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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Karina Lombrozo: Balancing is a Relationship…and it’s Mobile

I’m not exactly sure when and where I met Karina for the first time, but -as so  often happens in our little New Yorkland- our paths have crossed through mutual friends several times over the past five or six years.  At one point we were studying with the same teacher, and I met him after he taught a lesson in her apartment. I did not get to hear her sing that day…but I DO remember that she had the most stunning modern white couch!

Karina is a Nationally Certified Alexander Technique Teacher, too.  I have LOVED interviewing Karina…she geeks out to singing the same way I do, and now I wish that I had made it a point to get to know her earlier.  She is gracious and passionate about singing and Alexander Technique…an old soul in this outrageously beautiful and vivacious being!

Karina, what was the first aria you learned?

Cavalleria Rusticana’s Voi Lo Sapete

I was only 13!  But my voice teacher at the time had a unique approach. Without ever intending for me to actually perform this role, the vocal range was right for me at the time. I had only been studying classical voice for 2 years – prior to that I as singing in chest voice and belting as though I were an alto!

I was really into EVITA and STREISAND’S version of SOMEWHERE from West Side Story….
It took several lessons and a form of restraint (which I now identify as Alexander Technique ‘Inhibition’) to sing without pushing and to allow crescendo/decrescendo to happen through the messa di voce.

My teacher didn’t allow me to listen to the aria on recording, because as a child I was a good mimic, and listening to any Santuzza would probably have ruined me…. so, I could only learn it or practice it with her or at the piano.

Suffice it to say it was the lightest, sweetest little version of Voi Lo Sapete ever uttered!

Is your family musical?
Yes, very.

My sister is a lyric soprano studied at Carnegie Mellon. My father and mother both sing and play guitar. They sang extensively to us as children and music was always part of the shared experience.

My mother is really a singer songwriter and has a repertory of love songs dedicated to my dad. when she finally recorded them in ’96 ,my father accompanied her on guitar and sang the harmonies! I know—-ridiculous right?! 

What was your first stage experience like?

Because I was performing at such an early age, I probably don’t recall the first.

I guess one of the first stage experiences I recall might have to be singing the theme song from the movie Flashdance – What a feelin! -with my sister using ‘The Singing Machine’ my dad had just gotten for us, dressed in Gold Lame’ bikinis after a pool-party for all our parents’ guests!

Another memorable stage experience: Sara Brown in Guys n Dolls my sophomore year in High School. It was quite an elaborate production and I loved playing her. I don’t think I quite understood her until I was older, but the music was fantastic and so fitting for my voice.

Since you started singing classically at such a young age, singing must feel very natural and organic for you, is that right? But you also know so much about technique and the physicality of the instrument. How do you strike a balance between the head-knowledge and the “heart” of singing?

I actually went through transitions from having singing feel and be completely organic to being too technical. from age 2-11 it was like breathing for me….and then when I began voice lessons, the technical part became very evident to me, it’s like a diff part of my brain all of a sudden was called upon to do something that I had been doing for my whole life without that part of my brain! but at the same time that new part of my brain got very fascinated with it!
I think I managed to balance the natural and the technical throughout my adolescence and teen years, because singing was all about exploration and joy, and there were so many venues and outlets for it. Not to mention support, and acclaim!

But once I moved to NYC for college and became an adult the demands and skill level were higher in order to get roles or to be selected as soloist etc…, I think I definitely went through period of time where I was very much in my head.

I could still sing certain repertoire more organically ( latin music/jewish music) but most everything else became very technical for me. And although the phonation probably still resonated as organic to an audience, the performance itself did not!

I actually (as most of us do) went through some terrible vocal training throughout my college career…
so just when that need to strike a balance emerged, I really didn’t have the guidance, technique or support to find it.

Upon graduation, I literally had to pack up and move back to my childhood home in San Diego, return to my original voice teacher, and participate in my musical family’s frequent performing around town and at parties, in order to begin to find the soul of the voice and incorporate all the technique I was still vigilant about studying and acquiring.

At that time, I probably was having two voice lessons a week (studying classical), one Alexander Tech lesson a week, several coachings (mostly art songs), and performing with latin bands(popular music) three times a week.

With that sort of set up, the balance finds you.

With that sort of set up, the balance finds you.

Nowadays, after a few more transitions and definitely a lot of growth, I have lots of resources to pull from, in order to find that balance. but it definitely takes conscious effort.

One thing i find helpful is to really commit within the context of a voice lesson, after the technical warm up and work, to sing a piece with total abandon! To basically just go for it…. and not care whether or not the high notes will sound great- to really let the body test drive all the learning it just acquired both intellectually and kinesthetically during the first 45 minutes of the lesson.

If that abandon doesn’t yield the result you want it’s time to go back to the technique and really get a handle on it, before attempting that again. But I find most of the time, if I’ve been diligent beforehand- that the test run with total abandon is very freeing and very informative and that whatever technical elements one has been working on, seem to get implemented.

I also think that my extensive history with the Alexander Technique and now being a certified teacher- has strengthened the skill of ‘thinking in activity’ …it’s really a skill that allows you to be more present, totally aware and in command of oneself but without end-gaining, therefore you have the freedom to pause, the freedom to re-direct, the freedom to adjust in the middle of a note or phrase, but with presence…not with the intent to control what will sound or happen next.

That is a skill I’ve been working on for 16 years not only in relation to voice but in everything I do. So just like a muscle that you train and it becomes stronger, the skill or that thinking process has become stronger and livelier and quicker for me!

Do you sing in the shower?
Of course.

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

Neck Free, Head Forward and Up, Torso Lengthening and widening, knees away – The classical Alexander Technique directions.

I also will obsess on one particular thing from week to week like ‘free tongue’ and then the next week ‘open hipjoints’, or ‘chromatic scale’ but the constant is Alex Tech directions.

What do you practice – exercises, new arias, difficult arias, etc.?
Latino Boleros. (spanish ballads- like the equivalent of american songbook – but for latin america) No matter if I’m going to be singing karaoke or in a formal concert, I’ll always go back to Maria Grever Boleros, like Jurame, Alma Mia, Te quiero Dijiste, or Asi. I grew up listening to them & singing them.

I wish I was more prolific and learning new arias or pieces all the time, but it’s just not the case. I’m much more likely to revisit music.

I am very into ‘technique’ probably more so, than most performers. I have had my most ecstatic experiences in voice lessons or practicing at home, more so than on stage…..

I enjoy the technical and the conscious effort and skill it takes to improve upon something. I don’t like winging it. and frankly I’m not so good at winging it!

In teaching Alexander Technique what are the top bad habits for advanced singers that you’ve noticed in regards to alignment, and how do those bad habits affect our singing? 

Top Bad Habits I Notice in Singers

Head is pulled back and down….

Meaning that more of the weight of the skull is positioned behind the atlanto-occipital joint and so the spine is not supporting the skull but instead the skull is compressing the spine- mostly at the cervical spine- but it affects the whole system! The problem is that you cant just mechanically reposition the head to b fixed in a balanced spot…. in fact that’s an oxymoron – to be fixed and balanced.

Balancing is a relationship and it’s mobile.

Balancing is a relationship

and it’s mobile.

What does have to happen is the muscles of the neck have to stop over tensing and pulling on the head
SO it’s actually a release of certain musculature that then allows the head to pop back up to the proper relationship to the spine!

The way it affects our singing is in every way! As vertebrates our coordination and integration surrounds the alignment of the vertebra, so if it is compressed we cannot be at our best.

Alexander discovered that “the lengthening spine is the prerequisite to movement” you can see this in any cat or even elephant!

And by movement he meant even the most subtle kind, so breathing is a movement, blood circulating is movement, the delicate dance between two legs while standing is movement, as well as singing, or running —

So compression of the spine causes the involuntary(as well as voluntary) systems of the body to get out of whack. Resulting in inefficient breathing, vocal folds that don’t respond to the part of the brain that controls expression, all of our system begins to work inefficiently and then all the parts of us that we can voluntarily interfere with – we begin to desperately do in order to meet our ends… so our attempt to perform an activity such as phonation or standing or sitting ends up being performed by our interfering with what was once a balanced, coordinated system that had the intelligence and coordination to to that act! (think, raising the face and chest to hit a high note- that doesnt work! but we’ll try it or anything if our system can’t otherwise reach) (or think, reaching our butts to a chair- we do that because we think of the end- our butt will be on the chair in order to be seated- but the process with which one sits , is not reaching one’s behind to a chair, it happens through the bending of the legs, and the balance of the integrated torso over the legs and feet until one has bent low enough to have their behind meet the chair!)

In basic terms, when the spine is compressed, our body cannot function according to it’s design, so our functioning is impaired.

If one has proper use of self- that is- a lengthening spine, balancing poised head, and widening torso, the system can function according to design.

More Bad Habits I Notice in Singers

  • Narrowing of the Torso
  • Misunderstanding of the Shoulder Girdle
  • Jaw/Tongue Tension or Overuse

Karina, you are amazing. This is really great stuff…I’m totally inspired, and I know the readers are going to LOVE this. Many thanks and best wishes to you. I hope our paths cross again soon!

Check out Karina’s website! Learn more about Alexander Technique and find out how to study with her! karinalombrozo.com 

Joyce Lyons: Making Songs Her Own

Singer and Actress, Joyce Lyons (AEA., SAG) has performed all over the country (Aspen and Durango in Colorado, Santa Fe, NM, Lenox, MA and Washington, DC.) and of course in the Big Apple to name a few and to much acclaim. Once described as “What Cabaret is all About!” Her cabaret shows are legendary, but it was the honor of performing for Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court that still leaves her speechless. Her recently released CD, “Sooner or Later” is receiving radio airplay throughout the country and features some of New York’s finest musicians, including the stellar Lee Musiker (Musical Director and Arranger), who’s “day job” is musical director for Tony Bennett. Sooner or Later is available on  iTunes or CD Baby  or her website…joycelyons.net.

I met Joyce when she taught a masterclass on “Expressive Text Portrayal” for Underworld Productions last fall. She coached our American opera and musical theater pieces, and she helped us make an honest connection to our audience.  I have often thought of that class.  It’s not just when working on my musical theater  I want to infuse all of my vocal “conversations” with that same ease and honestly.  If you have a chance to see her perform, don’t miss it.

Joyce, what was the first aria you learned?

First aria or classical piece would be Vivaldi’s Domine per Gina [Crusco, voice teacher] pushing me out of my “jazz box!”

Do you attend shows that you aren’t singing in? What makes a good performance?

I always like to get out and see other performers. I can always learn something new. To me, a good or great performance is one that makes me laugh, cry, reflect or sigh! Or better yet, causes me to lose all sense of time and space.

What was your first stage experience like?

My first stage experience was 4th grade, sang “Side by Side” with my older sister. It was great, though she was wearing fishnet stockings held up with rubber bands and one of them broke…I’ll never forget it.

Do you sing in the shower?

…Yes, I sing in the shower, all the time!

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

The technical reminder I give myself when I am warming up…to take my time and breathe…just breathe!

I practice exercises and then attempt to always learn a new song.

And you teach voice, too?

I teach performance/lyric interpretation and I love it when working with students and they make a connection to the material. Truly making the song their own and creating a performance that soars!

Thanks Joyce!

Tynan Davis: From the Way-Back of the Station Wagon to Here

Such voice; she pours out her gorgeous lyric mezzo like honey.

Such style; her chic gamine taste is too playful and elegant for anyone else to pull off.

The face of a Rossetti model, the big heart of a sister, and the fierce musicality of a seasoned performer…

If Tynan actually had a mean bone in her body you would hate her.

I’m serious. You would feel hopelessly inadequate. Instead, you can’t help but be drawn to such loveliness. If you’ve known her for 5 seconds you want to be her best friend.

What is it about Texas girls?! 😉

Growing up, she sang with The Children’s Chorus of San Antonio, and today listeners describe Tynan as a dynamic and radiant performer.  She’s also impossibly down-to-earth and human in her performances. She recently made her Bel Canto at Caramoor debut as Cousin Hebe in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of Will Crutchfield.

Other operatic and concert credits include: Mahler 2nd Symphony and Beethoven 9th Symphony with the Festival Orchestra of Christ Church Oyster Bay, the title role in Carmen and Bach’s Cantata 82 with the Rapides Symphony Orchestra, and Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte and Ado Annie in Oklahoma! with the Natchez Festival of Music.  Tynan was also a finalist in the 2010 Liederkranz Competition and a semi-finalist in both the 2010 Palm Beach Opera and Joy in Singing competitions!


But wait, there’s more! In about a week she’s singing on a masterclass at Carnegie with Marilyn Horne!

Masterclass with Marilyn Horne | Monday, Jan 16, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Tynan, what was the first aria you learned?
The first aria I learned was Voi che sapete from Le Nozze di Figaro. I was a senior in high school and I prepared it for the annual spring Texoma NATS competition. I don’t remember the actual performance as much as I do the collaboration with my first coach, Rogelio Riojas-Nolasco. It was a one-off coaching and performance arranged by my high school voice teacher and I never saw him again, but he clued me in on the hormonal subtext that makes Cherubino such a sweet, pesky and lovable character.

So, is your family musical?

My mother is a beautiful musician. She is a choral conductor and accompanist and is by far the most inherently musical soul I know. I started my musical journey as a toddler under the piano, then graduated up to the bench as her principle page turner.

What was your first stage experience like?

Since singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” in the way-back of the station wagon probably doesn’t count, I’ll say my first significant solo stage performance was in the 5th Grade talent show at Harmony Hills Elementary in San Antonio, TX. I was (am) a huge Bette Midler fan and I sang Wind Beneath My Wings to a very weepy group of PTA moms. I still remember what I wore and what it felt like to walk to the center of the stage in that cafetorium.

Do you sing in the shower? 

With reckless abandon!

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

When warming up, I try to focus on efficiency and alignment. My posture and breathing give me the most trouble, so I spend most of my warmups keeping my posture in check and keeping my support as even and unforced as possible.

Then what do you practice – exercises, new arias, difficult arias…?

When I move on to actual practice, it tends to be an extension of the warmup; keeping support consistent while  threading changing vowel shapes and consonants onto that foundation. I practice things slowly and deliberately at first, then bring things up to speed (hopefully) without losing the legato line. At the end of my practice, I usually try to sing through something without thinking of anything but how fun it feels to open up and sing. It gets me out of my critical brain and reminds me of why I do this in the first place: Because it feels good to make music!

Thanks, Tynan! I love ya, girl!

Listen to this girl sing on her website: Tynan Davis, Mezzo Soprano then go watch her and “Jackie” Exploring the Art of Song: Masterclass with Marilyn Horne | Monday, Jan 16, 2012 | 7:30 PM (CarnegieHall.org lists this event as “limited availability”, so call 212-247-7800 and see if you can get in.)

New Feature Starts Tomorrow: DIVA OF THE DAY

Hey guys,

Starting tomorrow I’ll be featuring a Diva of the Day…no offense boys, but you’ve always got the Barihunks blog 😉

I already have several interviews in the works, and let me tell you, these ladies are drop-dead gorgeous, witty, and super-talented. Come back tomorrow as we kick off the feature with Tynan Davis…oooh la la!

xo,

Juliana

P.S.  More Singing for REAL and Acting for REAL articles are going up this weekend, too! Stay tuned!

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