Singing tips

Some of us are born with a nice singing voice, but regardless of natural ability there are things we can do that will improve our ability. Whether you’re singing on a stage or around a campfire, don’t be shy about practicing and leveling up.

Firstly, whether you’re new or not you should always rehearse with scales. Warming up is important but the reason why singers doing scales is a cliche is that you’re looking to push into the edges of your ability. Just as an athlete works out their muscles to exhaustion so they can get stronger, you want to sing to just beyond your comfort in your high and low notes. This will expand your range and strengthen your ability. Don’t expect your very high and very low notes to sound good when you’re practicing. You’re not looking for beauty here, only expansion.

While you’re practicing, move around sometimes. It’s important to keep moving and flowing while you’re singing. This helps solidify your technique and will force you to stop thinking about what you sound like. When I was stuck in my head I had a coach make me do rolls across the stage while we were working on an aria. You don’t have to get that wacky with it but squats and even some dancing can be helpful to release areas of tension.

Visualizing helps me and I find this one particularly helpful:

The power line is the breathing on the vowel, which never stops releasing a steady stream of air. The birds are the consonants of the word, which blocks the vowel but does not stop the flow of air or sound. The exception to this is a staccato sound but most of the time we’re expected to create a bel canto sustained and smooth tone. The power line is the air always creating a tone, the birds don’t stop the sound, they merely touch down on the power line of constant sound, they don’t stop it completely.

It’s also important to learn your own range and voice type. Once you know yours then a lot of your song choices will fall into place. Note that your voice type is probably not the one you’re attracted to listening to most of the time. It’s almost a perverse truism that we prefer to listen to the voices of people who do not sound like ourselves. For example, my partner kills at karaoke but had a tendency to choose higher-pitched pieces suitable for a tenor. I had to tell him he’s actually a baritone and should be choosing to croon along to Tom Jones.

I’m trash at karaoke despite having a large set of pipes. Reason being that most pop music for women is written for the alto / mezzo voice and not my high-pitched insanity. Try not to beat yourself up if that’s also the case for you.

So you can be good at one type of music and suck in another. I’m terrific on Verdi and terrible at pop music. Which can also be a bit of a gut punch when you’re dying on the karaoke stage.

You good?

New Yorkers use the question “you good?” for a far greater variety of situations than most. One way I’ve seen it employed as a form of allyship is when riding public transit.

Picture a young woman getting hassled by someone on a bus and a big fella sitting nearby takes off his headphones and gives her a head bob and a quick, “You good?” If she doesn’t answer, he comes over to sit next to her.

I’ve employed it myself. Seeing a couple in a the middle of a drunken fight. I’ll follow them for a while until there is a break in the shouting and I can make eye contact with the woman. “You good?” She might wave me off. Or she might give me the pleading look that says, stay with me. Stay here. Stay as a witness.

I know a lot of people dislike taking public transit because they prefer the safety of their car but I have found transit is the best place to be a good ally. It helps if you have this question at your disposal.

MomChoir & finding your soulmate

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a partner who supports my creative endeavors and does everything he can to allow me space and time to write weird novels about fertility cults and so I can perform in operas. He’s a mensch.

Sam wins the trifecta at the Nice Hippodrome de la Côte d’Azur as her man looks on in disgust c. 2003

There did come a time in recent years though where I felt myself spread too thin. My girls are young and I wanted to be there for them, and even starting my own proofreading business that allows me flexible hours, the commute to performances on nights and weekends was a step beyond what I could reasonably handle.

I was fortunate that an energetic singer, mom of three, and choir director started a new group in my neighborhood just over a year ago comprised entirely of local mothers. I joined MomChoir in September and it has been a large part of what is proving to be a transformative year for me.

MomChoir director Katy Cadman proving the adage that singers will always be featured in the press with their mouths hanging open. You know, like a carp. (Andy Prest / North Shore News)

Let me back up by saying I have always been internally opposed to sororities as a concept. When I attended Emerson College I was strongly encouraged by gorgeous young friends to join their professional sorority Kappa Gamma Chi and even ended up an “honorary” member as I lived with so many of them. But I never officially pledged. I was working a full-time job to afford the steep tuition and I didn’t think I could give them the time and money their Greek life appeared to require.

How funny now to find myself in a group of nearly sixty women I cherish. We have frequent social gatherings and I find nothing but support and mutual admiration. Unlike so many past experiences in groups of women where neuroticism and back-handed compliments seemed to rule the day (oh, Egg Pictures and the PTA, I’m looking at you right now), this crew has been nothing but delightful.

Soprano II Francesca Smilgin-Box made a cake for a casual gathering that proves the adage no one parties better than a mom on a babysitter deadline.

We’re busy professional moms who had ovaries of steel enough to audition for a choir. Many had not sung in public since high school, if ever. Many had to be lovingly bullied by their family into attending the audition. “Honey, I love you, but if I have to watch Singin’ in the Rain with you again I will smash the television with my left shoe.”

Many — if not most — have suffered loss. Perhaps it’s simply that no one gets through life unscathed, but this is a group that has known personal, physical, emotional life tragedies. They’re women who faced down demons and it made them kinder not harder.

Compassion is not an attribute I would have attached to a university sorority, but I’m learning that there is one overarching definition to sisterhood: Mutual Support. When done correctly? There is a bottomless well of love and admiration in a room full of women who’ve suffered.

I need to digress for a moment and talk about (of all things) soulmates.

Many years ago, in Yosemite National Park, I had a fella declare that I was his one and only soulmate. I kissed him in response, but in my brain? Y’all. I felt like he had just told me with all sincerity that he believed in The Tooth Fairy.

Yosemite in the ’00s is a timeless beauty.
The author in Yosemite in the ’00s is a timeless asshole.

This was not merely me being a cynical unromatic jerkface, I swear. Nor was it my basic requirement for evidence that a thing exists. Is soulmate a thing beyond zinging brain chemistry and compatible sexuality?

It actually took me many years to realize why I felt so much pity for him and only recent events that reminded me of a core basis for happiness. If you don’t know this already then let me shout it:

This is a reality that many people learn when they become parents.

That there are broken-hearted darlings out there believing that their one and only true love is gone and thus they may never be cherished again pains me. I know it might feel like a truth because western culture and the Romantic Ideal is a lie that we’re peddled by most of our pop culture from a very young age. You must choose between — you are not permitted to love multiple people. And I’m not talking about the ever-trendy polyamory here, although there is a space for that discussion another time.

It was a few weeks ago when I was awash in a Yosemite-sized cataract of emotion for my Mastery crew and thus pondering this truth anew. I was reflecting on how fortunate I feel to love a plethora of people all over this planet when this visual popped up for Pi Day. I don’t know who made it but it is wonderful.

This is what I’m trying to say right here.

I love a lot of people. Truly and deeply and for everything that they are. All of their broken parts and their scars.

One of my MomChoir sisters posted a behind-the-scenes video to a fight song we’re slaying with in an upcoming concert, and Sagan help me, I am done. If I make it through this song without tears down my face it’ll be a minor secular miracle.

So this is what artists do. We put our whole hearts into the world and we give you permission to break them because we won’t ever stop loving you even if you hate us. And we’ve hearts big enough to nurture the world.

Local fans can attend Sweet Scarlet‘s upcoming fundraiser for the Pacific Post-partum Support Society, It Takes a Village, with MomChoir.

Buy tickets here
for the 11 May concert, but it will sell out soon because we’re ADORABLE.

Members of MomChoir proving the old adage that there’s always that one.

Reframe anything

The kids at school have started to tear apart this stone wall.

As I was silently reflecting on how stone walls are some of the most long-lasting human edifices in history yet a few kids can tear one apart in a matter of hours, a mom started to growl about the mess. Then, a new teacher piped up, “This tells me they need some materials to build their own ideas. We should get them some logs and rocks to play with in the woodlot.”

A lot of things have changed since I was at school. I mean, I grant you this is especially true for me as I attended boarding school when I was ten years old that was run by nuns and lived with them in a mansion on a hill. So I’m this weird Dickensian throwback who is constantly amazed at the patience and empathy of modern educators. And I’m often struck by how many things can be reframed. It’s a habit in educators that I’m trying to develop for myself. Instead of being angry with the person who has perpetrated damage on you, ask yourself about the unmet need.

Meanwhile, a few lines sung from Bye Bye Birdie can cheer up grumpy parents. Because we all feel like Paul Lynde sometimes.

Eat some bugs

I attended the Healthy Family Expo with my youngest and we partook of a number of free samples. I realized later that if the kid were to have an allergic reaction I would have no idea which of the many exotic foods might be the culprit.

Like those delicious morsels? They’re made with crickets.

Now, as it happens, I’m a long-time fan of using insects for protein. Back when Evolution was my favorite store in New York City in 1998, I even bought a book on how to cook with cricket flour. (LOL like I was going to bake with any kind of flour.) But that was before we learned the insect populations are plummeting. Yikes.

Fortunately, though, these crickets are farm-raised back in Ontario so we’re not adding to the problem by eating these buggers.

And also fortunate, the little one didn’t have any allergic reactions. She even managed to stuff her face and jump on a trampoline with no ill effect.

It was a nice mommy and kid day at the expo. We ate a lot of weird stuff and didn’t puke — which is apparently my general assessment of a good day.

Sauna time

My friend has been extolling the virtues of sauna time to prevent some of the post-exercise soreness that I so often battle. And my partner loves going for a schvitz a few times a week so I decided to give it a try. Apparently, even Lady Gaga was all about it. Who am I to argue?

Well, here are some things that my male partner and male friend were not able to warn me about. The fact is, it’s harder for women. I have fewer excuses than most as I live near a public recreation center that features a new sauna and comes included in the price of admission. And yet…

I should have realized that I was heading into what is essentially one of the few male spaces left in a westernized and modern culture. Growing up for a bit of my childhood in Denmark I was no stranger to a place where grown men are naked and sweating, but it’s different when you’re a child. For one thing, I didn’t see the point of sitting still and being quiet so the sauna was not an appealing space.

My first time in the sauna as an adult I decided that I’d worn the wrong clothing. Most of the other people in there were in swimsuits. As I’m not interested in heated chlorine and thrush, this was not appealing. I wore my regular running clothes instead. Only after a few minutes in the punishing heat did I consider what it might be doing to my expensive and well-guarded sports bra.

Determined not to be put off by my wrong clothing choice and the fact that I was the only woman in the sauna that first day, I carried on. I’d been hearing too much about the benefits of a schvitz to give up.

I was in the small sauna with four men and one of them kept crankily complaining anytime someone left the sauna as opening the door let the heat escape. Eventually, his complaints became about women in particular. “They don’t even stay in here for more than five minutes. What’s the point?” I said nothing and carried on, now afraid to leave “too soon” even though this was my first time in a sauna. Great. Now I have to die in here rather than be the first to leave. We were in there for twenty-five minutes.

Feeling a bit of anxiety about the second time going to the sauna I had at least planned ahead with the clothing. I wore a loose-fitting tank top and running shorts. Once again, I was the only woman and all the men were wearing wet swim trunks. They spoke to each other — some in foreign languages. Fine. No problem. Just wish that one dude would stop staring at my chest. I guess this was the wrong clothing choice, too.

Third round, knees shaking a bit with anxiety. Oh, good. A woman is in there. Probably Korean and wearing a swimsuit, she does not appear to speak English as the four men in there with us shit-talk women who stay too short a time. Again. Different dudes, same topic.

But am I the type of person who gives up in the face of invading a male space? Or am I someone who sees a private room at a party with only Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger smoking cigars with two other men and decide that this is the room I belong in? Reader, you know I had my first (and last cigar) that night because I will not be excluded and screw you for trying.

So I’m that type of person. Bloody minded.

Fourth round. My partner at this point is laughing at my anxiety it’s getting so bad but I am determined. He’s amazed at my bad luck. So I head over there. Three guys in the sauna. No problem. Two of them in a corner are chatting loudly and being a bit obnoxious but at least they’re not shit-talking women. Okay. Eventually, the other solo guy is all, “Can everyone in here read English?” Awkward silence. He asks again, more silence from us. “Because that sign over there clearly says not to talk in here.” The two dudes in the corner flash a look at him. I’m sitting in between them all. “What an asshole,” one of them mutters to the other. “Yeah, I’m the asshole,” says the cranky regular.

Me in the middle thinks, “Here we go.”

And I think back to all those scenes set in steam rooms and saunas in movies and television shows that I’ve seen over the years. Sometimes it’s mafia stories because we know that no one is wearing a wire and so that’s when you order the hit. Sometimes, it’s just to show off pure machismo in a movie because the lead actor worked hard for that body and he’s going to make the audience admire his chest hair, damn it.

This is a man’s space and I am not welcome here.

Nevertheless, I know I will persist.

Angry dude settled down as the other two guys were all, “Let’s get out of here.” I guess they couldn’t handle the heat.

Sasquatches I have known

In vacationing at Harrison Hot Springs with the family this holiday season I hadn’t realized we were venturing into the heart of Big Foot territory until I learned that the info center had a little “Sasquatch Museum” attached to their bungalow. I had assumed this would be a delightful trip into kitsch and looked forward to buying the kids some Big Foot-related swag. I was delighted when the visitor center even suggested they’d open the place for us since we were coming to town during a time it is normally closed! That’s a small town that knows how to cater to visitors.

As often happens to me when it comes to the reality of First Nations in the modern world, I realized this was about a lot more than tacky fun.

Kitschiness is often something cheap that is repeated so often in a motif that it can develop soul by sheer force of will. Big Foot lore is certainly that as it is everywhere in this small town. Sometimes in a form with flowing locks and intense gaze reminiscent of Jason Mamoa:











Or sometimes in its goofier child-friendly version:

I’m still learning about this part of the world and despite my secret love of cryptozoology and a general understanding that Big Foot is a thing here — why don’t we say the Pacific Southwest when we’re in Canada? — it just hadn’t twigged for me that this was a First Nations legend. The word Sasquatch is probably from a Salish word Sasq’ets, meaning “wild man” or “hairy man.” The First Nation of Harrison Hot Springs is the Sts’ailes (Chehalis).  They had a special relationship with Sasq’ets and believed the wild man had the ability to move between the physical and spiritual realm. There are legends like this from pockets of isolated people all over the world. Most of the time is smacks of myth, but sometimes you actually find a “forest person” such as the urang-outang in Indonesian.

It makes me wonder if perhaps there were pockets of rare giant apes that coexisted with the First Nations people before they went extinct, perhaps even thousands of years ago. Is that less likely than the existence of mastodons or giant sloths?

The problem with Big Foot, of course, is that there’s basically no physical evidence, unlike the mastodons, and no “sightings” in recent memory except by people who tend to benefit from the legend. I’ve said before, I’m naturally a credulous person and it took many years of training to become a skeptic who takes a beat to consider evidence before diving headfirst into a story.

But still. I was thinking in terms of white men giving guided tours and speaking in hushed tones in a rain forest making us all feel like eyes were on us.

I had not expected to learn that the Sts’ailes had incorporated their forest man into seasonal dances. Is this a more modern addition to their dancing?

Modern at least for the last one hundred years as an old mask that was missing for a while only recently repatriated to their nation. Is it their Big Foot or is it a bear mask?

“After 75 years missing, a piece of Sts’ailes First Nation history has been repatriated to the community. The Sasq’uets mask disappeared from the Sts’ailes in 1939, believed to have been taken by JW Burns; the man often credited with having anglicized sasq’ets into sasquatch. Burns is rumoured to have become obsessed with the sasquatch legend while teaching at the Chehalis Indian School near Harrison Hot Springs BC.

Harrison Hot Springs and the shores of Harrison Lake have a long history of bigfoot activity and the elusive sasquatch is an important part of Sts’ailes culture. The Sts’ailes people believe that the sasquatch is the protector of the land. Because of this, a Sts’ailes man– James Leon– has spent the last 16 years of his life searching for this piece of lost history. After scouring North America, Leon discovered the mask was a little closer to home than first thought. Leon discovered that the mask was at the Vancouver Museum, and when he explained the story to museum staff they confirmed it was there.

The mask has now been returned to the Sts’ailes First Nation. Interestingly, the Sts’ailes people believe that to see the sasquatch is a great honour, and it will bestow a great gift on you.”

Harrison plays up the relationship between First Nations and this creature of legend in this tiny town, and between that and the natural hot springs, they appear to have a booming tourist trade.

Certainly, were I a giant hairy forest ape (and aren’t we all really?), I would choose a spot on a lake with a hot spring where I might float like a tea bag and regard the night sky and the snow-flecked hills around me, reflecting on in the majesty of the natural landscape.


A view of holiday lights from across the Lagoon.

A view from our hotel room at sunset.

So I’m taking the legend of Big Foot a bit more seriously now as I did many other indigenous stories that turned out to have a good practical reason for existing. My children, however:

EDIT: Was just told of this fun dance tune, The Sasquatch Funk.

In praise of Star Trek

There are certain TV shows that became a part of my core personality when I was a kid and watching my eldest totally glom on to Brooklyn Nine-nine this past year made me think about those shows that shaped me. I wonder if we are attracted to them because they already reflect our inner selves? Or do they do more than that and actually work to shape us the way a mentor might?

Social media was passing around a thing asking people to list their top five shows to indicate their personality and it prompted me to think about mine: MASH, Star Trek: TNG, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Northern Exposure, and something British but I haven’t decided which one.

But listing the shows made me realize that I haven’t watched any Next Generation episode since they first aired. Yet the episodes made such lasting impressions on me that to this day I remember them clearly and can even head off a panic attack by putting on some Enterprise background noise. I am clearly not the only one if the 24-hour channel is any indication.

I have yet to find another television series that explores mature concepts of philosophy in a family-friendly format. I’ve started forcing my girls to watch some of these episodes.  It’s prompted interesting discussions. They seem to enjoy the show and interrupt less often than when I usually try to foist something on them. Ann of Green Gables (’80s series) didn’t even hold their attention so completely.

Back when I first watched the series I remember being irritated by Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troy. I realize now that I like them a lot more because I’ve learned to disregard the beauty pageant levels of hair and make-up. Apparently, as a kid this was enough of a surface presentation for me to stop taking them as seriously as their male counterparts. Internal bias is interesting.

I’m grateful that the show had a large budget and filmed directly to 35mm so that even rebroadcast on our current hi-def screens it looks surprisingly modern. The decor not so much, but at least the kids don’t complain that the show looks cheap. And our current screen fidelity means certain things like stunt doubles or the noodles used instead of maggots in episode Conspiracy are now plainly visible. I enjoy spotting moments where the film is overexposed for the lighting or the Steadicam got bumped during a tracking shot.

EDIT:  friend wrote to tell me this and I am sharing so as to give credit where it is due!
As for how good TNG still looks, that’s a direct result of the painstaking remastering process that was done on HD several years back–in which the entire edited-on-video(!) series had to be re-edited, and all effects redone from scratch, using the original 35mm raw footage. It was so laborious and expensive that the subsequent repackaging on Blu-ray made far too little money for Paramount/CBS to justify doing the same for the remaining ST shows, and it’s probably the biggest reason the same hasn’t been done for the long-neglected Babylon 5 (which is in even worse shape than TNG was).”

There was a time in my twenties when I worked for a producer who would eventually become the head of the Scott Bakula iteration and I almost got to work on that show. I had a surreal holiday party experience where I skated with Bakula and his daughter on an artificial rink at Paramount. Or late one night wandering the backlot and stopping to watch Michael Dorn have his forehead make-up applied. These were the fangirl moments that made the long hours and insanity of Los Angeles worthwhile.

It saddens me that few shows still address the deeper probing topics that TNG and other Star Trek shows tried to examine. The closest we seem to reach now is BBC’s Black Mirror, but that lacks the optimism and spirit of adventure that I look for in TNG. And I think it would freak out the kids.

And then the revamped Star Trek movies are widely regarded as a warmed-over rehash of any generic “adventure” movie that bears little resemblance to the concepts of the original Star Trek vision.

But  my original question remains. Did I love it because it reflected a core part of my personality that thrives on civic engagement and civility in the face of crisis? Or did it teach me to be that kind of person?  Was it this guy who taught us how to be a boss?

(Interestingly, these days I am reading his distaste for children as a character flaw instead of as an endearing quirk. But that’s because I know how to be a Boss with two kids and a cat hanging off my elbows. He’s not good at multitasking.)

I don’t know. I don’t know if it reflected me or shaped me. I don’t know.

The show does support my observation of a uniquely human tendency that runs across all cultures where we decorate our interior spaces with images of what’s happening immediately outside. You don’t find photos of a Vermont winter in an adobe in Santa Fe, you find more images of adobes.

So of course you will have pictures of bleak planets and space stations to decorate your quarters on a spaceship. Because humans will be humans even three hundred years from now.

Urgh, that early ’90s decor in mauve is nauseating.

And just to tie it all together, I’d like to one day perform in a Klingon opera. This is fabulous, honest! Have a listen. It’s all the dissonance and belting you could ever want.

Culture city

Certain cities ooze an ephemeral quality of “culture” and it can be tricky to explain exactly why. But then other times it’s clear how artistic expression is woven into the fabric of the urban landscape. Montreal is a city that provides a full sensory cultural experience.

From murals in every corner to music in every neighborhood, it’s teeming with art.

A number of musicians and dancers will be scheduled for outdoor events during the rush hour, which means that all sorts of people will get to see snippets of beauty and art during their commute. It’s refreshing to see well-heeled locals sitting next to folks sleeping rough, all enjoying the same performance in any kind of weather.

Or a number of public spaces with shared instruments that provide an opportunity to show off and shimmy.

Although I’m not certain who pays for these artistic expressions, I’m sure the city gets it back in the form of tourism and internationally-renowned reputation for creativity.