Guest Bloggers J. Adam Shelton and Rachel Eve Holmes teach voice at Madison Music Foundry. Originally published at Madison Music Foundry.
Rachel and I decided to ask each other several questions that we hear frequently to give students a glimpse into our lives and experiences as professional singers. Rachel and I go way back…to 2008. We have been friends ever since we met at a summer program in Italy. How well did we hit it off? We rode on a bus through the hills of Italy for almost six hours with little lull in the conversation and without puking! (It’s a very hilly countryside.) We have worked together on several occasions since that summer, most recently with Opera for the Young, and look forward to performing together again!
1. Is there one piece of advice that you can offer any aspiring singer?
Rachel: I would tell aspiring singers that their voice is special, unique, and that no one can take that away from them. Not everyone will win a Grammy, Tony, or Metropolitan Opera contract, but every singer has a strength and sound that is unlike anyone else. When one keeps this in mind it gives you courage to sing loud and proud, regardless of age, experience, or skill level. There is room in this world for all of us to find a place to sing, so seek that place out, and jump in whole-heartedly! The world will be happy that you did!
This is no 9-to-5 job. The hours are strange and the activities from day to day are endlessly varied.
Adam: Find your unique perspective musically. Your teacher can, and should, help you figure it out, but ultimately you are the only person who can determine your unique perspective!
2. What’s your favorite music to sing?
Rachel: What a question! It’s nearly impossible to pick! I think it is a tie between three genres: opera, classic music theater and chamber music. I love opera because it is larger-than-life. It is storytelling at its most grand! I love classic musical theater because it is the same grand storytelling, but in the vernacular. Musical theater is a huge component in the history of American music. I love chamber music because I adore collaborating, be it as a member of a choir, or with another instrument or group of instruments to create an aesthetic and sound that transcends one “voice.” I love that this is the ultimate goal!
Adam: Opera is the genre that suits my voice well, but I love singing things that are comical. A good Sondheim number or something by Tom Lehrer are my favorite tunes to end a recital!
3. When you pick up a new piece of music, what’s your process for learning it?
Rachel: I have always stuck with the way my dear late first voice teacher, James McDonald, taught me. First, however, let’s assume that we are learning an art song or aria in a foreign language. Before you even look at the music, get to know the poem. Take a clean sheet of paper and write the text (German, Italian, French, etc.) out first. Above this text, perhaps in a different color, write the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols above each word, so you know how to correctly pronounce every syllable. Below the text, write the word-for-word (not poetic) translation.
Speak the text over and over until it feels absolutely second nature in your body. Study the translation until you know exactly what it means. Then, and only then, should you move on to notes and rhythms. After learning notes and dynamics, etc., consider why the composer may have made the choices he/she made. Were these decisions text driven or seemingly arbitrary, etc.? Consider how the vocal line interacts with the piano or orchestra, etc. This method hasn’t failed me yet. It has really helped me appreciate the sounds and meanings of other languages much more fully.
Adam: I like to read through the text out loud (especially if it’s in another language) to make sure I know every word and pronunciation. Next, translate those foreign texts—if you don’t know the words, you’ll never sing convincingly. Similarly, if the piece is in English, and I don’t know a word, I look up the definition. If the piece is British, find a British recording and listen for the differences in pronunciation and research those words. After all that, I hammer out the notes and rhythms on the piano and divide the opera, or recital, into manageable chunks. Set a goal (or goals) for memorization and practice. These are highly effective skills no matter your given field. It is far better to go at the task of learning new music with a plan rather than not having one!
4. In your opinion, what is the most exciting part of the singer/educator life? What is the most difficult part?
Rachel: The most exciting part is that no two days in a row are the same! This is no 9-5 job. The hours are strange and the activities from day-to-day are endlessly varied. It is very difficult to be bored in a profession such as this.
On the other hand, this fact can be the most difficult part simultaneously. With loads of travel, I often miss loved ones very much, and because of performing obligations I have missed friends and family member’s weddings, baby showers, etc. It is also often feast or famine financially. One definitely needs to save up money when gigs are plentiful, because there are also “dry” months that you have to get through!
Adam: The best part is getting to do something I love everyday! I have always loved to sing, and I’ve always loved good singing! This way of life allows me to meet new people, teach new and old concepts, hear new music, old favorites, and even share my musical heritage passed on from previous teachers. Sometimes the difficulty is balancing my life as a performer with the studio. We often expect a teacher to be chained to the piano bench cranking out exercises all day. With the current state of the music business across all genres that just isn’t so anymore. There are many pieces to the puzzle, and many ways to make a living as a musician. I don’t want to frustrate students with my absence, however I hope they are as excited for me when these opportunities arise as I am when they are arise for a student!
5. How do you define success as a singer?
Rachel: That is a very personal question that each singer has to decide for themselves. The director of the Ralph Opera Center (where I earned my MM in Vocal Performance), Dr. Todd Queen, put it to me this way once: “Decide what is ‘enough’ for you, and then make all of your choices according to it.” If performing in one or two projects per year is your ‘enough’, you will be making different choices than the singer who can’t stand being without work for even a month.
I am not a big believer in special “day of show” rituals.
For me it is all about balance. I like enough projects to keep me feeling excited and inspired, but not so many that I feel constantly exhausted, frazzled, and frantic. It is important to check in with yourself frequently to ask, “How am I doing, physically, emotionally, spiritually—not just vocally?”
Adam: This was a pivotal point in my career… defining success. Oftentimes, we think of a successful singer as someone that’s a household name, on the radio, magazine covers, and making millions. However, those successes are rare cases and even “overnight success” is calculated and created by a record label. You are the only person that can determine your success as a singer. True success as a singer, as defined by me, is actually singing. Whether it’s a solo at church, the National Anthem at a baseball game, a role in an opera/musical, singing chorally, or even teaching, genuine success is actively singing and performing. From there you can determine if your definition of success includes financial merits or not.
6. What is your general teaching philosophy?
Rachel: I believe that anyone can sing—they just need the right tools to do so. I believe that singing is just an extension of primal or intuitive noise-making. It really is no different than laughing, sighing, swooning, etc. From instinctual sound-making we re-find the connection to our bodies that we had naturally as children. Sing with deep, true, breath, an easy onset of tone, with full resonance, and with crisp consonants and pure vowels, and you can’t go wrong! It is that simple, in my eyes.
Adam: Relaxed, no stress, freedom while singing. Everything else is just gravy beyond that. It doesn’t matter what genre you sing, if you are tense while doing it, the audience will feel and feed on that tension too. Again I say: Relaxed, NO Stress, Freedom while singing. I typically will structure the lesson with exercises/warm-ups, sight singing, and repertoire while always harkening back to that sensation of freedom.
7. It’s the day of the show. How do you prepare before a performance?
Rachel: I think that preparation starts the day before—I make sure I hydrate a lot, get lots of rest, and try not to overuse my voice by practicing, talking, or teaching too much. I also try to avoid any stressful situations, such as going out to a loud restaurant with friends, which would cause me to speak louder than I should.
The day of a show, I try to treat like any other day. I get up at the time I usually do, work out, and eat like any other day. I am not a big believer in special “day of show” rituals. You don’t usually do these things on other days, so your body may actually react in ways you didn’t expect to new stimulus. Your body already knows your normal routine, so stick to that.
I warm up my voice thoroughly before any gig just like I do for any practice session. That should be a DAILY ritual, not just a performance day one!
Adam: I like to sleep a full night, eat a good breakfast with a cup of coffee, and then spend the day relaxing and studying my score before heading to the theater. Some people like lots of noise in the dressing room and feed off that energy, but I typically like a quiet place to return to between acts and then party loudly after the show!