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If You’re Breathing, You’re Moving (Principle 1)

I am going to explain very simply something that confused me for years and years.

All singers hear the word “support” from the time we start singing. And it takes on all kinds of interpretations both helpful and unhelpful.

The most important thing to understand about this potentially misleading term is that it is dynamic,  it is moving.

I often tell my students, “If you’re breathing, you’re moving.” We never hold a note, we move a note, we flow it.

I want to break down how I understand dynamic support in the way that is the most straightforward and usable to me.

Inhale: After you exhale, gently lower your jaw, let your vocal folds open, and as your diaphragm descends and your rib cage expands, the thoracic cavity gets bigger, so air rushes in. Thanks physics.

Exhaling for singing: After a nice gentle (and silent) inhale, you want your ribs to remain nice and open. This is technically a function of keeping your external rib muscles engaged (the ones used for inhaling that pull your ribs up and out).

I like to think of the image of my rib cage continuing to float. While that’s going on, you want to use your abdominal muscles (mainly transverse and obliques) to slowly move the air out of your lungs.

Basically, you’re letting your ribs stay in the state of inhale-expansion while the abdominal muscles harness the upward movement of the diaphragm.

The simple way to trace this is to focus on the slow, continuous inward movement of the navel toward the spine while the ribs and solar plexus remain out.

One way to practice this coordination is to inhale, let the ribs and abdominal cavity easily expand (all around, front sides and back). Then on your exhale, keep the ribs expanded while you let your abdominals contract to move the air out. This is the coordination without the resistance from closed, vibrating vocal folds.

Then when we sing, we can tune back in to this coordination and then determine just how much dynamic support we need phrase by phrase.

What I have found to be true most of the time: we usually need gentler muscular energy from the abdominals than we initially think.

Cushions (i.e. Italian Bread)

I wonder what makes me want to eat Italian bread toast with a lot of butter for breakfast (or French toast or blueberry pancakes or poached eggs on grits with sausage) rather than (or even in addition to) a tasty smoothie I can make in the fancy Aunt Sherri-donated Vitamix that has about twenty five fruits and veg in it that makes me feel really rejuvenated and full of energy.

That’s kinder to my body. But why does butter and white flour feel kinder when it’s going in my mouth? I guess it’s the same question for the smoker or the drinker (two things I also feel the appeal of).

Makes you want a coffee and a smoke.When I visited Copenhagen last spring, I had a nearly- overwhelming urge to throw down some Kroner for a pack of cigs and walk around the streets in the cold, Scandi-grey air feeling moody and Danish (though the Danes do top world happiness lists year after year). I played it (the tobacco purchase) forward in my head to the moment when I took the first imaginary drag (probably coughed) and thought to myself, “oh, that’s it.”

Not the sameThen back in real life I decided to spend my cash on a gin and tonic at a bar recommended by a student of mine. I drank it alone, so while it was a good drink, that’s not what having a drink is about. I sent a pic to my wife.

But I do wonder what the food thing is about, my drug of choice. That’s a lie. I don’t wonder. I know. I remember talking to an analyst in my early twenties about how I worried a little about how much cereal I ate at night. (I still eat cereal at night.) I told him, “Well, it’s not like I’m eating cake.” Dr. Krasnow said, “It’s exactly like eating cake. The carbohydrates do the same thing for you.”

And ouchy he was right, is right. The food, the wine, the Netflix, the Amazon Prime, the British crime drama du semaine, the fill-in-the-blank, it makes a cushion for me.

I was going to say it cushions me from the world, but it’s also a cushion from my internal world: old hurts that I filed away, ambiguous feelings that are thus far un-nameable, (so where do you FILE those alphabetically, anyway?), general low-grade discomfort that I’d rather mute than allow it to voice itself.

I learned recently studying the Enneagram that I am a 9, the Peacemaker: seeking to quell any and all conflicts that arise or MAY arise externally or internally. While this is a wonderful trait when it comes to empathizing and understanding several points of view, it makes for a lot of work when it comes to managing so much potential unease.

So, back to Italian bread. It’s delicious. And there’s a big-ass loaf of it that you can buy at Aldi right next to some equally delicious brioche. But you know what else? I’m going to make that smoothie too. And I’m going to rehearse the Strauss songs I’m performing in February, and I’ll probably put Noah in the Ergo and go for a little hike. Greensboro has readily available woods. Thanks Greensboro.

Maybe it’s about adding things that are loving, good, and move us in the direction of what lights us up, and therefore gives something beautiful to those connected to us.

I’ll still keep my cushions, I just know I will.

But the plan is to fill up my life space with the life-giving things so that at least the cushions get squished a little flatter.

Simple Checks for Singing and a Great Resource

Yesterday I mentioned how I tell my students to build the house.

That’s what I call the overall principles I learned last March at Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.

1. Dynamic support

2. Jaw relaxed down and back, lips relaxed

3. Necessary Twang

4. Constriction under control

I’ll expand on these four things in the next days. I’ve found what I learned at CVI to be so helpful to my students and me. It’s a straightforward, Scandinavianly-tastic codified way of understanding how the voice works.

Check out the website if you want to jump down the rabbit hole. Or stay tuned, and I’ll briefly break down these principles in the next few days.

Sang purty, y’all.

 

Build the House

I practiced today for a concert of Strauss and Sondheim I’m doing in a little over a month.

I chose a lot of new music for myself. Today I panicked for about seven seconds wondering if I could not only learn the notes, text, translations, but make meaning of them, and sing them well.

I’m just going to believe that I will and show up every day to rehearse.

How many times do I lead my students through this process?

“Start with text. Be patient. If it’s another language, take time with the diction, the music of the language. Don’t rush to integrate all the elements yet. Piece them together. Then the house will be stronger.”

And there I hunker behind the music stand staring at Strauss in my snuggie with my brain yelling, “You don’t read as well as you should. I don’t know, that note is going to be tricky. Jonas Kauffman makes it sound easy–you’ve deceived yourself.”

Then I have to teach myself, remind myself to “build the house” as I say to my students.

I’ll be here tomorrow making the house stronger and more beautiful.

Rehearsal Snuggie

 

Pickin and Grinnin Yourself

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Noah Lying on His Blanket

Noah Lying on His Blanket

June 15, 2018

 

I listened to a song while you were lying
On a blanket in the floor this morning—
A song we sang at church that left me crying
Because it said (a punch without a warning)
That God would never let me down. And I
Was pretty sure He’d done exactly that—
Because although I knew that He would dry
The tears He bottled up for me and pat
My forehead like my mama did, I had
To stop believing He would fill my heart
In that place where I longed to be called “Dad”—
Like saints that Paul said only saw the start.
“But if not,”—I would quote the three young men—
While God was brooding like a mother hen.

 

And I Said Nooo Nooo No

There’s been a lot of talk of recovery and the need thereof in my immediate circle lately.

The word rehabilitation has been playing around my mind this morning, and I was thinking about the etymology. Latin re–again, habitare–to make fit. To make fit again presupposes that something was fit before.

I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to things that we treat with what we call rehab, that something was actually fit before–and all it needs is to be restored to its former glory. No, I believe we come to the place where we need rehab because we were fundamentally broken from the get go.

Melissa and I have been reading a book by Richard Rohr called Breathing Underwater. It’s an examination of how the Twelve Steps are congruent with the gospel.

Rohr posits that we are all addicts. It’s just that for most of us, our addiction isn’t to a substance that will kill us, so our dependencies play like background software undetected for most of our lives.

My personal list would be topped by the triumvirate of Approval, Being Liked, and Pleasing Others followed closely by nighttime cereal eating.

I trace back through my years and I watch how my own legion addictions (activities or practices that promise a controlled, pleasurable experience, however fleeting or empty) have shat on my life, relationships, and sanity like a kit of Port Authority pigeons.

I also look back and see where the gentle, masterful Hand of God (where I finally let Him) turned pigeon dookie into manure that grew a really beautiful garden.

It’s grace. Charis undeserved and freely given. God sent the perfect people into my life at the perfect times to tell me in all love and tenderness, “This is a cluster.”

My experience has not been that of tidying up a messy room. There had/continues to be a razing of the whole structure, a re-digging of the foundation, and setting the Cornerstone in place that I had rejected. If the building blocks of our bodies are cells, I have been changed on a building-block level.

This was not self-help, self-improvement, nor will power.

It was Step One: “(I) admitted (I was) powerless over (my addictions)—that (my life) had become unmanageable.” It was the prayer of the despised tax collector in the temple that Jesus taught about: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It was the end of my perceived self and resources. Accompanied by a ninja spiritual director, a cadre of truth-telling friends, and then the sweetest miracle wife, I walked and walk through re-pentance. Re-thinking. Metanoia

The gospel says that Jesus died and rose from the dead, and because He did, we do too. It’s that crazy.

I believe the whole thing. And I see the resurrection in my life, how God has raised dead things to glowing brilliance.

Trash into Treasure

I vividly remember a dream I had when I was on tour in 2002. Pretty sure we were in Oklahoma City.

I was at an artist’s studio, a ramshackle wooden shed painted white. It was outside on the greenest of green lawns, one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.

There were mosaics, mirrors, pinwheels spinning in the breeze, chimes ringing. The artist was there, but he was invisible. He said every creation in the studio had been fashioned from discarded things.

herb box

Raised herb garden made from discarded fence wood.

And in my life since then, I have seen so much trash turned to treasure. The list would create an unread-ably long post. I’ll have to piece them out for later. (What a stoopit-blessed thing to be able to say.)

Recently I got to work with this practically. I wanted to build a mini raised garden for our back patio.

After a fruitless trip to Lowe’s fretting over which lumber to buy (it was a sight to behold involving aisle-pacing, tape-measuring, and much scratch-paper draftery), I came across some discarded fence wood someone had put out for garbage collection in our neighborhood.

Eureka!

A few nails, loosely-measured hand-sawings, and cuss words later, we got ourselves a little herb garden.

I love looking at it and knowing what was headed for the landfill is now full of herbs and ‘maters.

Aaaand, life lesson link, go.

Happy summer, y’all.

 

 

Imagi-creation

I tell my students all the time that they have to understand singing through their messy, creative, childy, story-mind before they can understand it with their empirical, ordered, Erlenmeyer flask brain. It’s true in the act of creating that we are using an intelligence that has been devalued by the post-enlightenment culture we live in.

We are praised, win awards, and get good grades for memorizing things, synthesizing the information into theses and supporting paragraphs, and demonstrating our mastery of formulas and facts. That = wickett smaht.

But I’m beginning to trust this/these other type(s) of smart that are not so encouraged when we’re doing the school thing: the hunches, the automatic knowing of something–not sure how it arrived, but just knowing it’s authentic. The land of story and image and symbol.

The symbol of brain himself, Albert Einstein, said those famous words:

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Imagination. Image, from Latin imago. Then verb-ified to imaginari, “to form a mental picture to oneself.” Old French has it as imaginer, which is “to sculpt, carve, paint, or embellish,” actually bringing the image into the physical realm.

Genesis reads that we are made in the image of God. Tomes have been written on that one sentence, of course. But I believe the ability to image-ine is a connective aspect of that image-gifting that touches everything we are.

Even the pedestrian words we say in everyday conversation are born out of imagination; they create our environment. Think back to a moment when you saw an angry altercation between strangers on the street. For me in such situations, the atmosphere changed to stingy, metallic caustic-ness.

Our words are power packets delivered out of our imaging gift. Any object we see in the world lived there first: a building, chair, car, corkscrew–all imaginari before they could be imaginer.

Imagination is a technology. It is good. I originally thought neutral, but no, I believe it is good. But the good then gets twisted. The human imagination that is capable of creating the Sisters of Charity is also capable of creating Auschwitz.

A great power that can find its expression in goodness and beauty or in a twisted, terrible distortion.

One of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle:

“It is … through the world of the imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.”

I want to trust this gift more and let it flow through, to be a creator every day, and choose to use the imagination God gave me to charge the atmosphere around me with joy, creativity, inspiration, beauty, and redemption.

With God’s help, I will.

Sunday on the Farm, Uncle Joe Bill

My Great Uncle Joe Bill Jessup went to heaven two days ago.

Married 63 years to Aunt Ruth, father, Korea veteran, joy-filled, live-wire, caring man who loved God.

Ever since Melissa and I moved to North Carolina, I have been thinking, “Melissa has to meet Joe Bill.” And I never made the time.

It turned out to be timely that I wrote a poem about my fore-farmers on Tuesday because Joe Bill is a major part of that legacy.

I heard so many hilarious front-porch stories of him and my Papa, Basil Jessup, growing up on the farm together in Westfield, NC, along with their brother J.T. and sister Mary Ellen.

I could tell you a lot about him, but you just have to see him to know.

Here he is from a video my brother Joel captured during a visit we had with him nearly two years ago, telling us how every day for him was like Sunday on the farm.

There is a really nice obit in the Mt. Airy News here.

We love you, Joe Bill.

 

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