If you are feeling cold/flu symptoms, stay home from work. In fact, if you do not have to go out at all, stay home.
  • If you have food delivered to your home and/or office, remember to wash and/or sanitize your hands after handling the food packaging.
  • Start using your preferred remedies at the first sign of cold/flu symptoms.

From the CDC…

There is currently an outbreak of respiratory disease caused by a novel (new) coronavirus called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The virus was first detected in China and has now been detected across the globe, including in the United States. COVID-19 usually causes mild disease such as fever and cough but can cause severe symptoms such as pneumonia and difficulty breathing. The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person between people who are in close contact with one another (within 6ft) or through respiratory droplets produced when someone coughs or sneezes.

Are you breathing?

I saw a Judy Garland documentary some years ago in which one of her film industry friends recalled her talking about her pill addiction. She told him that she felt like the pills were making her “dumb” and she said, “Sometimes, I forget to breathe.”

WOW! I thought… How could one of the greatest voices ever forget to breathe?

The great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, once said, “To breathe is the most simple thing, and yet, the most difficult.” For most living beings, breathing is a given. It is an involuntary bodily function, to inhale and exhale.

But take an exercise or dance class, do yoga or a guided meditation, play a wind instrument… or SING, and your breathing becomes a voluntary thing. You are thinking about inhaling to fill your lungs with much-needed oxygen. You are thinking about exhaling to execute that move or play/sing that note.

For singers, breathing is a choice. We choose to breathe in order to produce tone; to adjust that tone in pitch, volume, or dynamic; or to sing through phrases. If we are singing with a cold or respiratory condition, we have to use the breathing techniques we have been taught (or cultivated on our own).

As we enter the second month of a new year, we must remember to breathe in order to sing well through this time that is already bringing stress and uncertainty. So, no matter what life throws your way in 2020… don’t forget to breathe.

…Where she’ll never grow old

I ordered the DVD of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace film the day it was released because, I guess, seeing it 15 times in the theaters just wasn’t sufficient. Yes, I saw it 15 times, what?

The 15th time was in Spokane WA where I had gone for my day job, and I consider it a gift from the Universe because, if my flight home had not been cancelled, I wouldn’t have had “free time” to check out what else was going on in Spokane. And I found out that the film was playing around the corner from my hotel!

If you missed seeing Amazing Grace in the theaters, now is your chance. It is not the typical documentary. There is no narration; no interviews or recollections by anyone who was either in attendance, in the band or choir, or among the crew members or producers – almost all of whom have passed away.

What you witness in Amazing Grace is Aretha Franklin, at the piano or “standing flat-footed” (as a singer friend of mine likes to say) simply doing what she does best. Her singing voice exclaims all that needs to be said. Despite whatever technical difficulties and legal wranglings that kept the film from being shown for all these decades, the Amazing Grace film is well worth the wait. Amazing Grace is church, it is a concert, it is a master class in live recording… it is all of that.

Although the film is titled Amazing Grace, I wish they had called it “Never Grow Old.” Don’t get me wrong, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” is the highest point (among several high points) in the concert. But “Never Grow Old” is the final song she sings, the song she first recorded at the age of 16. And here Aretha Franklin is, the Queen of Soul, captured on film at 29 years old, at the very top of her game as a singer, having recorded over 20 albums, won five Grammy Awards, and earned 11 consecutive Number One Pop and R&B hit singles, closing out her concert recording with “Never Grow Old.” In the Amazing Grace film, Aretha Franklin is captured forever, where that Spirit-filled, Blues-inspired, Soul-regaled voice – will, indeed, never grow old.

Vocal Heroes & Sophisticated Ladies

One of the gigs I had during this past holiday season was a reunion of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble. The current ensemble, now called The Sophisticated Ladies of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, were performing their holiday concert to benefit their upcoming concert tour to Austria. Their current director is fellow Ellington alumnus, Sylvia Twine, who combined their annual holiday concert with a tribute to the ensemble’s founder & director, Dorothy Dash, and invite ensemble alumni to come and sing with the current ensemble as part of the tribute.

The female ensemble was first organized in 1978 when the Concert Choir that year was “top heavy” – there were too many high voices to balance the tenors and basses. So, all of the underclassman girls were taken out of Concert Choir and sent down the hall of Ellington’s third floor music department to the voice studio of then-Chair of the Vocal Music Department, Dorothy Dash, where they were taught theory and sight-singing.

As Mrs. Dash started incorporating SSA choral pieces into the curriculum, she liked the sound she was getting from the girls, and so the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Female Ensemble was formed.

I came to Ellington in the Fall of the following year and was assigned to Dorothy Dash’s voice studio. Mrs. Dash had also auditioned me for the school the previous Spring, so I had the double blessing of studying voice with her privately as well as singing under her direction in the Female Ensemble.

At the holiday concert at Ellington this past December 9, the ensemble alums sang two pieces with The Sophisticated Ladies: the anthem Praise Ye the Lord by Mendolson, and a light gospel number, Light Shine by Theodore Thomas, Jr. Then, Mrs. Dash was introduced and brought onstage. She made really poignant remarks about the importance of music, and music education, in these turbulent times and then, each of us alumni walked to the center stage microphone, announced our name and Ellington graduation year, then presented a rose to Mrs. Dash. I was really glad that I was able to participate in this tribute to her.

What was even more enjoyable than the actual concert was reuniting with Ellington vocal alums for the rehearsals leading up to the concert, and then, another more relaxed reunion at Sylvia’s home after the holidays. During the rehearsals, especially the first one, I was struck by how well our voices instantly blended after 30-plus years of not singing together.

Most of us had not stopped singing during those 30-plus years. Some of us only sing now in choral settings at our respective churches. A few of us teach/coach vocal students privately or in DC-area schools. A few of us are professional soloists. The thing that was so cool about our most recent gathering was observing how those who were upperclassmen when I arrived at Ellington, whom I had looked up to (like Sylvia) and whose voices I revered, had the same reaction toward the earlier alums. Hearing one of my vocal heroes from Ellington class of ‘81 tell an alum from the very first graduating class about how her performance at Ellington precursor, Workshops for Careers in the Arts, inspired her to audition for the school, and then, to hear that alum suddenly break into the solo she had sung that day, was an awesome moment.

Sylvia Twine’s current ensemble, The Sophisticated Ladies, which consists of 30 young singers, are working very hard toward a concert tour in Austria from June 16-24, 2019. I am including a link to their donation page:

because, as Sylvia told us, “We want to leave no girl behind.”

Happy New Year!

And so… another year is gone and a new one begun. My wish for singers, vocalists, song stylists, etc. is for, first of all, good vocal health; that we find and do whatever works to keep la voce healthy and singing well.

If you are a voice instructor, I wish you engaged vocal students who are open to the wisdom and experience that you want to share with them. Remember, reaching only one student is still an accomplishment.

If you are a voice student, I wish you supportive teachers and coaches who inspire and encourage you to stay on your vocal journey even if your chosen path strays a bit from the curriculum.

If you are a professional singer, I wish you connections to the people who appreciate your vocal gifts and are positioned to open the right doors for your career. I wish you supportive accompanists and/or bands; instrumentalists who work with you, not in competition, but who challenge your ears enough to keep things fresh. I wish you a team of supportive people (even if it’s only one or two) who are knowledgeable about the promotional/business side of things and can advise you so that you don’t feel like you’re out here on your own. I also wish you opportunities to meet your vocal heroes while they’re still with us.

For all of us, I wish focus and endurance. There’s a lot going on around us (positive and not-so-positive) that can be distracting and/or discouraging. We all should be aware of what’s happening but find creative ways to process it. Sing on!

Classic Offense

These days seems like somebody is offended by something. I am not at all using this blog space to argue the validity of someone taking offense at something. But, when someone being offended by, say, a piece of music leads to the banning of said piece of music, especially when that piece of music is a classic hit record that pre-dates that person’s time on the planet, I do have some thoughts about that.

In the mid-80s, there was a group of parents using their connections to powerful people in Congress to sue hard rock bands, try to ban certain records from radio airplay, and force recording artists to put “parental advisory labels” on their records because these parents – unlike my parents – had a problem telling their kids things like, “Turn that crap down” or “Stop playing that record over and over and over again” or “No, you can’t have that” or “No, I won’t buy that for you” or “You can’t play that in my house.” The group fizzled out by the late 90s.

I stopped listening to Top 40 radio – i.e. having it on my radio in the house/car on a regular basis – in 1994 – that’s nineteen NINETY-FOUR, and I had a bunch of reasons, at the time, which I might revisit on this blog at some point. But that’s not to say that I don’t hear current radio hits in the Uber of the moment, or in a friend’s car/house, or in a store.

As time has moved on from the mid-90s, recording technologies have become more user-friendly, music programs have all but disappeared from public school curriculums, and stuff that would never have gotten “in the door” of a radio programmer’s office before has now become acceptable as music in the first place, I hear several things in many current radio hits that are offensive to mine ears before I ever get around to the lyrical content or general “message” of the hit record. So, you know… there’s that.

Again, not questioning the validity of a person taking offense to a piece of music, or the circumstances (however tragic) that might be brought to mind by said piece of music. But really, people. Your offense to it should not have any bearing on my ability to hear it, and vice versa. That’s why we now have headphones and earphones, and various devices upon which we can hear anything we want at a given moment and, thereby, not hear whatever else might be playing in an environment where we do not control the playlist.

And so, you know… since I’ve been my own programmer for the past 25 years, I’m playing the Ray Charles-Betty Carter recording of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” on a daily basis this holiday season because I love that record!!! Also, because it really is cold outside.

Long Live the Queen

It’s been about four months, and I still haven’t done the full-on-ugly-cry over Aretha Franklin’s passing. I don’t know if that’s because so many of my vocal heroes (as well as family and friends) have passed away in recent years that I’ve grown numb, in a way… or if, because the world keeps turning, and stuff still has to get done, I haven’t afforded myself the opportunity to sit and really focus on the fact that Aretha Franklin was actually mortal and is now, in fact, gone.

When Sarah Vaughan passed away in 1990, I remember driving up and down Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, crying like a two-year-old, only stopping long enough to blow my nose. This morning, I got the news that Nancy Wilson passed away late last night. As the current saying goes, I just can’t…

I was two years old when Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was released. I would turn three that December. I can’t recall the first time I heard “Respect” but I know I heard her version before I ever heard Redding’s original recording. In fact, while I can’t say when I first heard any of Aretha’s records, I can say that I can’t recall a time when I did not know her voice.

In the days and weeks following her Aug. 16 death, I read a lot of tributes from celebrities and Aretha fans and, if I had to take issue with anyone’s thoughts at all, it would be where people wrote about “doing housework” to her records. And okay, I get the concept of maybe being inspired by the grooves of her more danceable records to move around with the duster in hand. But hearing Aretha, even when I was very young, made me more inclined to sit down and listen to what she had laid down on the record. Not only to her own Spirit-filled vocal athleticism, but to the harmonies and rhythmic call and response of the backup vocals.

I don’t know if “kids today” get what a voice like Aretha Franklin’s means to people in my generation who grew up listening to her. I don’t know that they get the historical importance of her voice as we did when we were “kids today”. I’ve heard older people say that a voice like Aretha’s comes along once in a generation – like Mahalia Jackson’s, or Ella Fitzgerald’s, or Leontyne Price’s voices did before her.

Aretha also hit her stride as Black people were coming into a self-awareness and self-appreciation in the 60s, and the rise of Soul music as a genre. Her voice reflected that awareness which led her to be declared the Queen of Soul. During the week of her passing, I read (or heard) someone say that generations of ancestors sang through Aretha’s voice. I totally hear that in her records, especially on the Amazing Grace album.

In this time of so-called singers relying on Auto-Tune pitch-correction, studio production, and stage antics to compensate for their lack of actual vocal talent or ability, it’s difficult to know if any of the younger crowd appreciate the actual physical work, as well as talent, that goes into singing well, let alone singing extraordinarily well as Aretha did.

To me, the best singers have always been the ones that are able to vocally get a message over to you without you having to look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me. Aretha was one of those singers. I guess that’s why I never gave into the debates that would arise from time to time about her weight fluctuations or her choice of wardrobe for a TV appearance. The only thing that ever bothered me about Aretha was when her decades of smoking took their toll on her once bell-clear tones and wide range, and I was glad when she finally quit.

The good news is that her records are still with us. We can pull them out anytime we want or need to, play them, analyze and discuss what we hear with our grown-up and trained ears. Or, better yet, we can just listen to her sing her way on through… Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to do the ugly-cry, you know… yet. She may have been mortal, but her voice lives forever. Long live the Queen. #RunningOutOfHeroes


I heard someone use this phrase the other day which struck me in a big way: Living in the context of constant crisis. In our current climate of discord and conflict, I wonder where in the world people aren’t living in/with constant crisis. And yet, hearing someone say that phrase really took me aback, and I heard myself say, “Wow” out loud.

The Sunday evening before I heard that phrase, I watched the “final episode” of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown which focused on the lower east side of Manhattan where Bourdain had spent time among punk rock and early hip-hop artists before they broke big commercially. It was really cool to see Debbie Harry on TV, by the way. I remembered being quite the Blondie fan until I heard Pat Benatar’s bel canto-trained voice rocking my radio, but I digress… or maybe I don’t.

The final Parts Unknown episode was disturbing to me, much more so than the previous one which went behind the scenes of the show with Bourdain and his crew. The final episode was well-produced – as the whole series was (along with its predecessors No Reservations and The Layover) – and captured that punk rock attitudinal vibe that made Bourdain … well, Bourdain. Still, it was disturbing. The episode itself was disturbing as well as the fact that it was the series finale. I felt a great sense of unease while watching it and, when it was over, I was left with this anxious feeling like I needed to watch or listen to something else that would be reassuring.

Those who trained me as a singer/performer had the work ethic that artists should provide an escape from the chaos and confusion in the world; The show-must-go-on mentality. The “punk-rockers” seemed to feed off the chaos around them as well as the anti-establishment vibe of the late 70s. They seemed to let disorder influence their art as well as how they presented themselves as artists, and they had an audience that appreciated that, and Bourdain was in that audience; a part of that scene. So, I guess, the final Bourdain episode was supposed to be disturbing, as punk rock was disturbing to the status quo music culture, and as the circumstance of Bourdain’s death is disturbing.

Anyway, what might be disturbing to me may be motivating to someone else. As a singer, however, I would prefer the crisis factor to be at a minimum or, you know… non-existent. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we currently live in. If the singer is “living in the context of constant crisis,” the challenge becomes how to keep that constant crisis from affecting them vocally so that the singer sings well. Top and bottom line, the singer needs to sing well – as well as they are physically/vocally able to sing – in a given moment, regardless of whatever crisis is going on around them. But then, maybe that’s just me. Also… I miss Bourdain.