Category Archives: singing

Hello from Georgia

So here I am in my babe’s office hoping he’d drop by from his class so I can ask where the computer center is.

Waiting and listening to the goddess Tori, I decided to look inside the boxes of books I sent him from home.  Some of them were mine and I was pleased to see my Neil Gaiman collection safe and intact.  Among the random tomes, I found, to giddy pleasure, a book given to me by my Glee Club.  It was actually a bunch of letters and miscellaneous comic strips and drawings sturdily bound and covered in plastic.  It’s title: Pumpkin Patch.  The cover was done by the budding artist, Meggy, who drew a Tim Burtonesque jack-o-lantern watering little pumpkins in his patch.  I guess the long-legged Jack is supposed to be me and my girls, the pumpkins.   It was charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) done in black and white because for some reason they thought I was into goth.

Digression:  On one of my birthdays, my club officers asked the girls not to wear anything colorful (a.k.a. only black) because “Ms. Cabel won’t like it.  She’s into goth.”  The truth is, I didn’t NOT like goth but I wasn’t into it as much as they assumed.  I wore mostly black because 1) it was sort of a UP College of Music performers’ uniform.  2) black was easy to mix with … black.   And when you’re a full-time teacher, you don’t have time to mix and match pieces from your closet when dressing up.  But me in black in ICA, it became my thing.  It was a piece of the Ms. Cabel puzzle along with my toy cactus, Pablo, and my ability to swing from one mood to another.

Alright, enough of that.

It’s been a couple of years since I read Pumpkin Patch.  I read it only twice since I got it because, even in my own company, I get very embarrassed when people say nice things about me.  I just go all squirmy and shy, wishing to just explode — poof! — into a cloud so I could hover away.  I know how to react to nastiness but niceness, not always.

I miss my Glee Club.  Those two years of moderating were the most exhausting, most emotionally-draining, and most gratifying of my time as a teacher.  I get teary-eyed just thinking about it.

You see, I’m no longer a teacher.

Here in Georgia, USA, I am not a teacher.  I am not a musician.  Not a writer.  Not an actress.  I’m not despairing, though, because I like where I am now.  I’m finally with my best friend and love and there’s no place I’d rather be.  But everything I was back in the Philippines is a memory for now.   I’m waiting to be who I was meant to be in this new and strange place.

I am in a cocoon and I’m waiting for wings.

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The Arki Files: The Fine Art of Losing

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Dear Choir,

Here’s the nitty-gritty of it: losing.  It sucks.

As kids, we were taught how to win, to keep our eyes on the prize we hope we will get in the end; but we were never taught how to deal with defeat or how to recover from loss.   This, the fine art of losing, is something that we teach ourselves as we go through life with defeat and loss.  It goes without saying, then, that our lives have been, are, and will be riddled with events that will drag us down the pits.  It’s an equalizer of sorts, defeat is, because no human being, no matter how powerful or rich, has never been rejected, let down, or beaten. 

Consider art and our approach to it.  If losing is an art then our proficiency for it can be honed and deepened as well.  We start out with tentative steps and build our confidence through practice. In the beginning, we depend on the people around us to keep us moving but eventually learn to operate on our own, without prodding or encouragement.  

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must endeavor to lose.  On the contrary, we must always strive for excellence.  However, the possibility of failing never occurs when we’re inert or complacent.  It is present only when we reach for the stars above or jump hoping our feet will land on safe ground.  The reaching and the jumping are the stuff that builds character, not the stars nor the ground themselves.   

The journey is more significant than the destination.

The Fine Art of Losing (and feel free to add to it):

  • Howl at the moon and let the world know your pain – then be still and make your peace. Wounds fester when kept under wraps.
  • Don’t blame. Not yourself; not others. But if you can’t help it, do it. Let it all out then shut up and know that there are things beyond your control and you are human.
  • Things can be sometimes unfair. Do something about it instead of yakking.
  • Loss and defeat are opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Remember: Losing means that you fought, and it’s always better to have fought than not at all.

And we fought the good fight, didn’t we? 

We lost.  We didn’t place.  We could have been last, for all I know.  I howled, you heard me, and blamed myself as I usually did, but then you kept me from sinking into the mire of regret.  You patted my back and told me, “OK lang yan, Ma’am”.  I saw you laugh and tell people, “Hi there, we lost” with all smiles.  You called after I texted and howled along with me then texted hours later that you still couldn’t believe it.  You squeezed my arm and sat beside me while I pondered.  You told me you looked forward to singing in Haraya, already looking towards our future together.      

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Thank you.

I kept saying “3 weeks” but was recently corrected by my mother.  She was right: we only had 2 to learn 3 songs and sing them brilliantly, and jump over the hurdles of getting used to one another.  We did all that despite our rocky schedules and other responsibilities.  We are cut from the same cloth, you and I: as architects-to-be you don’t only have books to pore over when you’re through with classes.  You have plates to finish and models to construct, just as I have music to write and pieces to practice.   Isn’t it amazing that we were able to bond and sing together without asking world to stop turning until we accomplished our task?

I am proud of you: each and every one of you.  I will always thank the universe for leading me to you.   Let us keep making music together.  Let us continue fighting the good fight.   

Love,

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PS

For a personal account of the UP Lantern Parade and more on losing the Carolfest (lol), click “Hi! We Lost!”: Losing the University Carolfest 2007.  

The Arki Files: UP Arkaira in Sonata Form

EXPOSITION

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December 14, 2007 (11:30 P.M.)

I knew I shouldn’t have hopped (yes, hopped) all night and drank that cold glass of coke because I can feel the clammy hands of the flu I thought I had shaken off this afternoon reaching for my neck as I type this.  Suddenly, after a night at the ball, I am again the pumpkin abandoned by magic.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve trained and conducted a choir.  Nor was it my first competition or performance in front of a large crowd.  But I know myself and my tendency, not to forget exactly, but to look back and feel that the things I’ve done were not that special.  It’s not that I don’t value the things I’ve done; I just tend not to rest on my laurels.  Sometimes, though, this compulsion to move forward results in me taking my accomplishments for granted.  I wouldn’t mind so much if they didn’t involve other people, but when they do, and the images and names of the people in my past circles blur along with the memory of my deeds, I feel like I’ve betrayed them in some way. 

Because I don’t want to forget this, the people and the three weeks we spent together, I will write about it. 

Because it is special, I will recount it so the memory of it will live on in the telling and reading.

DEVELOPMENT

UP Arkaira is the College of Architecture’s organization that “provides a venue for architecture students to put to use their musical talents and to simply enjoy music.”   I came to know of the group’s existence because, Val Con, a former student off mine at ICA, texted me three weeks ago asking if I can train and conduct their choir for the upcoming UP Carolfest 2007.  I didn’t really have plans of accepting choral work this year since I had so much to do, but I told myself, if I like them I’ll say ‘yes’.  I met Val the next day along with their 2 representatives: Richard, their former conductor, and Ekang, one of their sopranos and, I must say, a real charmer.  I liked them immediately, but there was the final test: I wanted to see what they thought I was worth. 

I’m not money-hungry, people will tell you, but I recently made a bold statement in my other blog about naming my price and sticking to it since I always seem to give in to requests of reducing my fee.  I told them my hourly rate and that I was willing to give them a package price, but that they had to decide what to pay me.  I even warned: “There’s an acceptable fee and one that borders on insulting.  Think about this carefully.”

To make a long story short, Ekang got back to me and quoted an acceptable fee, adding that this was everything their org had in the bank.  I was so touched that, instead of accepting the fee, I voluntarily reduced it by 20%. – doh!  This has made me the butt of jokes amongst my musician friends who laughed like hyenas after I admitted it.  A freelance-writer friend, after much computation, gave me the exact amount I was getting per hour and told me, in a disappointed tone, to stick to my guns next time.  Those hyenas (I say this with great affection) and that writer didn’t have to rub my spinelessness in.  I know that, because I am not earning enough now that I’m back in school full time, I will always question the soundness of my decision.  Sigh.  Never mind because, right then and there, a bulb lit: for the longest time, I’ve been longing to nurture a music group and this situation seemed serendipitous.  I made a deal with them: I told Ekang I’d reduce my fee if

  1. They make me an honorary member of Arkaira.
  2. I will be their official trainer and conductor.

She seemed happy, although I think it was more for the money that will remain in their account than for my volunteering.  Tee hee.  Up to this day, though, I still don’t know if she took my first condition seriously.

I’m not going to reveal my training method in this post (perhaps in a future post), which is a synthesis of 30 years of Music training (I started out young), 21 years of teaching non-singers to sing together and the amalgam of everything I’ve learned in theatre, dance, psychology, science, and even sports (running and boxing).  Let’s just say it’s pretty grueling.  It requires energy and focus.  It also touches on metaphysical concepts since I believe singing and musicking involve more than the body.  It requires me to constantly think on my feet and take risks.  Being a military man’s daughter, my approach is a lot like training soldiers for battle, I’m afraid, since, besides training them how to sing, my goal is to build up their courage for the performance. This hardly meant that we dove into the process in total seriousness.  We did get quite a few laughs in and, after a while, my students got used to my random shifts from drill sergeant to clown.  Despite the seeming unpredictability of my moods during rehearsals, they are, in fact, calculated moves, always done with a purpose in mind, and never capricious.

Arkaira was made up of 15 budding singers, meaning they were non-singers who loved to sing and had good voices.   It was hardly unexpected that majority of them were musically illiterate and so expecting them to sight-read was out of the question.  It left me the option of teaching them by rote, but this meant giving them a quite a bit of ear training in the 3 weeks we had. 

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I’ll say a bit about each of my singers.

SOPRANO

ekang.jpgEkang: A smart nut. A loony bundle of energy. I had to restrain her during the performance because she would sing faster than the pace I set.  She’s my BIO 1 classmate and I always tell her, “If you can grasp the workings of the electron transport system, you can get this melody!”

cachi.jpgCachi: She can be kooky.  She can be serious.  This girl was able to sing a high a-flat after spending a whole morning bent down, trying to find her head tone.  Talk about determination. She almost quit, though, saying she had to find another reason for staying since it didn’t make her happy.  I hope she stayed because it made her happy in the end.

nikka.jpgNikka: Poker-faced and almost bored-looking.  She suddenly came to life onstage with her 100-watt smile.  A real surprise.  Another surprise was her talkativeness and honesty during our jeepney ride from UP to Katipunan.  I knew, despite her shy demeanor, that she had the strength to endure my method because of the things she shared.

allie.jpgAllie: Her outfit one day reminded me of the cheese flavored snack so I started calling her Mr. Pringles.  Cute as a button, I found it hard to jolt her (a.k.a. shout at her) but had to because she had crazy eyes while singing (a.k.a. she would look around instead of focusing on me while I conducted).

ALTO

grace.jpgGrace: She lent me her havaianas when the heel of my shoe broke before the competition so I ended up wearing very expensive slippers on stage.  She had the sniffles 2 days before the competition.  I caught her bug and spent the day before it shivering in bed with the flu. 

faye.jpgFae: A real puzzle at first.  She appeared sullen sometimes but I really liked her spunk.  In the end, she opened up and I appreciated it since her sassiness was one of the things from which I drew strength.  She made it a point that I notice that she’s been recording and practicing her part which really cracked me up inside.

greta.jpgGreta: Sharp ears but tentative.  She wavered at the beginning of “Kumukutitap” and looked like she was about to faint.  But I saw the exact moment her eyes brightened and her face lit up, and I knew she allowed herself to be part of the music at last.

val.jpgVal Con: She sang tenor in 2 of 3 songs and learned their part enthusiastically.  I coined her “hermaphrodite”.  (Yes, I’m a meany.)  After the first rehearsal, she told me: “So this is what it feels like to be a Glee Club member.”  My rejoinder: “Just you wait.  That wasn’t even half of it.”

TENOR

james.jpgJames:  A natural tenor.  I had to keep reminding him to push down his shoulders to keep from tensing up.  He had a constant smile which always easily returned after a scolding.  

anjo.jpgAnjo: This one reminded me so much of my best friend.  They had the same hearty laugh. His stuffed-toy appearance also made it hard for me to push him, but he was always ready to laugh again afterwards which I took as a sign of forgiveness. 

He proudly stood in front of the large choir at the end of the competition, a mistake since he didn’t know the lyrics to UP Naming Mahal.

chirstian.jpgChristian: Quiet and serious-looking.  I had to woo this one to smile during our performance which he gave grudgingly, it seemed, in the end.  You never know what he’s thinking since his expression never changes.

BASS

ralph.jpgRalph: He was the unwitting comic-relief on the very first day of training.  His laughter always made me laugh and I enjoyed seeing him happy.  On the last few days, he couldn’t focus because of his upcoming thesis submission and I had to ask him, “Are you mentally present?”, to which he would honestly reply, “Not really.” 

I learned on the day of the competition that his thesis deadline was moved yet again.  Yipee!

edpat.jpgEdpat: He had a stare that never wavered.  He was mostly quiet but you can feel him thinking. He approached me with honesty and told me that he gets rattled whenever I look at him sternly, this after I gave them a scolding on stage on our first technical rehearsal.  I thought it was very brave. 

john-jay.jpgJohn Jay: He had the sharpest ears of all basses.  He confused me, though.  I had the impression that he was an extrovert but as time passed, he turned out to be quite the opposite.  He receives distinction for having 2 very obvious booboos during the performance.  There he was sincerely singing to the crowd after I had told the group time and again to stare only at me.  I had to madly gesture at him before I started the second song – a sort of non-verbal scolding. The other happened after the end of African Noel.  Unexpectedly, and in his excitement, I imagine, he raised his arm at the end and was the only one to do so. All of this caught on tape.      

george.jpgGeorge: The rocker-intellectual.  He’s the anti-rocker, actually, because you wouldn’t know he was one from his serious demeanor.  He over-thinks while singing and misses his pitches because of it.  This got me into a pretty pickle because I would always tell the choir: “You must be thinking singers! Think while you sing!”, then a few beats later would turn and spot him over-thinking and say, “Stop thinking! Just sing it!” Ay-ay-ay. How I hated the inconsistency.

HONORARY CHOIR MEMBERS

francis.jpgFrancis:  He designed the group’s African sablay-over-white attire.  My singers’ costume rocked the stage, and at one point, our turn-the-sablay maneuver made the audience cheer.  I was so thrilled that I blanked out on the pitches of African Noel and had to be corrected by Val Con.  Whee.

I have to mention Sir Ozaeta and Sir Mata who sat beside me during the competition. They cracked me up with their comments that went straight for the jugular.  They were pretty fair, though, and would be the first to admit when a choir was doing well.  Their tandem reminded me so much of the 2 hilarious critic muppets, Mr. Waldorf and Statler, who sat in the side balcony while heckling the Muppet Show.  sir-o-and-m.jpg

At one point, I heard Sir Mata softly singing the Latin version of “O, Come All Ye Faithful” while one of the competing choirs was singing the English version.  Not bad.

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RECAPITULATION:

December 15, 2007 (11:30 A.M.)

I’m near the end of my first account of my experience with UP Arkaira.  As with all recapitulations in the sonata form, we go back to the main themes presented earlier: that of my flu and my need to write about this before the lid on my memory of it drops.  I still have the flu, and, a day later, I’m still writing and remembering, remembering and writing.   But, of course, the recapitulation is not an exact repetition of the exposition.  My variation would be my thoughts of the future.  They have “Haraya”, a yearly college anniversary celebration, coming up this February and Sir Ozaeta told me that he’d like the choir to present a song.  I’m looking forward to this but I have to wait and see if my singers are up to it. Last night, as some of them and I munched on our burgers and fries (and all the food they had to give up for 3 weeks), I broached the subject of continuing what we started and even possibly have the group sing at my thesis presentation.  Val Con, Ekang, Cachi and Fae seemed quite excited and I hope that feeling stays on. 

A recapitulation signals the end of a sonata’s section. 

I hope that this end only speaks of this post and not of my involvement with UP Arkaira.   I’ve never encountered a non-music college that is so into music. They have a piano in their college secretary’s office, for pete’s sake — I think that says a lot.  Maybe I’ve found kindred spirits there: me with my fascination with architecture; and they, with their love for music.  

The results of the Carolfest will be announced on December 19, during UP’s annual Lantern Parade. (Yipee!) I hope we place because last night my singers were phenomenal.    

Congratulations, choir.

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The Thinking Singer: Your Thoracic Diaphragm

Thinking singers, before we move on to the next important step in singing, it is very pertinent that we tackle a certain body part essential in efficient breathing and beautiful singing: the diaphragm.


“Dia–whatta?”

There are several types of diaphragm:

  • The Thoracic diaphragm, a shelf of muscle extending between the thorax and abdomen
  • The Pelvic diaphragm, consists of the Levator ani and the Coccygeus (fancy names for pelvic muscles)
  • The Urogenital diaphragm, a layer of the pelvis separating a certain sac from the upper pelvis
  • The iris
  • The eardrum

In other words, any dome-shaped dividing structure may be called a diaphragm. Fortunately, thinking singers are concerned only with the thoracic diaphragm which separates the thoracic (with lungs and heart) and abdominal cavity (with the digestive and urogenital systems). Since it’s dome-shaped, its convex upper surface forms the floor of the thoracic viscera*, and its concave under surface the roof of the abdominal viscera.

*internal organs 🙂

“Are we there yet?”

Doubtless if you’ve had any voice training, you would have heard of the diaphragm. Usually, when asked, people would point to their stomachs when I ask them where the diaphragm is. There had been some instances where my female students would even refer to their pot belly. As you can see in the first illustration, the diaphragm is located under the lungs, extending across the bottom of the ribcage.

“Isn’t the diaphragm like the appendix — just another superfluous body part?”
Nope. Aside from its very important contribution in helping to expel vomit, feces, and urine from our body, it is also essential in efficient breathing: in order to draw air into the lungs, the diaphragm contracts, thus enlarging the thoracic cavity and reducing intra-thoracic pressure. In simpler terms, when we inhale and the diaphragm contracts, it allows more space for our lungs to expand.

This is the tricky part where singers often err. Inappropriate imagery or inadequte explanations cause bad breathing and singing habits. When I was younger, I used to think that when my teacher would say,”Contract your diaphragm”, it meant I have to intentionally tighten my abdominal muscles. Wrong. Since the diaphragm is located above the abdominal cavity, tightening the abdomen will not activate it. Just like a rubber band, the “contraction” of this dome-shaped fibrous muscle occurs when it expands. In fact, the outward manisfestation that diaphragm is working properly is the torso getting larger when one inhales.

Try watching a baby breathe while sleeping. Observe the rise and fall of the center of his torso. When he inhales, his center rises; when he exhales, it falls because of the recoil of the lungs and the tissues lining the thoracic cavity. That’s his diaphragm naturally at work. I was told by one of my voice teachers that, often, people lose this natural use of the diaphragm as we get older. Improper breathing techniques (“shoulders should rise when we inhale”, “push in your stomach”, etc.) and even infrequent cardio/aerobic activities are the main culprits.

Activating your diaphragm can also help your posture. Because of its location, this little muscle supports your lumbar vertebrae (back) as well as your costal cartilages (beneath your ribs). In fact, I’ve heard a ballet teacher refer to the diaphragm as ‘our body’s natural girdle’. She was 84 and had a better posture and stance than her students.

Things to Remember:

  • As thinking singers, activating your diaphragm is a crucial key in proper breathing. Practice inhaling and allowing your diaphragm (you know were it is now) to relax. When it’s relaxed while you inhale, it can tighten properly.
  • Tightening your diaphragm doesn’t mean pushing in your abdominal muscles. When your diaphragm expands to create space for your lungs, it will tighten naturally.
  • Your diaphragm starts relaxing when you exhale. This means that it goes back to its original dome-shape. This is actually where you will notice an outward sign: your abdomen sort of getting pushed in.
  • The diaphragm also helps give you good posture, and, if you read the first article of posture, you know that beautiful singing starts there.

Illustrations courtesy of the awesome wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaphragm_(anatomy) . I modified them, of course. (plagiarism: bad)

The Thinking Singer: Proper Posture



Kids, this is a fact: singing is an unnatural act. Don’t be fooled by how effortless many of your favorite singers perform. They practice to appear effortless: it’s all part of the show.

Of course, as in many things in life: the more you do, the easier it becomes. So, just as athletes diligently exercise to train for a competition, singers carefully prepare their bodies for a performance.
Why, you may ask?
Another fact: you use your entire body when you sing. People often make the mistake of thinking that singing only entails the use of the vocal folds. That is so far from the truth. Singing begins with posture; is fueled by the air we breathe; gains clarity with the use of almost every part of our bodies from the shoulder up. When you sing, YOU become the instrument.

Isn’t that grand?

What, then, does this mean? Singing is an art. It’s not magic, and it definitely is not instant brilliance. You may have been given the gift of singing but that won’t take you far unless you nurture it. Caring for your instrument – you — is most imperative. This means you have to know how your instrument works; and once you do, be dedicated to its upkeep. You need to be patient and persistent. You need to be a thinking singer.

So, let’s begin. Let’s learn how to sing.

Thinking singers start with posture. Check yourself, please.


Let’s tackle each one.

  • Are both your feet planted steadily on the floor?
    Both feet must be planted firmly on the floor. It all starts here. How can you keep your spine straight (the next step) if your stance is unbalanced?Many voice teachers and singers, and even theatre performers and dancers, attest to this: plant one foot slightly forward but keep the balance. Why? This enables your body to lean slightly forward, keeping your spine straight and relaxed. This also benefits you psychologically because leaning forward makes your energy flow forward where the audience usually is. It places you in the position of giving – and don’t singers ‘give’ themselves every time they perform?
  • Is your spine straight?
    Imagine ballerinas when they stand. They keep their spines erect, their shoulders down, BUT their chins tucked in. They were trained to imagine a cord pulling them up from the very top of their heads. Therefore, it is essential that you be vigilant in keeping your frame always upright.Another benefit of a straight spine is this: it helps your diaphragm do its job. Although the deal with this thing, the diaphragm, will be tackled further in my succeeding articles, this much I can say now: it acts as your natural girdle, supporting your lungs (among other things) as you sing (as well as giving you that hourglass figure).
  • Are your shoulders relaxed?
    You might be wondering why the shoulders get a double mention. This is why, and it’s a hard and fast rule: everything from the shoulders and above must be relaxed. If your shoulders are tense, then your neck gets tense. If your neck gets tense, then your jaw gets tense. If your jaw gets tense then – well, you get the picture. Everything in our body is connected to everything else so once you neglect one part of your body, the others also suffer.All this tension from the shoulders up is also a no-no because — where exactly are your vocal chords? Right. To put it plainly: somewhere in your neck. How can the little muscle do its job if its residence is stressed? It can’t.

So, there it is. Your first step unto the proper path of singing. Like I said, it is an unnatural act. Everything one does is deliberate and well-thought out. No magic here. No accidents or instances of chance. Now that you know how to achieve proper posture, constantly check yourself. It’s your body after all — no one else can do it for you. That is the thinking singer’s burden. But don’t be daunted. It is also what will lead you to excellence.