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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Singers Need to Know about Surgery

Hi there,

I'm sure everyone knows that surgery under a general anaesthetic is not something to be undertaken lightly. But did you know there is an additional concern when you're a singer? A singer friend told me years ago that his vocal cords got badly damaged when knocked by the breathing tube given to him during surgery under a 'general'. While he and his voice are back to normal now, it cost him months and months of extra work, vocal therapy and emotional turmoil. Is there information someone could have told him that may have prevented it?

I had the misfortune to need fairly major surgery recently and so I recounted my singer friend's story to my surgeon. He explained that in some cases there are different options that may help a singer protect their most valuable asset. He told me it is always worth asking your doctor whether using a mask, instead of a breathing tube, for the anaesthetic is possible. In my case apparently, as with most longer and more complex surgeries, unfortunately there was no choice. Oh well, I filed that away as good knowledge to have for the future. Knowledge that probably would never have been offered up unless I had prompted it. Reminds me of what we are always striving to teach the 7 year old: 'If you don't ask, you don't get'. A more religious person might say: 'Ask and you shall receive'.

So it's the day before surgery, I'm at the Pre-admission Clinic and one of the forms I need to fill out actually asks the question: 'Do you have any concerns about the general anaesthetic?' So of course I state here that I am worried, as a singer, that the use of a breathing tube could damage my voice. Judging by the look on the face of the Clinic Anaesthetist, she hadn't come across this response before. I recounted the experience of my singer friend. She gave me a very direct look and said something like: 'that kind of thing would be pretty rare. It's our primary concern as anaesthetists to keep you alive during surgery, whether that means you can sing or not.' I couldn't argue with her there but also couldn't help thinking she may have underestimated how much my ability to sing is caught up in my personal definition of 'alive'.

Now it's time for the actual surgery. I'm prepared and wheeled in by the nurses. I'm introduced to the anaesthetist who is looking after me for the surgery. After the usual questions about allergies and medical history she asks me, in what seems like a throwaway conversational question, what I do for a living. When I tell her I am a professional singer, she looks again at my chart and back at me sternly. 'You should have said something!' She calls in one of the nurses and says: 'this woman is a professional singer - we need to change the gauge of the breathing tube we're using!' She then speaks to the surgeon and asks him if he is aware of my occupation and tells him that they should take every precaution when it comes to working near my vocal cords. I explain weakly that I had told the pre-admission doctor. Obviously that doctor didn't think it important enough to note on my paperwork. This doctor leans over me so that her face is right next to mine and says quietly: 'every time you go under general anaesthetic there is a risk of your voice changing or being damaged temporarily or permanently. You need to know that and you need to make sure that whatever can be done to limit the risks, is being done'.

All's well that ends well and my voice seems to be as it was before. I have a great deal of respect for medical folk - the study, the hours, the dedication. But they're often pushed to their limits, especially in the public system. And even with every caution, let's face it, we need to be the number one person to care for ourselves. While there are times we may literally have to place our lives into the hands of medical experts, we can try not relinquishing absolute control where possible. I don't pretend that a few anecdotes and a surfing expedition with Google puts me in any position to know more than a doctor, but I do think any extra knowledge that I can bring to the table before I get laid out on one, can only be a good thing!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

How One Fan Stole my Voice

Hi there,

Let me say firstly that I'm sorry this isn't going to be a tale of some crazed stalker pinching my recordings or anything as equally intriguing, as my title may suggest. But it is about something more insidious for performers like me.

I did a gig recently where I completely lost my confidence. It was a new gig for me and I had a lot of new songs jostling for real estate inside my head so perhaps I wasn't as self possessed as I might have been with a more familiar repertoire. But really, I have been doing this a long time and I am often thrown into brand new situations, so what was so different?

It started almost as soon as the show began. A few times during the beginning of the first set, I opened my mouth and absolutely no sound came out.  I didn't have a cold,  my voice felt warmed up and in good shape before I hit the stage, so what was going on?  Eventually I spied in the corner of my eye, side of stage, a portable pedestal fan, aimed directly and going at full bore at my face. It was obviously meant to help the performers keep cool and combat the incredible humidity that hung in the air that night. The venue folk weren't to know that blasts of air like these were my Kryptonite.

Voices are as individual as the singers who possess them so not everyone would have had the same reaction I did, although it is fairly common. This fan was quite literally stealing my voice away by drying my mouth out. Anyway, I angled the fan away from me and that fixed the problem quick smart. Well one of the problems. I had my voice back but what to do about my desire to have the stage swallow me up because I was ashamed of my singing? It took the rest of the set to regain my equilibrium and I know my overall performance suffered as a result. Apparently I managed to summon enough superficial bravado to convince the audience that all was right with my world, and the momentary blips in my singing were barely noticed. But inside I was really struggling. And unfortunately, while I may be getting better and better at covering it up, this wasn't the first time I've let something like that throw me. It really reinforces the fact that singing and performing really are psychological games. Preparation, practice, skill - all vital, but sometimes confidence is everything.

Got any tips on how you handle your inner anxious dude?

All the best,

Monday, January 9, 2017

Now if I were Mariah Carey...

Hi there and happy new year!

Did you hear about Mariah's NYE show? She is blaming the production team for sabotaging her set in Times Square when her in-ear monitoring failed to work. Whether the lack of foldback was intentional or not, I know for sure that the quality of sound a singer receives on stage is an absolute maker or breaker of a performance. Audiences hear something quite different to our sound so sometimes it is hard to get their sympathy but I really feel for Mariah.  We know that not being able to hear properly can potentially make us sing off key and usher in such insecurity that a great singer becomes a terrible one. But as Mariah said herself in this particular show's aftermath, 'shit happens'. The trick is to pull yourself out of it smelling like roses. While we may not all possess her vocal gymnastic ability or star power, I actually think we gigging singers have one thing over Mariah Carey. One of the benefits of not being a multi million dollar megastar is the multitude of less-than-perfect gig conditions you get to experience! Being thrown into difficult situations over and over again tends to prepare you to jump just about any hurdle and still land on your feet.

I was in a kids show where we three girls performed to an audio visual track that, at one particular venue with an outdated system, started to skip noticeably and eventually froze. So we girls created acapella singalongs and dance competitions on the spot. While it was very obvious to the audience we were suffering fairly major technical issues, we kept them involved and onside and noone complained. If anything, we got extra credit for handling ourselves well under pressure.

I once did a nationally televised Christmas gig that had a huge live audience as well. I was one of two backing singers for a band that was to support some well known Aussie artists and celebrities. About 20 minutes before the show started, we were told we would be leading the live audience in singing Christmas carols during the commercial breaks of the live telecast. We were to follow the autocue. My fellow backing vocalist warned me she was not hugely familiar with carols and we had zero time to prepare. But the idea was we two girls would sing with the band and the crowd would sing along following the booklets of lyrics they had all received. I think someone forget to tell the audience because when the band played the first carol, we were the lone voices. That wouldn't be so bad except the keys of the songs were completely female unfriendly and so, in front of 30,000 people, we were jumping up and down octaves and throwing in harmonies on the spot to make the songs sound decent. We were doing OK with the first couple of well known tunes when the next song showed up: 'Good King Wenceslas'. At its appearance on our autocue, my fellow backing singer gave me a look of panic. Ok, so I was on my own for this one.

Now I love my Christmas songs but I wouldn't put the Good King at the top of my list and was only vaguely aware of its work. But all was going fine until the end of the first verse when the autocue froze completely. So in front of 30,000 people I winged the rest of the song, largely repeating the first verse over and over again! I don't think many people were any the wiser although I'm sure no one would have blamed me for shutting up completely if they had known the situation. But as performers, we are more than just singers, and I think we have a contract with our audience to entertain them the best way we can, in any situation.

I'd love to hear what you would have done in Mariah's position. What I wouldn't have done is walk off stage mid performance, however tempting that might have been. That kind of thing only punishes your audience and hurts your own reputation. I would have let the audience know what was happening, to make them really feel involved. I would have told the production guy - over the mic - to turn off the backing track because my audience and I were going to sing in the new year together. Then I would have led them in an acapella version of the songs. I think it would be pretty cool to say that you rang in 2017 singing along with Mariah Carey, don't you?

I'd love to hear some of your gig horror stories...

All the best,

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Music: love it and it will love you back.

Hi there,

I recently had the great pleasure of performing as part of a 9 day music festival cruise. We musos spend a lot of time wringing our hands over a dying live music scene but certainly the success of these music cruises makes me wonder. This particular company just announced, after a few years in play, that it sold out its full series (ranging from Country through to Classical) of themed music cruises for the year. And that's around 2000 passengers and 30 bands per cruise. Sure audiences are attracted by the cruising life and the exotic destinations but these passengers pay a significant amount more for these concert cruises than a standard affair, so they must be coming for the music. On my ship, the shows were hugely well attended and well appreciated.  So audiences are there, for the right shows. Maybe we need to find more creative ways to present live music.  I've been to a small bar in Sydney that combines sneakers, champagne and fried chicken and that seems to work. What else can we merge with music? 

I can't help but think that if you treat live music with love, it will love you back. Could it be the lessening of respect given to live music over the years that has caused the scene in pubs and clubs to wither?  In most industries it's a given that if you treat your workers well, they will give the best of themselves. I really felt that was a guiding principal of the people who ran the music on my cruise. Looking at the 1000 seat theatre I was working in, at the incredible calibre of the production crew and facilities around me, I couldn't bear to give anything but my best. I was told I reached 'a new level' during one of those cruise shows and I'm talking about feedback from my harshest critic (my Mum). Do you think, if venues and bookers on dry land followed suit and instead of cutting back, paring down, they threw everything they had at providing the best conditions for their live entertainers, that the scene would be healthier? 

Over the years I've seen venues shrink their entertainment offerings until they are only content to hire solo performers with backing tracks. They are removing stages - my local pub has just spent a fortune on renovations and a bar maid told me they 'didn't bother' putting the stage back even though they are continuing with their live music. Do you think the performer on the Opera House stage is automatically more talented (or more deserving of respect) than the one performing on the floor in the corner of your local pub? Even though we know the answer is 'no', you can be pretty sure which one would get more love from an audience. Without the trappings that mark out entertainment as something worth looking at and listening to, how can audiences be expected to hold it in high esteem? As time has gone on, venues expect more, with some asking 4 or even 5 sets for the same fees they used to pay for 2 . How can artists be expected to deliver this at the same quality and without resentment? 

The standard of the musicians and the music itself on the cruise was very high, but what stood out most was we were all chuffed to be there. We were well paid and the conditions were fabulous. That was something the passengers commented on too, which in turn made them feel good. We felt valued and those extra touches like artist-only cocktail parties and notes of appreciation under the cabin door (the spacious cabin that featured a balcony and free room service) ensured that we did our best, if only to clinch an invitation on the next ship out... 
Hint hint!

Till next time,

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Sorry Alicia Keys, I'm not with you on this one!

Hi there,

Alicia Keys didn't wear make-up at a big event recently and the media is having a field day as a result. What do you think? I'm all for authenticity from the artists I admire but I don't actually need their stark reality. I've always thought the job description of a pop star was to be an exaggerated, perhaps more glamorous version of their real selves. After all, I don't want to listen to anyone sing about their grocery shopping or look like they're doing it! If Alicia wants to go out on a Sunday morning to pick up her sourdough, sans lipstick, then she should be allowed to do so without comment. But she is a card carrying member of the pop star elite and has always presented us with a full face of glamour so no wonder there is a media storm about her bare face at an awards ceremony. Ms Keys says that she has never felt more liberated and more 'herself' than without foundation and blush. If that's the case, then of course she should continue that way. But as far as the #nomakeup movement she has inspired - no thank you very much! 

The literal spotlight we put ourselves under as entertainers, whether it be a TV studio's lights or the LEDs on a stage, casts us in a severe and unrealistic glare. Even newsmen wear some pancake and powder to counteract the harshness, so there are practical reasons for make-up to start with. For me, make-up, like hair dye and costume, is an important part of a theatrical toolkit that helps spotlight our artistry. I'm not talking about plastic surgery or magazine airbrushing - those things are artifice, but for me, painting your face is art. I'm not a big fan of heavy make-up in the every day, but I love seeing my face metamorphose in the mirror while making up before a show. Coating my eyelashes makes my eyes look bigger and thus more expressive from a distance on stage under those bright lights.  If eyes are indeed windows of the soul then eye shadow is the window dressing that invites you in. 

Make-up is part of a showbusiness ritual I love, one that helps regular me transform to a more theatrical version of myself. And is it really a gender issue as the media is suggesting? Is there a social pressure for women to slather it on? Perhaps so, but I personally don't feel it. And I love a man in make-up too - black-lined eyes are a regular sight on a rock stage for both genders and even my young son likes wearing nail polish. Anyway, take away my kohl pencil and I'll challenge you to a duel. I have a mascara wand and I'm not afraid to use it! 
See you next time,

Thursday, August 11, 2016

On being yourself...and playing the pan flute.

Hi there,

I did a cabaret gig today. I arrived at the venue early enough to catch the last 15 minutes of the act that preceeded me. He was one of those old school entertainers who seem to be good at everything. I heard him play the piano, sing and even play the didgeridoo within the space of a few minutes. He played and sang a rousing version of 'We are Australian' that hit the audience right where they wanted it. He knew his crowd and had them in his palm - they were in raptures. But it was when he pulled out the pan flute that I really started to worry. That little insecure version of me living inside my head was saying  'All you do is sing! Listen to how they're clapping and cheering, and you're going on after him. How are you going to follow that?'

Then that little devil came out of my head and made herself quite comfortable on my shoulder, so she could leer and belittle directly into my ear: 'You'd better think of something you can do that's different and special or you're going to be a big let down!'

One of my favourite carpets. But is it enough to
make up for my lack of pan flute expertise?
It was a seconds before showtime and all I could think of that was special about me was that I had purple hair and a cool collection of carpet photos. I know, I could enter the stage walking on my hands? Except that I was wearing a long sequinned dress. And... I can't actually walk on my hands. 

So with no more time for thinking or listening to internal party poopers, I launched on the stage and into what I normally do. Which is just sing (people really clapped and cheered!). And tell a few funny stories about growing up and dates gone wrong (people really laughed!). 

One lady from the audience stopped me on my way out after the show and said, 'after that young man opened the show today, my friends and I were all feeling really sorry for you, knowing you would have to follow him, and him being so wonderful! Then she squeezed my arm and said, 'But you came out and we could tell you were just being yourself and it was wonderful in a different way.'  Aww, wisdom from the mouth of...well a wise older person.

I don't have to spell out the moral of this little story, do I?

Until next time...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

When Audiences Don't Like You

Hi there,

A singer friend of mine once joked (in that way things are said when they are absolute truth and no joke at all) that performers become performers because they crave the approval of others. That's a bit too scary to contemplate for me right now so perhaps that particular can of worms can be prised open another time. But I will agree that applause is pretty damn nice.

But have you experienced an audience that doesn't like you? Maybe they don't like the colour or your hair, tone of your voice, choice of repertoire or simply don't dig the cut of your jib? It's hard to please all of the people all of the time and how do we know what they actually think about us anyway? 

I recently did a piano bar gig where I couldn't help but notice an older gentleman in the audience giving me a definite look of distaste. He was facing me square on with his arms folded and a sneer on his face and every now and then he would say something into the ear of his companion - obviously about me. Of course this made me try even harder. I feel like I'm pretty good at matching a repertoire with an audience and so I looked at him and tried to chose songs I thought he'd like. I smiled extra big and tried to be extra charming. But I got nothing. No smile, no clapping, no positive response from this guy at all. Then at the end of the night as he was walking out the door, he pressed a $US100 note in my hand and said 'great job'. Whether that situation says more about my own insecurity or about how audiences often don't react as they feel, I don't know!

I worked with a very experienced professional comedian recently who was so completely put off by the punters' reserved response that he fluffed his lines and really struggled to stay on his game at all. As much as we love our applause and feed off an audience's reaction, surely our experience should allow us to override negative vibes and continue tap dancing as fast as we can?

I think we owe it to our audiences to deliver our best performance possible, regardless of their reactions, but it ain't easy! I'm sure we've all experienced cultural differences at shows. In my two years performing in Japan I got used to crowds who sat very passively, politely clapping in between songs but otherwise very unresponsive, only to have to wave away fanatical expressions of undying love and excessive praise from the same people, after the show had finished. 

I heard someone say recently that Aussie audiences are the rudest and least 'giving'. What do you think? If you tell me your story I promise to clap very hard and respond enthusiastically!