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Episode 26: How to Make Progress When You’re Not Feeling Well

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How to Make Progress When You're Not Feeling Well

When you’re sick, using your voice can be painful, and even dangerous. I want you to know that it’s okay to be sick, to put your feet up, to watch trashy TV, to not think about your voice beyond resting it. But if you are sick, and you’re scared that you’re losing time, that you’re falling behind, that your performance is coming up and you’re just going to faceplant because you’re not prepared, there is always something you can do. I’ve developed some practices that will help you engage with the material you’re trying to learn in a meaningful way, even when your vocal instrument is sidelined by illness.

Michèle Voillequé is a singer and a voice teacher living in Berkeley, California. 

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Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.


Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

Today, I’m going to talk about how to make progress when you’re not feeling well, because I haven’t been feeling well for most of the last month. And yet, I have made progress on a couple of pieces that I am trying to learn.

So, you can hear in my voice, it’s a little husky. You can probably hear some sinus congestion. I’m just finishing up with COVID and a secondary ear infection. But before that, I had an amazing cold for about 10 days, and then what just seemed – the cough would not end and I kind of want to blame a high pollen count in Berkeley this May.

Anyway, I’ve been coughing for close to a month for various reasons, and it’s hard to sing and talk when you’ve been coughing. But, you know, as I said, there have been things that I’ve needed to make progress on, pieces that I’ve needed to learn. And how have I managed to do that?

Extra special thanks to Matthew for asking me this question to answer on this podcast because honestly, I’ve been so sick, I can’t, I haven’t been able to think of anything. So, thanks. We get by with a little help from our friends. I really appreciate the question.

I think the first thing to figure out is what is progress exactly, and to say that we don’t always need to make progress. It’s perfectly fine to just be sick and not make progress or to just be bored and not make progress, putting make progress in air quotes, whatever that means.

Sometimes we honestly need a break. And I think one of the hardest things to learn is how to let myself take a break and to be okay with what is.

This last week has been COVID for the second time. It meant that I missed a couple of performances that I was excited about, that I wanted to participate in. Couldn’t do it. Can’t be on stage when you’ve got a fever and you’re, as a dear friend called me, typhoid Mary.

It’s hard to to stomach those kinds of disappointments and it’s important to stomach those disappointments so that we don’t infect other people so that we don’t make ourselves sicker so that we can return to full health as quickly as possible.

That being said, there are a couple of pieces that I am working on, that I’m learning, and well, it’s not fun to put them down for weeks and not think about them at all because invariably when I come back to them, it’s like I haven’t done any work, you know. It’s like I don’t want to lose track of them and at the same time I haven’t been healthy enough to sing, right? Or to to work on them out loud.

So how how to make progress when you’re not feeling well? I’ll give an example, a musical example, and also a speaking example.

So, for musical examples, my process for learning a new piece of music is to listen to as many recordings of it as I can find. Sometimes the piece of music I’m working on is pretty modern and has only been recorded maybe once or twice or, you know, there aren’t a lot of recordings, but what I’m working on now, um, there are zillions.

So I downloaded, several versions into my iTunes and, Spent some time just listening to each of them, each of the different singers interpretations, each of the different voices, and figuring out what I liked about what they did. What did I hear in the music that I liked? I wasn’t actively trying to learn the notes, but just listening for an overall feel for the piece.

I’m talking about a classical aria right now, but I think this applies just as well to any song that you might want to sing – obviously that, if you haven’t written it, if you’re singing somebody else’s song – to find all the versions you can and figure out what you like.

You can also make a list of what you don’t like. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just find that when I’m trying to build my own confidence for a piece of music, build my own self esteem, “Yes, I can sing this. Yes, this is something that’s for me too. It’s not just for those people over there, but this is a song that I get to sing too,” I find it’s helpful, more helpful to look for the positives.

The negatives will come. I never have to worry about that. I have just a beautifully talented inner critic, and I can, come up with negative feedback without any effort. A more difficult practice for me is of the positive.

So I spend some time doing that and I, I don’t necessarily do that all in one sitting. Although sometimes it’s nice to set aside like half an hour to listen to several different versions of something so that everything’s fresh and I can hear it all side by side. But really, it can just be

you know, four minutes at a time: listen to one person’s version, notice what I like, go off and do something else, if that’s all the time that I have.

Another way I use the recordings is to figure out the best way to pronounce things. I listen to the recordings and notice where the singers are elongating the vowels, really short-changing the consonants – in a good way, short-changing the consonants. How do they keep the legato line going? Especially if this is a classical piece of music, I want to listen for how do we keep the song moving? How do we not get bogged down in the words?

And so I’ll listen while looking at the score and feeling how they’re pronouncing the words and even just, silently mouthing the words as the singer sings them, trying to feel what it’s like to have these words in my mouth, even though I’m not making any sound.

What’s it like for my lips and my teeth and my tongue to try to organize themselves so that I can sing these words? Maybe more correctly, so that I can sing these sounds. It’s a step away from the words and a step toward what the words are going to sound like.

Something I find myself saying to students over and over again, is that we’re not responsible for singing the words. That’s not our job. It’s not our job to sing the words, but to produce the series of sounds in the right order to ensure that the words will be assembled in the mind of the listener.

Because that indeed is what’s happening. It’s the listener who’s making sense of the sounds that we’re singing. So one of my early, the early parts of my process is to figure out what do those, what those strings of sound, what do they feel like? How do I need to organize my mouth in order for them to come out easily?

So that’s another thing that I’ll do. And this is a classical aria. It’s Italian. So it’s not my native language. So there is a certain, there is a hurdle there. If you’re not working on a song that’s in an unfamiliar language or in a, in a second, third, or fourth language for you, the question is still worthy, I think, because I find that many pop singers, country singers, gospel singer, any, you know, singers, if you listen closely, you can hear they’re not singing words. They’re just singing sounds. And it’s your brain that’s turning them into words.

You’ll hear them make all kinds of artistic embellishments to the words. Like if the word is “why” that gets sung, instead of simply hearing why, you’ll hear why y y y, right? That’s one way that “why,” the word “why” is sung in pop songs.

So, if that’s happening, you know, how are they doing it? What’s it feel like when you try to silently copy it? And what’s it feel like when you try to do that out loud? Do you want to keep that ornamentation of the word “why”? And what does it feel like in your body when you try that on?

A third way I interact with the recording is then, still with the music in front of me, not looking at the words, but just tracking the notes, tracking the music itself. How does my vocal line interact with the accompaniment? How does the piece all fit together? What’s going on underneath me?

So, listening again, but listening more to the accompaniment, or the interaction between the singer and the orchestra, than just the singer herself.

You can do that without looking at the score, obviously. I find it really helpful to look at the score, ‘cause I, then I can look ahead for things to listen for. Oftentimes in the score, they’ll have like, this is an oboe cue or these are the violins, or sometimes they won’t have anything, it’ll just be a piano reduction of this massive orchestra.

And looking at the score, you, you don’t know, is that a harp? Are those cellos? Who’s doing what underneath me? And I find that exploring the score from that perspective, exploring the music, thinking about the accompaniment, gives me a better foundation as a singer.

It helps me to know what to expect, even if I only am going to get to sing this with a pianist. I’m not going to be performing this aria with an orchestra. It’s just going to be me and a piano or it’s just going to be me and a recording, not even live accompaniment. It helps me to feel more at home in the music when I know what all the other parts are doing.

I don’t mean I endeavor to be able to sing the other parts or hum the other parts or even play the other parts if they’re… Like, I play the violin. Do I go learn the violin part in the accompaniment of the arias that I learn? No, I don’t. But giving it more attention than just, “oh, that’s the accompaniment,” I find is very helpful for me.

When I feel like I’ve gotten the handle on how the melody goes, like what’s sort of generally musically expected of me as an instrument, what’s the broad outline of the melody that I’m expected to present, then I will sit down with the score and I’ll just copy out the lyrics.

What are the words I’m expected to sing?

So I don’t start with the words, but the words are important. They do come. And just write out the words. And when I’m, when it’s a foreign-to-me language, so I haven’t, I’ve never spoken Italian. I’ve sung in Italian a lot, but I’ve never taken an Italian class. I’ve never been stranded on the street in Italy. I’ve never had to try to accomplish anything in spoken Italian. I’ll sit down and write out the Italian and just get a sense of the whole piece, sort of as a poem, or just like, what are, what are all of those words? And even carry that piece of paper around with me, with just the lyrics on it, away from the music.

I tend to acquire melody pretty quickly. I don’t need to hear something very many times before I know how it goes. Words, on the other hand, those are a stickier wicket for me.

And so I will carry something around in my pocket just to, you know, when it comes into my mind, like I’m out for a walk, I’m not thinking about the piece at all until I am, and then I’m like, “Oh, how does that phrase go?” And then I’ll look because I’ve written it down. “Oh, that’s how it goes.”

And then I can kind of think my way through the words on my walk. But it takes two or three times of writing all the words out before I’m able to write them out without looking, you know, before I really then start to memorize them and, get a handle on that part of the piece.

Now, it’s early June and I’ve just been having COVID. So, for like less than a week now, almost a week, and I’ve been coughing a lot, so I don’t even want to try to sing. But one of the things that I do feel well enough to do right now is to lip trill. And that’s another thing that I’ll do, when it’s possible, to continue learning a piece of music even if my health is in the toilet. [sound of a lip trill] is to lip trill the melody and just see how that feels.

My speaking voice already feels better for having lip trilled. Yay! Go me!

Another thing that can work before like full singing can work is just singing vowels. So, if the lip trill’s going well, I might try to just sing the whole piece, or just even a phrase, really. Honestly, a phrase is enough. Lip trill a phrase, and then try to sing a phrase on a vowel. Just on a simple E, on a simple OO. Those are the two best for me, generally, if I’ve been sick.

Ah is usually the last one to sound like anything I want to hear if I’ve been coughing. Your body may be different, but I would say starting with E or OO, those work for me.

And then, you know, the coughing will end, the gloop will end. I will feel like a singing person pretty soon, and then I can pick up where I’ve left off. But in the meantime, I’ve done quite a lot of really good work with just my ear, and my eye, and my hand for writing out the music, and in my mind’s ear, giving myself opportunities to hear the music in my head without singing it.

One of the other things that’s been true this month is that I was supposed to perform in some one act plays this last weekend and I couldn’t because I had COVID. I had a fever. I was really sick, and it was a real bummer that I couldn’t be there and blessings to the women who stepped in and covered my parts – we didn’t have understudies, right?

So, the show went on and it went on through the heroic efforts of two other people and the entire cast, right? Because that’s a shock when the person you expect to be there is not there. This is not good for anybody. It throws everybody off.

And I’ve only heard from the sidelines that it went well and that people feel good about it. And I am so thrilled and relieved that it did go well and they do feel good about it. And still I am disappointed.

But before I had COVID, when, when I was traveling and was missing rehearsals because I had, long ago planned to be out of town, I still needed to keep up with my lines. And so how did I do that?

By writing them out. So there’s a certain amount of reading the script. And you can apply this to if you have a speech to give, or if you have a poem to memorize, or if you have lines to learn for a play, whatever, works the same for all of them. Reading through the printed word, and just with the, calmest, most open mind you can, and sort of with the slowest mind you can.

Often when we’re reading printed word, we’re speed-reading, and we’re skipping over things. But you want to find a way to read through that is slow, luxurious, where you can really take in all of the words, all of the punctuation, the rhythm of the piece that you’re working on.

Sometimes, for me, this means I need to read from the bottom of the page to the top. I need to actually read backwards. So, starting with, let’s just take, take a paragraph, instead of starting at the beginning of a paragraph, starting with the last sentence of a paragraph, or the last phrase, and then backing up and reading the whole last sentence.

And then backing up the sentence before that. It takes time, but it calms your brain down and it makes you more attentive. If you can do this out loud, that’s great. It can really help you memorize the speech that you’re needing to memorize.

But if that’s not convenient, or if you cough every time you talk because you’re sick, or it’s not a private environment, that you would be irritating other people if you spoke out loud, you can do just as much good work quietly reading from the end, back to the beginning.

Another thing that I did was I wrote out my part. Actually, I tried to write out the entire play as best as I could remember it. I did this several times in different ways. One time, I just wrote down all of my lines, leaving gaps in the notebook for the other lines. And then I went back and I tried to fill in, if I couldn’t remember the exact cue, the gist of what was happening in between the lines that were mine.

And then I went back and re-read the play slowly, and then tried the same exercise again with my lines, but this time writing in the cues. Seeing how, how close I got. And that was very effective.

One thing that I didn’t try this time, but that I have done before, you might imagine, is to write down the cues. Try to get all of the cues just by themselves, and then go back and fill in my lines.

And as I’m writing this on a, I was using just a regular eight and a half by 11 spiral notebook, I would leave extra space and I would indent. So if I started with my lines, they would be closer to the left margin and then I would put the cues further over toward the middle, you know. So that there was some kind of visual difference.

I wasn’t trying to run everything together. I wasn’t trying to save paper. I didn’t have colored pens with me, but I did have a black pen and a number two pencil. And so I would use those for different colors.

So in the version where I write down my lines and then go back later and fill in the cues, I wrote down my lines using the black pen and then filled in the cues with the pencil.

And I find, for me, that the act of writing it out turns it into a kind of picture on the paper. It turns it into a kind of drawing where, because I’ve done that, if I look at it again, two, three, several times, I can begin to see that piece of paper that I created in my mind’s eye. And that can help me remember what’s coming next, or where I am in a piece.

It becomes more helpful than the script, which has been printed, and maybe I’ve highlighted it, and I’ve written stage directions on it. Sometimes the image of the script comes to mind, but more often than not, when I take the time to write out what it is that’s happening, it’s my handwritten version that I remember in my mind’s eye. That’s the one that helps me on stage. That’s the one that helps me, um, when I’m under stress.

If you’re like me it’s very easy to get over identified with your physical health and well being. It’s very easy for me to feel like, just to feel awful if my voice isn’t working the way I want it to. As though that’s the only important part of me, as though my ability to sing or speak is the only tool in my toolkit for learning something, and that if I can’t sing or speak, well then, shit, there’s nothing to do.

And so I hope this is helpful for you to see that there’s more to you than just the instrument that is under the weather right now. You can use your imagination. You can use your handwriting. You can use your ears to make progress on a piece, even if you can’t sing, even if you can’t talk, and that it’s worth it to try.

And, we don’t always have to make progress! It’s okay to be sick, to put your feet up, to watch trashy TV, to not think about any of that ever.

But if you’re sick and you’re scared that you’re losing time, that you’re going to be behind, that this performance is coming up and you’re just going to face plant because you’re ill prepared for it, there is always something you can do to engage the material in a meaningful way that will help you later, even if you can’t engage all of it, or all of yourself, as you might wish.

Thanks so much for listening to this stuffy-headed pep talk. May there be good health for you and me very soon.

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That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I

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