3 Things to Listen to During Your Next Acting Warm Up / Cool Down



Are you working on intensely emotional or difficult material right now? Then you know that the warm up and cool down periods are crucial parts of that work. I’m not talking about the  physical warm up-though that should also be a part of your artistic day, I mean the moments you take to focus, to get in the “zone”, the “flow”, the “artistic state”.

Similarly, I find it helpful to cool down from particularly hot pieces by taking a moment to come back to my own reality through gratitude and mindfulness; we really have to shed the anxiety, fear, and/or trauma we have hosted in our bodies for the sake of storytelling if we want healthy relationships offstage.

Personally, I take about 10-15 minutes (or more) on either side of my working period, put on my over-ear headphones and listen to one of the pieces below to get into and out of my “flow”. Here are three of my go-tos (and a BONUS):

1.) Inside the Actors Studio Suite, by Angelo Badalamenti

Everyone who enjoys watching James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio” knows the first few seconds of this suite, but the full ten minutes of music is an easy, peaceful, and relaxing pallet cleanser. You may even feel extra actor-y for listening.


2.) Out of Africa Suite, by John Barry

This is the first piece of music I ever obsessed over. I have strong aural memories of hearing this during family road trips and observing my father studying or writing with this soundtrack playing on my pink portable cassette player next to him on the floor. When I grew old enough to appreciate good acting I became doubly obsessed with Meryl Streep’s performance, so when I listen to the Out of Africa Suite today I am immediately inspired to do important work and remember the safe feelings  of my creative temperament.


3.) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, C Minor

This is the Advanced Category. If you have “all the feelings” you will not find a more empathetic composer than Sergey Rachmaninov. The profound suspense in this piece, played masterfully here by Lang Lang is an immersive warm-up and cathartic cool-down. My mother would sometimes play this piece on our home piano on Sunday mornings. I would lay in bed listening, terrified and hypnotised. It was brilliant.



Bonus: I rather frequently use guided meditation to calm my mind before or after my theater work, hyper-emotional or not. I have subscribed to the Meditation Oasis Podcast for many years, and I cannot recommend this podcast enough.


Do you have any rituals that are particularly helpful for getting into the creative state, or “the zone”? Share!

Give a listen to some of these today and let me know what you think!




Four Acting Lessons from Costa Rica


Pura Vita!

I recently returned from a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica! My dear friend and I decided at the beginning to make an effort to let go of the stress and grief in our lives, and to really truly relax. Easier said than done. Of course, we tend to remain students of Art wherever we go, and after all, if our end is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” no better place than Costa Rica! Here are some acting reminders for myself from this weekend. I hope they help you too!


1. Be where you are.


Be where you are.

It’s the first lesson of improv: “Yes, and…” It’s the first lesson in scene study: “know your given circumstances…” It’s a major mantra in the happiness movement: “Be where you are.”

I  have always been obsessed with butterflies, and this past Saturday I was mesmerized by these different stages of the metamorphosis and the application to the actor-singer.

  • On the left is the brilliant jade-colored pupa, who has hurried up to wait in her chrysalis and is currently undergoing transformation. Growth and differentiation…all these interesting choices occur within the chrysalis. It’s an obviously internal and private process. Pupation may last weeks, months or even years…she can even fall into dormancy until the right season.
  • The gorgeous malachite butterfly in the center, having emerged from her chrysalis, is sitting on the empty shell in order to expand and harden her wings. Every few seconds she will pump her wings, and any moment she is going to take off.
  • Notice the empty exuviae, or remains of the chrysalis-exoskeleton. It’s a reminder of what she had to go through, to grow through, and I hope we look to these souvenirs with gratitude. Of course, it’s not really an interesting choice to play a chrysalis. It’s an empty exercise to play “the end”, so it’s helpful/stronger to imagine your or your character’s development at an earlier stage.

Accepting your given circumstance always expands, not limits your options. You become interesting when you completely “buy in” to the immediate circumstance of this exact instance of your character’s life. You become exciting to be on stage with. Offstage you’re a joy to be around, and you are a valuable colleague. If while analyzing your career tract you are aware, mindful, and present to your current reality, you will be less susceptible to jealousy and depression. Mindfulness adds a sense of wonderment and even wanderlust to your journey.

Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment. -Deepak Chopra

Incidentally, don’t feel like you need to lay out and defend every “choice” you have made as an actor or a person. Oversharing is an easy trap to fall into for actors and musicians, so if this is a habit for you, consider this: when you really own your choices and tether them to a profoundly deep part of yourself you become a miraculous story and so much more than a flat stereotype.


2. Peace is dynamic. Passion is loud.


Peace is dynamic. Waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Garden, Costa Rica

“Rainforest Waterfall” is a setting on my white noise machine, which I turn on to relax, meditate, or otherwise “zone out”. In still-shot photography it looks so peaceful here, even serene, but in reality it is exhilarating, almost overwhelming to stand close to a waterfall. The roar is so loud that you have to rely on hand gestures to communicate to your companions. The violence of the falling water vibrates in your blood, and fills you with a rush of adrenaline.


It’s good to remember to give your characters loud passions.

My happiest, most peaceful internal moments have usually been when I am incredibly busy, scrambling from one thing I love to another. My heart is noisy and I feel like I am bursting with life, vibrating with passion. It’s easy to play a happy, serene, or peaceful character as if she were a wooden bowl in a still life, but then what you get is “static”…you get “white noise”. It’s good to remember: give your even your quietest characters loud passions.


3. Focus is patient.


Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

Among the truly amazing animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge is the jaguar, and I watched these two adolescent female jaguars being fed. Instead of dumping the meat in front of them, the keeper would place the food in difficult-to-reach spots in the enclosure, high, low, and make them wait a minute or so for the next bite. We got to watch the predator in training and it was fascinating. Between bites, or when her sister was enjoying her capture this jaguar would crouch and wait. Her eyes would never “go dead” and she maintained a relaxed aliveness even when the scene was not about her.

You see where I’m going with this. You have to keep your relationship with your onstage others (and your offstage desires) taut, alive. Conflict is where the drama lives, and the second you stop caring you stop being honest; your character’s integrity becomes dim and your audience stops caring as well. Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

4. Mystery is exciting.


Mystery is exciting. Laguna Botos at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the southern part of the Poas Volcano is Laguna Botos, a beautiful crater lake surrounded by impressive tropical cloud forest. It last erupted 7,500 years ago and is now considered dormant. For the most part it behaves like a sparkling blue lake but sometimes the water gets heated for several degrees by volcanic heat and turns grey.


Secrets under the surface. Laguna Caliente at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the north is an active crater with Laguna Caliente, one of the most acidic natural lakes in the world. The bottom of the lake contains a layer of liquid sulphur. The size of the lake is variable – sometimes 165 feet deep, but sometimes it disappears entirely. The temperature of the brine is 70°C but can rise up to over 200°F.

The diversity of colors of the lake is fascinating. It might be emerald green but some three hours later grey-whitish. Sometimes rafts of brilliant, yellow sulphur are seen floating in the lake. As if this is not spectacular enough, Laguna Caliente often experiences impressive geysers. This is caused by the magma reaching the water – extreme heat instantly transforms the water and acid into explosive steam and the lake blows up in a giant fountain.


I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.

When I was a kid, I loved the Red Skelton and Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty (1944). There is a scene where Red Skelton has to be part of a ballet class where there are all these girls in Swan Lake costumes, and he is also wearing a Swan Lake costume. The ballet teacher is telling him how to be a dignified woman, how to walk as a ballerina. She says to him, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.’” It’s hilarious and touching and made a huge impression on me. Candidly, I think of this scene before almost every audition or social situation where I am feeling very nervous or insecure…I actually write on sticky notes and put on my mirror or say to myself:“I have a secret, I am beautiful, I am beloved.” This is simple, silly, and powerful. So try it sometime.

Secrets that are alive under your skin give you color, it’s not just in your costumes and mannerisms. If your own mysteries or made-up secrets tint your reactions and motivations, you will bring a fresh unpredictability to your characters that is quite engaging and works as well for comic characters as dramatic leads. And if you have ever witnessed a secondary character or ensemble member completely steal the show, this is exactly what that actor has done. So build up an arsenal of secret inner thoughts, specific and private circumstances, so that the discoveries you make onstage are bursts of unexpected color and power.


Guarde la Calma

I hope you enjoyed some of my lessons from Costa Rica! Have you ever found acting lessons in your travels? Share!

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Three Pieces of Career Advice from the Morning Run


Three Pieces of Career Advice from the Morning Run

I love words, love word-play, and I love hip-hop/rap. I will write about this more fully at some point, but this is typically the only music I listen to while working out or pre-gaming for an audition or performance or The Day Job. Here are some great quotes for career inspiration  (aka, motivation to hustle until I can Quit The Day Job) just from this morning. Submitting without comment. Enjoy.

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.

– Jay-Z, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”


Why can’t you stay up practicing that?! If practice makes perfect, why do you just specialize in fun things, and not in the things that require effort, commitment, and sacrifice?!

-James David Manning, from “In the A” outro.


Do you B) hit the street hard with a flair

Or do you A) go to school for heating and air?

Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing

Or do a bit of both until you’re holding on a million?

Brilliant. You got one foot in, one foot out

You put your left foot back in and then you shake it all about

You do the hokey pokey til you turn your life around

That’s what it’s all about.

-Andre 3000, “Royal Flush”


Just a note here. (I said I wouldn’t comment, but you know I frequently change my mind.) Andre 3000 a.k.a Dre or 3 Stacks is one of the premier lyricists in the game. His storytelling prowess in particular is unique and unmatched…and dear actor/singer friends, I am OBSESSED with his natural squillo and legato flow which makes his voice fascinating, versatile, expressive, and beautiful to record. I am inspired by his technique alone.



5 Minutes of Vocal Track Yoga

What does a singer practice when she can’t practice singing at that moment? How about Yoga? There are many different style of Yoga out there, and I prefer the Hatha style: emphasis on the breath and meditation, and a focus on creating balance between strength and flexibility through maintaining asanas (postures).

The practice of bringing awareness to your body is important to your vocal practice as well. The purpose of the following five minute session is to bring your awareness to the structure of your instrument and to ground your technique in the strength of your breath and the calmness of your mind. I must credit the master teacher Jean Ronald LaFond for inspiring these applications of body/energy awareness.


Before beginning, set an intention for the next five minutes.

1.) Kindle the fire. Sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor with your chin slightly down and neck straight. Lightly close your eyes and create space between your teeth. Place your hands just below your belly button. Inhale and exhale with very long breaths, imagining that each inhale feeds a little fire in your belly, where your hands are resting. Remind yourself of your intention. Continue for 5 breaths, and continue to breathe into your hands for the duration of the practice.

2.)Skylight. As you inhale, imagine that the top of your scalp has a retractable roof and slowly open the roof to the sky above you, like a convertible car’s roof retracting. Imagine the exhale sweeping out or “brightening” the inner lining of your skull. Continue for 5 long breaths.

3.) Inhale a smile. As you inhale, gently and subtly lift the cheeks with the zygomatic muscles – those that wrap around the sides of the mouth and lift the corners of the mouth during smiling. Exhale and imagine a “brightening” on the front of your face. Continue for 5 long breaths.

4.) Release the jaw. As you inhale through your nose, release your jaw ever so slightly forward and down until you have reached the top of your inhalation and the most open jaw position possible without any tension or force. As you exhale let the jaw naturally close to start. Continue for 5 breaths.

5.) Shush and lean. Inhale deeply, feeding the little fire in your belly. Exhale on the sound shhhh and continue until you have used every molecule of air. Lean into the shhh…never let the shhh sound be flabby or unenergized, it should not sound like you are conserving air. Go as long as you possibly can on the shhh sound, working toward 20, 30 seconds or more. Continue for 5 breaths.

6.) Breathe easy. Release all control of the breath, the mind, and the body and be grateful for your instrument. Flex your fingers and toes and reach your arms above your head. Breathe easy.

You’re done! This is also a nice way to incorporate body awareness before a practice session, audition, performance, or in the midst of a long rehearsal day. Enjoy!

Confidence is a Choice I Can Make


I was raised to be insecure by default. I was taught that all men are evil, that I am only as precious as a man thinks I am, that I will be loved as long as I am dutiful and beautiful, and that I have nothing important to say or do outside “the home” or “the church”. Years of work on myself later, I still carry around with me a part that is quiet and reserved, ever-doubting, ever-searching for validation.


My insecurity blanket is the thing -the only thing- that can keep me from success in my relationships and my career. This insidious insecurity can and will destroy all the good things in my life. You could say that fear is my enemy. (Well yes, that is a Frozen reference.)

But confidence is a choice I can make.

A popular diet book advises taking daily cold baths as a way to rev up your metabolism. The instructions say that when you sit down in the chilly bath water sit down quickly, like a child playing musical chairs. I’ve tried this whole cold baths thing, and whether it works on your metabolism, it certainly works on your resolve. The first several moments in the tub feel like true torture, then suddenly your body kicks into this completely exhilarating feeling. You’re supposed to sit or lay in the cold water for about eight minutes, and in spite of the energy rush I am experiencing, I am often tempted to abandon my mission and scramble out of the water. But when I finish all eight minutes and bounce out of the bath I have a real sense of happiness and accomplishment, eager to take on my infant, toddler, and seemingly endless career to-do list.

I may not be confident by nature now, but I can certainly plunge head-long into confident thoughts and actions. Confident thoughts and actions can be very uncomfortable to me, like the miserable shock of bathing in cold water, and all I want to do is escape to the comfort of being just an object, a pawn. Being confident simply feels to me like stubbornly refusing to give in to my fears. The more you train yourself to choose confidence over fear, the more successful and credible you will be in your relationships, both on and off the stage.

It’s very easy to look for confidence outside ourselves: in a relationship status, in a teacher’s praise, or in social media approval. When we chase validation, we’re simply looking for confidence in all the wrong places. The outside search is based on false presumptions about the people around us, and those presumptions will ultimately build up a wall between us and our partners, teachers and audiences. Confidence is about deeply connecting to your true self, your story, your mission.

Here’s what I like to do when my insecurity blanket starts smothering me:

1.) Close my eyes and center my mind on breathing into my lower dantien, that energy center below the navel (about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel), which is also called “the golden stove”. Discover a sense of grounding and balance.


2.) Envision myself working through my situation completely strong and confident in whatever I do.


3.) Feel what it would feel like to be super strong and purposeful every day.


4.) Generate the confident feeling by remembering a time when I felt that way. If I can’t remember feeling confident to that degree, then I think of a character in an opera or the movies (or a certain R&B artist) that embodies that quality. Then I imagine playing that role, feeling how confidence feels at the same time.


5.) Envision myself hunting down my insecure thoughts and fears like they are disgusting parasites, bravely wrapping them up in soap bubbles, and watching them float away.

Confidence is a choice I can make. I can make that choice as many times a day as it takes to live my dream, to serve my purpose, to tell my story.


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Open heart, open throat, open mind

English: Rosa 'Peace' - hybrid tea rose; Peace...

English: Rosa ‘Peace’ – hybrid tea rose; Peace rose in full bloom, showing off the delicate shading from yellow to pink.

Many of the vocal issues I’ve dealt with are the result of a lack of flow in the instrument (body) and lack of congruence between body and mind. Shout out to Karen Hoyos for the inspiration here.

If I felt fear, it showed up in an incredibly tense vocal tract and an unfocused mind.

Here’s how I’ve dealt with it: I practiced opening up my heart as widely as possible, and then I sang what came out…without judgment the entire time.

If I felt mad, I sang out the anger. If I felt afraid, I sang that. If I felt sexy and beautiful I sang that, and if I was feeling silly…well, you get the picture. Tears and laughter are an inevitable part of this process too, so go with it.

I started giving my heart her voice back.

Now, seriously, don’t do this with your arias or art music, don’t even try this “therapy” with rep you may sing one day. Do this with scales and arpeggios and material that is out of your fach.

Every day you have to practice opening up your heart, I don’t think anyone can honestly say that they don’t. If you are a singer with flow and congruence issues (raise your hand if you’re not-I want to take you to dinner) you can benefit from a few minutes a day in an open heart meditation.

When I prepare to sing these days, I am reminding myself: “Open heart, open throat, open mind”.

More on the open mind journey next time…


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I’m feeling you, Sonic

collinsInstead of cereal boxes, I enjoy reading non-fiction with my morning coffee.  That’s only because carbs make me fat and books don’t. And well, because I’m a self-employed entrepreneur of the starving-artist sort, I am particularly fascinated by business innovations/management literature these days. This morning it was this book on the table: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins.  Just mentioning the title would be a great conversation starter among a group of emerging artists, and I have enjoyed applying the perspective of a CEO to myself this morning as I glance over at the pile of new audition rep recently suggested to me by my voice teacher.

In flipping through the chapter summaries, I notice this question:

“Are you a hedgehog or a fox?” fox

Isaiah Berlin, social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, wrote his now-famous essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” based on the ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Ok, I like this already. My teacher’s and my goal is to learn to dominate an extremely simple technique, and this could be a great way to reinforce that idea.

The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty–the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.

The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog in defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back into the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.


Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple—indeed almost simplistic—hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

In Good to Great, Collins defines a Hedgehog Concept as a “simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding” about the intersection of the following three circles. I have directly applied these circles to the understanding necessary for a young vocal artist to succeed:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at). This standard goes far beyond fach. Just because you posses the competence and acoustics of a certain fact doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it, or that all the skills of that fach will come easily to you. Conversely, what you can be the best at might not even be some technical aspect that opera professionals would immediately listen for in your repertoire.
  2. What you are marketable as. Today’s working world-class singers have somehow attained piercing insight into how to most effectively generate sustained interest in their package and profitability of their choices of roles. In particular, they have discovered the single denominator that has the greatest impact on their hire-ability.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about. The great singers focused on those roles and arias that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion, but to discover what makes you passionate. As a personal soap-box-side-note, tell me how you can discover what makes you passionate without exposing yourself to the great singers of past generations and being adventurous and brave in your vocal work.


Some things to think about:

  • The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal, strategy, or intention; it is passive; it is an understanding.
  • If you cannot be the best in the world at some aspect of your package, you should take a closer look at what is happening in the practice room, or if you really even want to compete in this career path.
  • The “best in the world” understanding is a much more severe standard than technical competence. Conversely, perhaps there are  aspects at which you could become the best in the world, but at which you have no current competence. How is your diction? your dynamic sensitivity? your acting? your endurance? your trill? your ability to collaborate in another language?
  • To get insight on your marketability, listen for feedback on the one aspect of your total package that has the single greatest impact.
  • Great singers have a skill set based on understanding. Good singers have a package based on competency and/or bravado.
  • Getting the circles of the Hedgehog Concept is an iterative process. Use your “team” (your teacher, coaches, studio mates, and significant others).
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Why Every Singer Should Tune Up with Alexander Technique

…and why I think you should schedule your session with Karina.

If you’ve ever had a voice lesson, you’ve probably heard about the Alexander Technique. The Alexander technique teaches the ability to improve physical postural habits, particularly those that have become ingrained or are conditioned responses. The technique improves performance, self observation and impulse control and relieves chronic stiffness, tension and stress.

The technique is named after Frederick Matthias Alexander, who in the 1890s developed its principles as a personal tool to alleviate breathing problems and hoarseness during public speaking. He credited the technique with allowing him to pursue his passion for Shakespearean acting. Most every vocal pedagogy class will study the technique in depth, but still, there is nothing like learning from an “AT” pro.

Several weeks ago I received a private Alexander Technique session with Karina Lombrozo. She said something surprising at the very beginning of the session: “don’t try to get anything specific out of this session, think of it as a relaxing treat.”

I was puzzled. I had come to learn about my body, about my frame, what I was doing wrong, how to fix it…all the standard singer obsessions. But I came to realize throughout the session that the mind informs the body all by itself, without my “willing” it to happen. And Karina was right. I left feeling more relaxed and connected to my body than I could ever have hoped.

The session included brief lessons on the human skeletal system, aided by her handsome miniature. The most enlightening visual for me was seeing that the arm hangs off the end of the clavicle, and the horizontal line which begins at the sternum and stretches out past the shoulder joint is a long and graceful one. This is a visual reminder to me that the spaciousness in my chest and between my ribs is achieved through a similar gracefulness and natural beauty, not by a grunting brute force.

Karina broke down the Alexander Technique into mini-lessons throughout the session–into what felt like guided meditations on the human form. This is where Karina’s true talent lies. She is remarkably intuitive. She is warm and…I don’t know a better way to say this…she feels very “safe.”

Singers, you already know that you should be studying some Alexander Technique. And if you aren’t already studying with someone, I highly recommend setting up some time with Karina. Her website is http://www.karinalombrozo.com

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The Universe Makes Room for Sara Henry

Sara Henry, Soprano

Last summer, my voice teacher mentioned that another big-voiced coloratura soprano in our studio was also working on a fuller connection to  her middle, and that we should sit in on each other’s lessons to hear how the other was dealing with it. He introduced me to Sara briefly as she came into the practice room to begin her lesson after mine, and after a series of Facebook exchanges I was finally able to find a time to sit in on her lesson at Shetler Studios.

I have a really strong memory of that afternoon:  She was -and is- slim and sensibly dressed in belted jeans, a tidy tucked-in t-shirt, and trainers–the look I’m accustomed to seeing her in still.  Her rep book was the size of an enormous alter Bible.

I was not prepared for the profound sounds that I heard coming from this wide-eyed girl next door.

If I closed my eyes, I would swear that I have been whhhhisked back in time to sit in on a young Callas working out Lucia’s mad scene. Here is the liquid voice of a young cabernet savignon: intense tannin, plum, cherry, blackberry, blueberry, warm spice, vanilla, tobacco and sometimes leather. As it easily swirls in fioritura, she only releases more of the bouquet.

Sara, what was the first aria you learned?

All by myself? Che faro senza Euridice from Orfeo ed Euridice (It was actually the theme song to a t.v. program I used to watch back when I was living in Brazil. I guess I found it compelling, or well, at least it stuck in my head.) The first aria I was ever actually assigned, however, was Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix from Samson et Dalila.

So you started off as a mezzo? I’m not surprised at all, actually. When did you make the switch to Coloratura Soprano and was it difficult?

Oh, that’s a long story. I have actually done more fach flip-flops than just about anyone I know. It seems like every teacher I’ve studied with has had a different idea of what I should be singing. I think the main issue is that I have always had a relatively easy top, a darkish color in the middle, and a really strong lower register which all adds up to…???

What I can say is that my voice always moved really easily, so singing Rossini mezzo/or Handel castrati type rep felt great and totally natural, whereas if you handed me something like Quando m‘en vo, I would literally feel like I was suffocating trying to get through it (ironically, probably because I was singing too lightly in the middle range.) So I always preferred mezzo rep. But as I got older, I started getting offered a lot of heavier roles (like Carmen and Azucena) and I just felt like I‘d hit a plateau with technique.

That’s when I started studying with Ron [our teacher, Jean-Ronald LaFond], who immediately diagnosed me as an unbalanced coloratura. That was 2008, and it has been a long road uphill from there, trying to re-balance everything. The hardest part of it for me has probably been the psychological aspect. I am not much of a girly girl, and so many soprano roles are either ingénues or damsel-in-distress types, that I have had a lot more difficulty identifying with the characters I sing, not to mention figuring out how to physically embody them on stage. (Give me a good pants role any day!) The other hard part about being a coloratura: having to sing sustained high E flats. I am still waiting for the day, in which I am actually confident about that instead of approaching them with a mixture of fear and dread.

Is your family musical?

Sort of. My father used to be a pro bass player. He plays about 10 different instruments, all by ear, and having had very little formal instruction. On the other side of the family, my grandfather was a very talented jazz pianist. And supposedly, his uncle was some kind of Wagnerian who used to sing at the Old Met back before WWII.

Which singers do you admire? Why?

Too many to list, so here are my top five, although I could go on and on…

Renata Tebaldi–for her sheer vocal beauty
Maria Callas–because regardless of whether she was singing well or poorly, you always believed every moment of her performance.
Shirley Verrett–for her great range and versatility.
Marilyn Horne–because she sang Handel and Rossini with more balls than any countertenor I can think of!
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson–for being such a wonderful storyteller and singing actress

Do you sing in the shower?

Hmm. I always shower at night, so in order to keep the peace, generally no. I do however sing a lot in the car, and in the kitchen.

You sing in the car? That’s awesome. Do you ever get funny looks from other drivers?
You know, I don’t really know. Probably, but when I am singing in the car, I put myself under the voluntary delusion that if I’m not looking at them, they’re probably not looking at me. It’s silly, but it gets me by.

What is a technical reminder you give yourself while warming up?

My mantra of the moment is not to squeeze, cover, or muscle through register changes. I spent so many years doing those kinds of tricks to get by that I find that I have to be hyper-vigilant in order to avoid them.

What do you practice – exercises, new arias, difficult arias, etc.?

It really depends. Some weeks I am on the go so much that I am lucky to find 10 minutes here and there to work. In that case I try and spot check difficult phrases and try to run anything else that I’m currently rehearsing for that feels mentally or physically shaky. (I also do a lot of mental practicing–while there’s no substitute for actually working the muscles, I find that if I try to mentally digest the concepts while I’m out of the practice room, it‘s much easier to integrate them physically later.) When I do have the luxury of sitting down for a couple of hours, I try to do some exercises, practice new arias, drill recits, maybe check in with an old aria or two. (I honestly don’t like to practice things that have old habits too much, because I tend to get tied up in knots.) I also try to sing something else that a) is none of the above, and b) that I really like, because after all the technical work, it’s important to remind myself that singing is fun too!

Last month our teacher, Jean-Ronald LaFond awarded you the Kashu-do Gold Bracelet  in a surprise ceremony during our last studio class. He later said in a FB post to our studio:

“I give the gold bracelet when I feel a singer has reached a level of balance in their approach to the art of singing and the business of singing. Faith (in one’s self and the purpose of one’s talent) Courage (to pursue one’s true path) and Patience (to see one’s hard work bear real fruit). Hard work is a given…These are the principles of my approach to the Way of the Singer. Working at anything with passion and purpose will change us for the better! Sara, I am honored to have been able to accompany you on your journey, wherever it takes you!”

Congratulations, first of all. The surprise ceremony in the studio class was truly inspiring. Can you describe a little bit of your “balance in [your] approach to the art of singing and the business of singing”?

I think I was more surprised by it than anyone else! And totally honored as well!

Now, my approach to balance–that’s a good question. Of course, there’s the technical sense of it– we always want to strive for balance in vocal technique–balanced head and chest tones, upper, middle and lower registers, balance of breath and phonation, strength and flow. Really, balance should be the natural end goal, because once you’ve achieved it, everything can work together in harmony and no one aspect is pulling everything else out of sync. Finding balance in one’s approach to the business of singing and life of an artist in general–that’s a more complicated thing, because if you look around at this business and do the numbers (especially as a soprano), it’s really difficult not to feel pessimistic about career prospects after a certain point.

I think what keeps me balanced and level-headed, is:

a) Making sure that I have an active life outside of singing. Spending time with friends and family, communing with nature, traveling, keeping up with other projects and other interests not only helps relieve career stress, but also makes me a richer artist for having all the more life experiences to draw upon!

b) Having a healthy sense of humor about things And

c) whenever I feel totally frustrated and like giving up I remind myself of these two things:

1) If I have faith, do the necessary work, and persevere despite all, the universe will make room for me in the singing world. I may never necessarily make it to the Met stage, but there will be plenty of opportunities for me to do my art. So why not put it out there, and see where things go?

2) What I do matters. Despite all reports to the contrary, it does enrich the world and make a difference in peoples’ lives. It is as much an honor and a privilege to be an artist as any other way of serving the world. (It’s true, too, but believe me, it took me a long time to get to the point where I actually believed it.)

Anyhow, that is pretty much my philosophy at this point. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it seems to keep me on the right path. 

You are amazing, Sara. I CANNOT wait to see what the universe has in store for you.

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My Cringeworthy Secret

Last night I had one of the best coachings I’ve had in a long time. There are some technical issues that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months while my teacher has been away in Berlin, and last night’s coach gave me some really useful strategies for approaching these bugs.

But the most meaningful moment was when he proposed that these physical quirks could just be manifestations of some mental hangups. I think he was right. I have a dark secret that I have worked zealously to keep under wraps.

I’m scared.

I’m intimidated of this career, I’m afraid I’m not good enough, I’m scared to sing, I’m scared not to sing…sometimes I feel stuck.

Maybe you have the same secret. Maybe you already know you need to let go and go for it. As my insightful coach put it, “Let go, and surrender.” These are some of the most unsettling words you can hear as a singer. And some of the most powerful.

It’s so interesting…as I’m sitting here listening to the recording of my coaching session, I hear that what I need to tweak with my breath and my sostenuto are actually about embracing uncertainty; I don’t need to make any huge change to my technique, I have to acknowledge that release can bring me peace or panic…serenity or turbulence…sweetness or sadness.

One element of bel canto is the “appoggia” or lean. That’s the muscular antagonism between the inspiratory and expiratory breathing muscles while singing. It’s also a reference to the role of the larynx in providing resistance to the upward pressure of the breath. So in its fullest sense, “appoggia” is the complex balancing act between two sets of muscles at the respiratory and laryngeal levels. The image of leaning on the voice is a great metaphor for breath support. I like to think of the breath as water and the body as earth, combining to make a divine blend of mud, silky and delicate like a mud mask, and sometimes a little thicker, like a mineral mud bath where you can immerse your entire body.

But water and earth also combine to form mud that is too thick, dried out, and solid as adobe brick…which is also an ideal metaphor for being stuck. That’s where I am.

When we overfill our emotional body with unused elements of artistry and technique, we become stuck. We become procrastinators, we become attached to things that no longer serve us. Ultimately, we can get pretty clingy. And needy. Hanging on to something that no longer serves us.

You know what would happen if you were to take one of those great breaths at the beginning of a beautifully composed phrase, then you clench down and hold it. At that point you’ve already absorbed all the oxygen you need from this breath, but you’re still holding on. Just try spinning out a beautiful phrase now.

This is what it’s like to hold on to something that no longer serves you. What do other things in your life feel like when you hold onto them past their value point? Is there a fach, a teacher, a relationship, a point of view that you are still holding onto that no longer serves you?

Is there a box that you’ve meant to open that is still taped shut?

This could be a real box from a move or another metaphor that speaks to some congested aspect of your singing life; something you want to open, but for some reason it has remained closed. Acknowledge that there is another world other than the world you are locked into.

The reason we have fear and trepidation about taking the plunge is that we think that taking the plunge is diving off a thousand-foot cliff into the water below. There are so many factors to concern ourselves with: the depth of the water…the splash from the crash…the timing of your breath…our form as we dive…will my parents be watching? Will there be any sharks in the water to nibble on me? How far from shore is it? Do I need a life vest to hold onto?

Taking that plunge is horrifying and humiliating.

Instead, imagine that taking the plunge is like so gently sliding into a warm, lavender-scented bathtub: bubbles and salts caressing your body. The water temperature is soothing…the aroma is nourishing…and calming. The depth of the water is just perfect, cradling your neck, supporting your back. This plunge feels pretty good. Expansive. Nurturing.  Awakening. Supportive. Generous. Loving. In line with what you want.

It doesn’t need to be challenging or painful, taking the plunge can be exhilarating! It’s finally getting yourself off the space you’ve been occupying: the chair, the couch, the bed, the practice room, the hedge fund day job, the young artist programs, the chewed consonant, the disconnected breath…wherever you’ve been stuck out of fear or overwhelm, at some point you have to break free from the past and the reinforcement that has kept you in check.

“I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on Fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed. My father taught me that, along with a few other things that have kept my life interesting.”
― Hunter S. ThompsonKingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century

Think of the unknown as a gift, so that you can grow in any direction. Think of uncertainty as the driver of possibility and potential.

I’ve been stuck long enough. I’m ready to step outside my comfort zone of “this is what my voice does and this is what my voice doesn’t do” to a place where new things, GREAT things, unexpected things, unplanned things can occur. I want to actually have the life I dream of. As my delightfully unmusical Mann says, I now need to add some “swagger” to my audition package.

I think singers in this city and in this economy have conditioned ourselves to think that we have a looooong way to go before we quit our day job.  Can it be that I am so embarrassed that I am not yet singing in A houses that I hang on to my vocal bugs as a way of saying “see, this is why I’m not at La Scala, because I’ll never be good enough!”? Is there such a thing as fear of success?

I think I’m entitled to the same when-I grow-up-I-want-to-be-a-singer dream I had as a high-schooler. I desperately want to connect with that un-constricted, unbounded self. That self is a conduit for real art to flow through. I know I need to give myself permission to feel powerful when I sing. I need to lean into the present moment and give up “then”.

I invite you to jump in with me.



P.S. Thank you sooo much, Dear Coach. I look forward to our next session!

Leap, and the net will appear. -John Burroughs

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