Learning from my voice class (5)

Blogging has been delayed recently because of school visits. Since I don’t have any this week, let me start by summarizing a few things I learned in the last voice class.

Dr. Linnartz talked briefly about speaking voice health. Some of us tend to overuse our voice or not use it efficiently. “Vocal fry” (a “low, staccato vibration during speech, produced by a slow fluttering of the vocal cords) is rampant in our generation and quite often defines a “cool” person. But the production of this “cool” voice hurts vocal cords to an unnecessary extent. By contrast, some people do not carry enough energy with their voice and presents others with a weak, indecisive personality. We should always speak up into the resonator. For singers, this can also serve as a warm-up exercise before the actual performance.

When I was singing Over the Rainbow, I did the half circle exercise to help myself get the flow in my singing. Dr. Linnartz insightfully pointed out that I shouldn’t rely too much on the mechanical hand movements to keep the flow. Instead, I should internalize it and make it natural for this song and all my performance subsequently. Another useful advice from her (which was also brought out by several of my previous voice teachers) is that I should be more “active” — basically, I should open up the space in my mouth and produce a fuller voice.

For me, singing brings out the audacity part in me, in a good way. As a singer, I have to push myself hard, to observe and critique impartially, to challenge myself and refine yourself. “You’ve got a beautiful voice,” Dr. Linnartz said to me, “and I would love to work with you if you stay at Duke.” I was so happy to hear that.

Let me end this post with a beautiful song, Down by the Salley Gardens, by Peters Hollens. Econ-related posts to be written soon.


Learning from my voice class (4): Let it flow!

Let it flow. This is the message I got from our last voice class. Singers need to put themselves under a reasonable amount of (mental) pressure to do everything right: deep breathing, utilizing head voice, correct posture, etc. But too much pressure within the body often leads to tension in the throat and unnecessary interference from the muscles, causing the voice to sound squeaky.

Notes, as shown in sheet music, are merely dots. Our voice should be the line that connects these dots and brings the flowing melodies to life. It is useful to imagine yourself being a willow tree with its branches moving gently in the summer breeze. Another approach is wave your hand a half circle (from one side of your body to the other) for each phrase before taking another breath, and then alternate to the other hand.

If you want to feel the difference between “flow” and “non-flow”, sing the following line in “over the rainbow” in two ways. First try this:

When, all, the, world, is, a, hopeless, jumble, and, the, raindrops, tumble, all, around.

This is an extreme version of lack of “flow”. There is no coherence, no meaning conveyed through these scattered words. The voice is dry and indifferent.

Now try this one, with emphasis on the capital letters:

When-ALL-the-world-is-a-HOPELESS-jumble, and-the-raindrops-TUMBLE-all-around

Does it sound more coherent and vibrant? Now it’s like telling a story, not throwing a bunch of words to the audience. I experienced the difference in class under Dr. Linnartz’s instructions. Pretty amazing. I look forward to our next voice class after the spring break.

To celebrate the start of a one-week holiday (and another seven days of anxiously waiting for admissions results), I watched a concert by Celtic Woman at Durham Performing Arts Center. They are great in live, much better than I expected. Highly recommend!


Learning from my voice class (3)

Buzz is the word for the week. The past two classes Dr. Linnartz talked about singing in a high position and diction, i.e. the pronunciation of words in singing.

Singing is an exercise (yes I do sweat when I sing). Good singers turn on their full energy when they are performing. When we talk with others, we can get by vague pronunciation and low sounds by just guessing. Unfortunately, inadequate energy will make a singing performance a nightmare for the audience. The prevalence of microphones and amplifiers makes it unnecessary for singers to produce a loud volume, but this shouldn’t be a reason to compromise their sound quality. It is useful to imagine yourself in a big theater without any voice-amplifying device and try to make yourself heard. Enunciation is needed to make the words clearer and the performance fuller.

Singing “in a high position” entails buzzing the space above your nose and projecting your voice in your head. Try “Mmmm….”, first without pitch and then with pitch. You will feel some vibration above your nose, and that is what we call a “buzz”. As singers, we need to maintain that buzz no matter what consonants or vowels we are singing. More “buzzing” also enhances your presence in the room.

Every syllable in the lyrics matters, because any inadvertent mistake or imprecise pronunciation gets amplified in singing. For example, I tend to swallow the “n” and “d” sounds when I sing, and that gives the audience a sense of “unfinished-ness”. These end-of-word consonants needs to be clearly pronounced without falling off the pitch.

In the warm-up section, our voices were getting squeaky and ugly as we went higher. Dr. Linnartz said: “Sometimes it’s useful to just squeak the highest squeak. Nobody sounds beautiful in their highest pitch. But you need to exercise the facility. You need to go pass the beautiful to become beautiful.”

Go pass the beautiful to become beautiful. C’est la vie.

Learning from my voice class (2)

Our assignment for the last week includes memorizing the lyrics of two of the songs we need to perform. I chose Danny Boy and Over the Rainbow. Having performed listened to Danny Boy many times, I thought reciting the lyrics should be just a breeze.

I was wrong. It turned out that singing a song over and over again doesn’t necessarily improve one’s familiarity with the lyrics, not to mention a fuller understanding of what the song is about. Singing sometimes can mute the emotions within words by adding flowing melodies to them. Speaking them out allows us to savor the feelings conveyed by the lyrics and become more aware of what the author wants to achieve through the song. For example, if I were to speak out the lyrics of Danny Boy, the first sentences should go like this (emphasis on the capitalized words):

Oh Danny boy, the PIPES, the pipes are calling from GLEN to glen, and DOWN the mountain side. The summer’s GONE, and ALL the roses FALLING. It’s you, it’s YOU must go, and I must bide.

We should always make sure we understand EVERY word in the lyrics, including the context they are used. Here the pipes are calling as a sign of war, so Danny boy is leaving home to the army and he has an unpredictable future ahead of him. This explains why the father is worried (“If I am dead, as dead I well may be”).

Use high energy when we are saying the lyrics. Note that high energy level is not about pitch: it is more about an active way of talking. Get our voice up to our resonator, and let everyday talking be “beautified hollering”.

A few tips about pronunciation in singing.

1. Never say “r” before a consonant or at the end of a word, unless the next word in the sentence begins with a vowel sound. Such cases are plenty in Over the Rainbow.

2. Words ending with “n” and “d” should not be silenced. This is often overlooked, and I remember my choir conductor reminding us all the time.

3. Delay the second part of a composite vowel sound to the very end of a sentence. A good example is “Oh hush little baby, don’t you CRY” (from Summertime) where the “i” sound should be placed at the very end.

Learning from my voice class (1)

This semester I am taking a voice class with Dr. Elizabeth Linnartz at Duke’s music department. There are five singers, all girls.

A correct posture is the precondition for good singing. Singers should always keep a “high neck”, with “neck” referring to where the spine joins the skull. Keeping the “neck” high forces us to open our chest and straighten our back, which then allows us to breathe deeper and makes sure air flows freely from our belly all the way to our head. Singers also need to have an athletic stance, with feet apart, one in front of the other as if you are ready to fight. Make sure your front leg carries some weight and you are not too laid back.

Deep breathing is what differentiates singing from everyday talking. As Dr. Linnartz puts it: “Singing can be pitched talking or beautified hollering”. When we holler we breathe deep using our belly, allowing the air to go all the way up into our skull. We therefore produce a much fuller voice than when we simply “attach” pitch to talking in words. Deep breathing is the basis of professional singing and a lifelong practice that every singer needs to maintain.

For me the best thing about singing is that you can always improve given the right tools and enough practice. I was also glad to know that women can open up their hip bones better after having children and can touch upon lower notes as they grow older. Indeed, my 23-year-old voice is much fuller and richer than my 16-year-old voice! It is absolutely fulfilling to see myself expanding the range of quality of my singing. For this class I have chosen three songs to perform: Danny Boy, Santa Lucia, and Over the Rainbow. Let’s see how things go.

Book review: Flowers for Algernon

Length and complexity do not define a great book; a deep theme and a suitable presentation do.

Like all thought-provoking books, Flowers for Algernon delivers different messages for different people. For me it reveals an important philosophy of life: it is compassion and love, not solely intelligence, that brings us happiness.

Charlie used to be a slow reader, his career restricted by low IQ and self-esteem lowered by discrimination from his mother and sister. But he had friends at the Bakery whom he could chat with and trust. His kindness and his lack of intelligence made him likeable. He stayed in a small but safe and comfortable environment but was eager to become more intelligent, or just to become normal “like everyone else”. This burning desire to learn led Charlie to undergo a risky operation which helped him become smart — probably a lot smarter than he could ever imagine.

As Charlie became smarter, he realized how others hid their selfishness under jokes and kind words. What he didn’t realize, though, was that selfishness is human nature which is found in everyone including himself. Suddenly, the bakery was no longer a warm home for him: it became a brutal circus stage where his foolishness was exhibited and laughed at, though the irony was masked under seemingly inadvertent jokes.

As Charlie’s intelligence grows at an overwhelming speed, he realized that everyone has limitations. He was constantly learning new things and exploring the world at higher levels. It is cool but too lonely sometimes.

It is scary to witness how Charlie turned into the kind of person he once hated: selfish, arrogant, and ignoring people whom he should cherish the most. His relationship with Fay was purely selfish: it was for him to overcome his fear of women. Fay was devoted to their relationship, but Charlie only wanted to have physical pleasure. By contrast, Charlie’s relationship with Ms. Kinnan is perhaps closer to love. Sadly, Charlie did not cherish Ms Kinnan when he could take care of her, and when he realized Ms. Kinnan was his true love he could only be a student in her class but not her lover any more.

The book is unique in its language and presentation. Narrated by Charlie, it creates an amazing intimacy between the changes in Charlie and the reader. This intimacy makes me the reader feel like I am living in Charlie’s world.

I will surely read this book again some time later, and hopefully I will be able to draw deeper insights from it as my life becomes richer. Thanks Jeff for recommending.

New Year’s Resolutions 2014

2013 was a busy and challenging year for me. In terms of academics, I took my first PhD core courses and did well in them. The first course was game theory, which I took in the spring with four other courses (including an English course and a half-semester seminar) while planning for my Uganda project.

My summer in Uganda was memorable. Designing and carrying out a survey on my own is probably the biggest (academic) challenge I have experienced in my life. Reading through the household surveys others have done in developing countries is one thing; going to the field and conducting your own survey based on local conditions is another. Living in a village in Uganda, I learned much more about the reasons for underdevelopment than I ever thought about before. As the only survey enumerator, I experienced the difficulty of collecting a random sample and acquiring personal information through face-to-face interviews. This field experience also trained me to have a critical eye with respect to household survey data, which will be invaluable in my future research endeavors.

The following are my goals for 2014:

1. Get admitted to a PhD program that will help me become a successful labor and development economist. I have submitted all my applications and the results will be out around March. Compared with myself two years ago, I am a lot more prepared and confident.

2. Train my ability to do research. Frame a question clearly and look for methods to tackle it based on available resources.

3. Read more about economics, other social sciences, literature, and science. Attend seminars at the statistics department that are interesting to economists. My interests in statistics has been growing since I came to Duke, thanks to Prof. David Dunson‘s Bayesian statistics course.

4. Write at least two well-structured blog posts each week, and look for ways to improve academic writing. Clarity and conciseness are essential, but I want to make my papers interesting to read as well.

5. Keep singing, and keep running. A looser schedule should give me more time to go to the music rooms and pick up my singing skills. I hope to learn more about exercises with equipment and develop a personal toolkit for effective fitness training.

6. Manage my relationships well. This is at least as important as academics. A loving relationship is a long-term project, and I still have a lot to learn.

In the next semester, I will take only 2 or 2.5 courses while continue working for Prof. Daniel Xu on China-related projects (including some interesting surveys which I’m already getting excited for). I am looking for internship opportunities in mainland China and Hong Kong in the coming summer that will benefit my future academic career.

The future is still uncertain, but I feel fortunate to have my beloved ones always supportive for me no matter where they are. Most importantly, I shall always remember that