In questa tomba oscura – When Beethoven’s ghost guilt-trips you from a dark tomb

Watch me sing Beethoven’s In questa tomba oscura as part of my graduating classical recital.

In questa tomba oscura is an art song by Ludwig van Beethoven. Published in 1807, it was Beethoven’s submission in a composition challenge issued that year to set this poem by Guiseppe Carpani. Although sixty-three settings were composed, only Beethoven’s remained memorable. Because he only wrote a handful of vocal works, I was excited for the opportunity to tackle the music of this seminal composer. 

The heart-wrenching lyrics exemplify not only the Romantic-era penchant towards tragedy and melodrama, but also the period’s characteristic fascination with death and the supernatural. The song tells a story from the perspective of the deceased, who feels taken for granted and forgotten by her surviving lover. As for me, I channeled the spite and ire of a dead Italian grandmother forgotten by her adult children, and that’s how I sang it! The excruciatingly slow tempo allows for the anger and sadness to be deep-dug and drawn out, while the middle section builds to an outburst that totally drains this transmuted, wailing ghost. This was definitely one of my favourite pieces of the recital. 

Getting a Handle on Handel! Watch me sing O Thou Tellest Good Tidings to Zion from Messiah

Watch me sing O Thou Tellest Good Tidings to Zion from Handel’s Messiah.

Handel’s Messiah holds a special place in my heart, considering it was a work that I routinely sang at Christmas time as a child with the Bach Children’s Chorus. At the last few rehearsals before the big performance, we would be joined by the orchestra and the soloists. I remember being a child and watching the vocal soloists in awe, wondering how they spun their magic. They seemed to have such incredible control over their instruments, and were able to achieve a sweetness and purity in their sound that I didn’t hear on the radio. It obviously had an effect on me! While I hope to be able to sing with others again in the near future, just being on this side of the music feels like a wonderful accomplishment that little Laura never knew she would reach. Hallelujah!

Watch my YouTube Premiere of J.S. Bach’s “Esurientes implevit bonis”

Join me on Monday, March 29 at 12 noon EST for the premiere of my latest recital video.

Watch as I take you on a trip through music history, from Baroque masterpieces to 20th century musical theatre. This series features songs I studied for my final singing exam from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. A new video will be released each week, and compiled into one convenient playlist. 

The ARCT diploma in Voice Performance is the culmination of years of study in the many styles and traditions of classical singing—opera, art song, oratorio, jazz, cabaret, musical theatre—as well as its prominent languages—French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. Additionally, the diploma requires extensive study in sight-reading, ear training, music history, harmony and music analysis, as well as piano proficiency. 

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“Esurientes implevit bonis” is an aria from the famous Magnificat in D Major oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach composed in 1723. One of Bach’s most popular vocal works, it is written for five vocalists and Baroque orchestra. The Magnificat is Bach’s first major liturgical composition in Latin. Whereas regular Sunday services would have been conducted in German, music sung in Latin was reserved for the high holidays, i.e. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. 

Singing Bach is always a nostalgic experience for me, reminding me of my first real “gig” as a chorister in the Bach Children’s Chorus at 6 years old. God bless my parents, they knew I loved to sing, but I don’t think they really understood what they were signing me up for. The weekly three-hour rehearsals involved rigorous study of solfège, sight-reading, and singing the seemingly endless contrapuntal lines of Bach himself. We were also sent home with booklets of music theory homework, which was like a foreign language to me. 

I am forever grateful for this early exposure to Bach and Baroque music. Not only did I learn invaluable musical skills—like how to read music and sing long melismatic lines on a single breath—but it also set me up for the amazing experiences I had in the Mendelssohn Youth Choir in high school, and the MacMillan Singers in University, singing at Roy Thompson Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian. And as I study harmony and music analysis for my final exam of the ARCT diploma, my understanding of counterpoint is firmly rooted in Bach’s vocal music. 

Thanks Bach!

Lyrics (Luke 1:53):

Esurientes implevit bonis

Et divites dimisit inanes 

Translation:

He has filled the hungry with good things

And the rich he has sent empty away

My Classical Graduating Recital Premieres with the Tale of Mad Bess

Join me on YouTube for the premiere of this series on Monday, March 22 at 12 noon Eastern Standard Time.

Watch as I take you on a trip through music history, from Baroque masterpieces to 20th century musical theatre. This series features songs I studied for my final singing exam from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. A new video will be released each week, and compiled into one convenient playlist. 

The ARCT diploma in Voice Performance is the culmination of years of study in the many styles and traditions of classical singing—opera, art song, oratorio, jazz, cabaret, musical theatre—as well as its prominent languages—French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. Additionally, the diploma requires extensive study in sight-reading, ear training, music history, harmony and music analysis, as well as piano proficiency. 

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Bess of Bedlam is a Baroque-era art song by English composer Henry Purcell. Published in 1683, it tells the tale of “Mad Bess,” a woeful resident of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, a.k.a. the Bedlam insane asylum in London. To this day, Bedlam’s name is associated with mayhem, confusion, and chaos, and points to the sordid history of how mental illness has been treated in Western society. The song’s lyrics alternate between the storytelling of a troubadour-style narrator, and the rantings of Bess herself. 

This song harkens back to a time when singers were not only the night’s entertainment, but also often travelling storytellers who told the tales of people and places near and far. These stories become part of a society’s mythology and folklore, in which social values can be tested and reflect the conscience of the times. Indeed, many mythological characters are mentioned in the lyrics of Bess’ rantings, including Oberon, Mab the Fairy Queen, and the Roman gods Mars and Venus. 

By Purcell’s account, Bess is a woman driven to a complete mental breakdown from grief and heartbreak. It ends with the sobering reminder that none of us is immune to the ensnarements and emotional turmoil of love. The narrator even suggests that, perhaps by living in her delusions, Bess has freed herself of the burdens and sorrows she would otherwise have to face in reality—and who could blame her? 

For me, not only does Purcell’s text demonstrate a compassion for the mentally ill, but also a real empathy for the plight of women in this age. The importance placed on a woman’s purity and marriageability was so severe that, if a woman were “sullied” by an errant lover, it would cause serious damage to her reputation and significantly limit her prospects in life. Heartbreak compounded with an existential crisis seems like a pretty compelling set of reasons to go mad, and Purcell asks us to understand and even relate to Bess in a way that is not often extended to female characters of unsound mind, even to this day. 

As someone who knows all too well the madness of living up to the competing expectations of women in our world today, Bess is both a tragic and fun character to play. She lead me to ask questions like, What is on the other side of not measuring up? Is delusion really madness, or simply a rejection of an unjust or unbearable reality? Is rejecting our prescribed role in this world a thing to be feared, or the path to real freedom? Or perhaps both? 

Happy Retirement to My Voice Teacher

This my voice teacher, Tannis Sprott, and I at our last singing lesson together, right before I performed my final exam and she finally got to retire! 

For the last four years, Tannis has been guiding me on my journey into classical singing. Her combination of humour, expertise, and compassion made our time together uplifting and grounding, even as I was going through some tough times. She’s a pretty tough lady herself! 

Her passion for classical music and teaching the art of vocal technique inspired me as a coach, and so much of what I do I learned from her. I know I’m not the only voice teacher working today who will say that. Her legacy will be not only people who found the joy of singing, but a generation of singers and coaches who can help others overcome their vocal challenges. I have students who are doing things with their voices they never thought possible, and a great deal of that knowledge I learned from Tannis. 

When the pandemic hit last year, Tannis made the wise decision to finally retire, as she had been intending to do for some time… except for me. Her dedication to helping me complete my ARCT singing exam went above and beyond the call of duty, even sewing special singing masks for me so that we could rehearse in her home. And during the lockdown, she continued coaching me online, despite the technical challenges (and there were many). 

My heart is overflowing with gratitude for this wonderful woman. My life is richer for having mentors like her in it, and it’s an unlimited wealth that now flows to others. 

Thank you Tannis!

How I Transitioned my Vocal Coaching Business in a Pandemic

When I started my vocal coaching business in 2018, after four years teaching private lessons at a music school, my dream was always to create a learning environment for my students that felt more comfortable, flexible, and personal. In the beginning of 2020, I was coaching singing lessons out of a beautiful rental studio in downtown Guelph, in the space of a wonderful local non-profit called Art Not Shame. When we got word in March that a global pandemic was spreading to Canada, I remember the early response from small businesses voluntarily shutting their doors to protect the public. As of March 15, I stopped all in-person lessons and started teaching online. 

The transition to online lessons was not easy. There were lots of technical glitches, and I definitely had to upgrade my internet plan. I tried every platform from Skype, to FaceTime, to Zoom. I was living with a room mate at the time in a very small house, so coaching at the piano in the living room was always a delicate scheduling dance.

Of course, some students only wanted to be seen in person because, understandably, the experience is very different. But when I heard horror stories about COVID-19 outbreaks at choir rehearsals, and saw the evidence that singing was a high-risk activity for COVID transmission, I knew that transitioning my business model to online coaching was the right thing to do. 

To accommodate the students who were already committed to in-person lessons, over the summer I coached outside in my backyard, 10 feet apart. At the end of the summer, I held an outdoor student open mic with my neighbours in our laneway and live-streamed it to my Facebook page. Each student got their own coloured wind sock for the microphone! No one got sick. 

Moving my entire business model online meant investing in my online presence. I beefed up my website, and doubled down on my social media engagement. Today I have almost 7 thousand followers on Instagram and Facebook, and all transactions are completed online. 

I am now teaching entirely over Zoom, and both my students and I are really enjoying it. There is no commute time, no parking fees, and best of all, there is no risk of catching any illness from one another. Students can record the lessons and watch them later when they practice. We can also share screens to review sheet music and make notes specific to their needs. But most importantly, students are still making progress. I have been quite pleased to find that the sound quality of most built-in device microphones still allows me to hear the tone of a singer’s voice quite well. From beginners to professionals, I have had no problem coaching singers of all levels with the technology that is commonly available. 

While I hope to return to in-person lessons someday, I can definitely see the value of incorporating online lessons into my services after the pandemic has subsided. I have had the pleasure of connecting with students from all over the world, including the US and Germany, but also Canadians from other regions of our vast country. Even for those I will see in person, I would love to be able to offer students the option of doing their lesson online if they feel that they might be coming down with a cold. My students will tell you that I have always offered a hearty supply of masks, hand sanitizer, and anti-viral Kleenex at my lessons during cold and flu season, because catching a cold can be so disruptive to a singer’s progress or livelihood. While I am glad that mask-wearing has become more socially normalized, the online lesson environment surely offers a more comfortable singing experience for both singer and teacher.

Ultimately, I feel very fortunate to have been able to make the transition to online lessons. In a time of such incredible stress for so many, it’s a privilege to be able to offer people a little slice of risk-free “me time” that they can feel good about. And while the online experience may be a bit different, the learning environment of trust, personal attention, and a love for music-making still permeates every lesson.

Why Singers Need Body Positivity

“Short and stubby, very chubby…”

As we enter 2021 and feel the routine pull towards new year’s resolutions of diet and exercise, I can’t help but remember the taunts of my grade 3 classmates. As a child, I was bullied pretty relentlessly for my weight. Looking back on how I grew up, I cannot think of any aspect of my life that was not shaped by the shame I felt about my body, especially my dreams of becoming a performer. 

As a teenage girl, I accepted the narrative that I was too fat to be attractive, in a world where beauty seemed to be an all-important measure of a girl’s worth and potential in life. Resigned to the fact of my own ugliness, I accepted a lot of messages about what I would and would not be able to get out of life. Certainly, I would never get a boyfriend. Dressing well would be pointless when I should be focusing on hiding my body. And above all, I would never be taken seriously as a performer in the entertainment industry as long as I was fat. 

Looking back, I really have to hand it to teenage Laura for how well she handled all that. Yes, she cried a lot. Yes, she went on many awful and unsustainable diets. But in ruling out romance entirely, she focused almost all of her energy on music. While her friends were preoccupied with the dramas of dating, she was in her room at night teaching herself to play guitar, listening to Beatles records, and writing sad songs about her unrequited crushes. She poured herself into choir and orchestra (she played violin at her mother’s insistence), and the friendships she formed with her fellow music nerds. She worked on the musical and social skills that have proven to be completely invaluable to me now. I am so proud of her.

When it came to professional opportunities, however—like going to auditions, finding an agent, or even posting to YouTube—teenage Laura just didn’t have the confidence to put herself out there like that. She thought she was too fat to land any professional gigs, so she didn’t even try.

Today, I have a much better self-image because the biggest lesson of my adult life has been discovering just how many of these messages I absorbed were nothing but lies. I have accomplished almost everything I was told I would never be able to do, including modelling for major Instagram accounts without losing weight. However, the value placed on women’s looks—the patriarchal contaminant in our society underscoring everything that happened to me—is still very much a reality. I am so grateful for the body positivity movement and the activists who have worked for years, not only to help women find self-acceptance and self-love in their bodies, but to actively change mainstream beauty standards to include people like me. Their work is something I have benefited from greatly. 

That being said, the pressure on women in the entertainment industry to lose weight and fit the mould—even the world’s most accomplished opera singers—remains ever-constant. There is no question that the entertainment industry is superficial, that it judges performers based on their looks, and it probably always will. Therefore, it matters that women of all shapes and sizes are considered beautiful. Because when it comes to being a singer, body positivity could be the difference between someone believing she can, or thinking she can’t. 

Of course, when teaching young girls I always focus on ability, work ethic, and the instrument. Additionally, I consider it a great privilege and a great responsibility to be an adult with a recurring role in a young person’s life. Even if body image is never discussed, I try my best to pass on to young students the true source of my confidence: not my looks, but rather my work ethic, my sense of humour, and the pride of my accomplishments. May they remember their “chubby” music teacher who did it all, and go after whatever they want in life. May they never take themselves out of the race over something as silly as their size.

My Top 5 Thanksgiving Tunes

Are there any Thanksgiving songs, you ask? If you’re looking to put together a Thanksgiving playlist, here are my top 5 recommendations.

  1. Thanksgiving Day by Guy Davis is a fun toe-tapping guitar tune that you can imagine being played in a barn while turkeys run around wildly for their lives.
  2. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving by George Winston will help set the mood with classic jazz piano vibes that are uplifting and wistful.
  3. Thanksgiving Song by Mary Chapin Carpenter is a beautiful pop ballad you could totally bust out with the guitar or piano for your guests.
  4. The Turkey Dance by The Learning Station is a very funky kids song that will turn your little one into a perky disco turkey.
  5. I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For by Bing Crosby may not specifically mention thanksgiving, but it’s a fun jazzy addition to your Thanksgiving playlist that will fit right in.

Check out Spotify for some great Thanksgiving playlists this weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sukkot Livestream Tonight!

Today marks the beginning of Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Sukkot is a festival of the harvest, where Jewish people have dinner together in a fun tent called a sukkah. Sukkot celebrates the ways in which G-d protected and provided for the Jewish people as they walked through the harsh conditions of the desert to the Promised Land. The festival runs from tonight, October 2, to October 9 this year.

Tonight I will be live-streaming a short performance from our own Sukkot Shabbat dinner at 6:30 PM EST. Tune in to my Facebook page to see my back porch transformed into a beautiful sukkah. I will be singing the Yom Kippur songs that you were unable to hear on Monday due to technical difficulties and stormy weather. See you then!

Yom Kippur prayer services live-streamed this Monday

Your High Holidays Dynamic Duo!

This coming Monday September 28, Kohenet Lauren Stein and I will be reuniting (did we ever part?) to bring you another live-streamed high holiday prayer service for Yom Kippur. Tune into my Facebook page at 6:30 PM to watch from home.

For those who are interested in coming to the event in Guelph, here are the details.

Time and Place

Mid-Afternoon on Monday, September 28, 2020
AKA 10 Tishrei, 5781
Me & Lauren’s backyard (location available upon confirmation)

Yizkor (commemorating our beloved who have passed) at 3:30 PM

Discussion at 5:00 PM

Ne’ilah (closing services) and Havdalláh (separating holy time from the rest of time) starting at 6:30 PM

Breaking the fast dinner (we will likely order Thai) at 7:45 PM


Things to bring

🤲 Your own hanitizer and wipes

😷 Your own mask and gloves if you want

👲 Kippah if you wear one during religious rituals

☂️ Weather: The forecast is a high of 21˚C and a low of 13˚C, with possible showers, so dress accordingly and bring an umbrella

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Travel mug/reusable bottle, filled with water*

☕️ A thermal travel mug with a hot beverage also an idea*
🍷 Wine and grape juice will be served as part of the ritual. You’re welcome to bring a wine glass or simply use the travel receptacle you already have.*
 🍽 Yom Kippur is a day of fasting. Lauren will be fasting, and you’re welcome to join her. If you do not wish to fast or have a medical need, please take care of yourself away from plain view so as to respect those who are fasting.
💌 Costs for us are $36 per person. Please come regardless of contribution, as we want you there. If you are able to contribute, that would be greatly appreciated.