I started music school when I was 18 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester NY with hell-bent determination for success on the opera stage. My mind was set on making it to the Metropolitan Opera and you better believe that I was going to get there or die trying. I knew I could sing, and sing well. I was hungry to learn all that I could about singing, opera, stagecraft----you name it; anything that had to do with music, I was all in, and I mean ALL IN. I also had a chip on my shoulder about trying to ‘prove’ to everyone that I could be successful without having a ‘back-up plan’. The words ‘something to fall back on’ made me queasy. In my mind, there were no other options---and even if there were, I couldn’t see them because I was so hyper-focused on my goal!
I was also impatient. I wanted to do everything right away ---- sing all the big arias, play all the big roles and maybe even land a summer festival contract ----as a college freshman! I was a little frustrated that my voice teacher, Rita Shane, gave me relatively simplistic songs in English and Italian on the first day of lessons. Instead of ramping up the level of musical difficulty, Rita wanted to focus on developing consistent technique in simpler repertoire (a VERY smart choice on her part). After freshman year was over and I asked her what was her recommendation for how much practice time would be appropriate over the summer and she responded with a gleaming smile saying ‘Take a break! Don’t sing at all!’, I was confused and a little disappointed. [**It is important to give Ms. Shane proper credit for being a class-act. She was an internationally renowned singer whose professionalism and dedication to her students was admirable---she also gave out honey drop candies and her studio smelled like Chanel.] When I finally was cast in a very small role in an opera my junior year, I was determined to fill my calendar for the rest of my LIFE with singing engagements. Do I sound crazy yet?
During my undergraduate, some of my colleagues would talk about taking a yoga class here and there at the YMCA. I remember feeling slightly annoyed with my smiling classmates as they described how relaxed it made them feel after they had stretched and calmed their breath down. Although I was a member at the Y and regularly got my cardio and circuit training in, I never attended a yoga class there. Yoga seemed too slow for me---I wanted to feel like I was ‘working hard’ and stretching seemed like a waste of time (obviously I was taking life as a ‘serious’ music student pretty damn SERIOUSLY!). I decided to take the path of ignorance and did NOT investigate yoga, tai-chi, or anything else that would have most certainly calmed me down (although I did ramp up my intake of caffeine during that 4-year period!).
Grad school wasn’t much better. What I really needed to do was to CHILL OUT, but in a masters degree program that put on 7 operas in 2 years, there wasn’t much time for that (or I didn’t make the time for it)---so it was easy for me to keep spinning my wheels. The bright spot during that time was movement class; twice a week. Our teacher, Alcine Wiltz was a dancer who used Laban, Yoga and Pilates to heal himself from some injuries in his mid-thirties. Now a seasoned Professor Emeritus, his main focus was to help all of us opera singers cultivate a movement practice that stemmed from efficiency [ i.e. What are you doing that you can let go of? Are you muscling your way through this sequence or are you a limp, wet noodle? Can we
find the balance between effort and ease? Etc.]. I noticed that if I would sing immediately after his class, my voice FELT better and my mood was better. As I delved further and further into the anatomy and physiology involved with singing efficiently in my course-work, I discovered in the practice room that WOW, was I ever tense! I sensed that I had a LOT of work to do to unlock tension in my voice and in my body. This curiosity led to an independent study with Prof. Wiltz during the first year of my doctoral studies. While under his guidance, I attended some Feldenkreis and Alexander Technique classes and journaled about my movement practice (swimming, stretching, running, movement sequences) with noticeable improvement in my singing, posture and breathing. Although I was still very much determined to be a famous opera star, I became fascinated by what I learned in my movement practice and I began integrating new concepts with my private students.
Everything came to a head during the second year of my D.M.A. I felt like I was under pressure to do everything ‘perfectly’ because I was the recipient of a substantial teaching scholarship. In order to supplement my stipend, I took on outside teaching jobs and chorus positions. It felt like there was no time to stop and focus on solidifying the material I learned from my independent study or to continue to educate myself on body awareness. On top of it all, two of my immediate family members were suffering from life-threatening illnesses AND I went through a break-up. I felt strangled by my circumstances and I started noticing – almost overnight --- that suddenly my upper vocal range was no longer easy and free and---what’s this?!---I had a strange blip in my sound in the upper middle register that I had never experienced before. My stressed-out, workaholic mindset led me to habits of pushing and forcing that manifested themselves in my voice. I went to visit a lovely ENT in the DC area who diagnosed me with severe acid reflux and teeny tiny vocal nodules---GASP! For a classical singer this diagnosis can sound the alarm and I was no exception.
I seriously considered dropping out of my graduate program and forfeiting my full-fellowship. I simply felt like a fake singer---I couldn’t properly model the technique I was describing, so therefore (in my own mind) I was a fake. Even after the steroid shots, the 3-week vocal rest period, and the ‘thumbs up’ / you’re in the clear’ from my doctor, I still felt like I had a tension-filled stress knot that reeked of bad vocal habits nestled in my throat that simply had to be untied. Maybe I could be a writer and publish commentary on art songs---or perhaps teach piano lessons or go back to school for something else---some other career? The REAL problem here was that I equated my value as a person with my value as a singer. To be honest, the only thing that kept me in the game was teaching. TEACHING! Thank God for teaching. Thank God for all of the students who trusted me, who asked questions and showed up for my classes and private lessons! Their love for singing, their fresh faced honesty and sincere desire to learn inspired me to suck it up, go back into the practice room and figure it all out; if not for myself then at least for the sake of their development.
In addition to changing vocal teachers and re-structuring my vocal practice / habits, I knew I wanted a positive change in my life. My skepticism from years before had worn off and I figured ‘what the hell?’ so I signed up for a yoga class at a studio in DC where I had attended an Alexander Workshop. The class was at 7am, it was hard, my movements were clumsy and
awkward AND I got a parking ticket but WOW, did I feel AMAZING. The idea to study yoga and become a yoga teacher came to me on the first day of the first class I ever attended. Similar to my experience of having noticeably improved singing after my movement classes, I noticed that after yoga my voice felt better. Significantly better! I signed up for a membership right away at the yoga studio and have never looked back since.
Although there were days when I couldn’t get through an octave scale without my throat squeezing and grabbing, there WERE many small victories. I’ll never forget the day I sang ‘The Salley Gardens’ with an open throat---I wept tears of gratitude! I sang Disney songs and songs from Broadway shows that I sang as a teenager just to feel some joy in my singing. Thanks to regular yoga practice (i.e. learning how to feel my body and coordinate it with my breath) I learned to find (by feeling) exactly where and when I was pushing and squeezing my voice. Through increased physical awareness I was able to slowly let go of the physical patterns that inhibited my singing. Using the model of efficiency; balancing effort and ease, I rebuilt my voice from the ground up.
Another life-saver during this very difficult time was my work-study at the yoga studio. In exchange for a free monthly membership, I spent about 4 hours a week at the studio folding towels, washing cups, checking students in, straightening props and changing the toilet paper rolls. At Kali, I felt appreciated just for being me---I felt recognized as Madeline---the friendly face who checked people in. People didn’t know me as a singer or a teacher—they just knew me as Madeline, if they knew my name at all.
In my first year and a half of regular yoga practice I sampled various forms of yoga; including Vinyasa, Yin, Yoga Nidra, Rocket, Forrest and Bikram, as well as some seated meditation. In July 2014 I attended a Led-Primary Series (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) taught by Michael Joel Hall (founder, DC Ashtanga) and thereafter committed to regular Mysore-style instruction in this discipline, which has been my main practice since then. I admire the specific structure and cumulative style of the Ashtanga yoga system and I also appreciate the one-on-one learning style afforded by the Mysore tradition. In Ashtanga, postures are held for a counted number of breaths---as a life-long musician, I’m not at all surprised that I gravitated towards a yoga style that is based on counted movements!
These days, I continue to discover new ways to release my sound and stand on my head (not at the same time) and thankfully, I’m no longer obsessed with becoming the next big opera star. I had to give up the role of the impatient, fame-seeking opera-aspirant in order to take time to take a good long look at myself in the mirror and figure out how to really sing. This long process forced me to develop true patience, fortitude and gratitude. Bottom line: Today, I’m grateful just to be able to sing healthily and well! I’m eternally grateful to my students who inspired me to keep going during the dark days when I thought I wanted to quit. I truly love to sing just for the sake of singing; not fame, rhinestones and glory. I know now that learning about my voice and sharing what I learn with others IS THE THING that I love best. Singing is a gift, a joy and a privilege that I will never ever take for granted.