Keeping music muscles in shape

Lisa Wall-Urgero
[From guest blogger and Lister, Amy Engelhardt]


This year. while I spent a chunk of time in New York City, I sought out freelance work at churches and temples for some extra dinero, as I have done for 20+ years subbing for many of YOU sopranos and altos in Los Angeles.  Because I had only two contacts in this arena in New York, my first hurdle was auditioning anew for music directors who’d never heard me.

I was lucky to have some referrals from LA-based choral directors, but by the time audition dates were nailed down in October, it had been two months since my last gig that required on-the-spot sight-reading, or even “one rehearsal, now go” reading.  I was unpleasantly surprised to find that, although fully confident in my prepared audition pieces, I felt incredibly rusty when it came to sightreading — and after only two months away!

This shouldn’t be surprising: sightreading music is like a second language – you may have studied it intensely for a period of time, but unless you continue to use it, you will surely lose it.  Yes, you’ll keep the basics, and if you begin doing it again on a steady basis, the skills will likely come flooding back.  But the more time passes without working that reading muscle, the more you’ll be watching yourself do it wrong, rather than not doing it wrong in the first place; as in, “Well, I knew I was in B major, so why did I sing an A natural, not an A sharp?  I do gravitate to flat 7s as a pop singer…oops…”

Of course, sightreading is a very, very valuable tool to have in your kit, but it isn’t the only tool you need.  On my third audition, the music director was not a great piano reader.  In fact, he laughed as he apologized (a good sign in my book).   We established a playful rapport, so when we got to my sight-reading, a slight but definite “HA!” escaped from my lips.  I admitted to feeling slightly off of my game since my last steady gig, despite my long résumé.  He said, “Well, it’s not a test.”  I really laughed now: “Um, why not?  Shouldn’t it be?”  He confirmed that, at least for him, a poor reader himself, it isn’t just about getting the notes right, but determining the singer’s sense of musicality, phrasing, nailing/not nailing the feel of the piece, the language, how and when it breathes… and of course, seeing if they know what they missed the first time around.  (Thankfully, I did fine, so he hired me, on the spot, for two concerts in the fall.)

The bottom line: regardless of your skills or how you apply them, those skills are likely to deteriorate if they sit on the bench for too long.  For this reason, I have often volunteered in choirs when I found myself in the Gig Desert, or I opened up the Real Book or Czerny’s piano exercises and simply read them down (singing the melodies) to keep in shape.  In the same vein, I’m a fan of crosswords; I like to think they keep up my skills as a writer.

Lesson re-learned.  I spent some time transcribing instrumental solos in New York and singing the Real Book, and it felt great when I came back to LA and jumped into the scene again.


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