20 June, 2014

Serving Maria

Dame Kiri: honoring the legacy.
Tonight, as I was doing the dishes in my ever-warming fifth-floor walk-up in New York City, a song began to play on my iTunes shuffle.
It was "One Hand, One Heart" as sung by Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras from the 1985 studio recording conducted by Bernstein himself. (Many of you may be familiar with the documentary film made about the making of this recording-- for many of us it was a consummate first glimpse behind the scenes of the music world).

I stopped.
Bright-yellow gloved, and covered in soap suds, I stopped.
The music was stabbing me in the heart.
I folded over and listened to them sing...
     and I cried.

It sent me back a year-- to Al on the subway/on the streets/in a hundred voice lessons/in the shower, pouring and pouring over the Marias of the past-- Carol Lawrence, Marni Nixon, Josefina Scaglione, and Tinuke Olafimihan, trying to glean any musical understanding I could. But particularly from Dame Kiri's flawless, totally inaudible breathing, the shimmer of her high notes, and the effortlessness of her phrasing.

Once upon a time, almost exactly a year ago, there was a day when I was riding the subway up to Julliard for a voice lesson. The very same 1985 studio cast recording of "One Hand, One Heart," had come up onto my iPod, and I fell apart on the 1 train. I just surrendered to the music, allowing the tears fall down my face moved by the truth and beauty of it all as a few thoughts aburptly struck me:
  • I was conscious of the fact that I was making my way up to sing along the very streets where the 1961 movie version of West Side Story had been filmed.
  • I was conscious that only a few months before, I had made my way to this very place to audition for Michael Tilson Thomas.
  • I was aware that Bernstein's own breaths and gestures and feelings were in that moment, ringing in my ears...
  • I could not believe that of all the sopranos on earth, Michael Tilson Thomas--one of the greatest minds in music--had chosen me. I could not believe what he was giving me the chance to be a part of. 
  • I would not doubt his judgement, nor would I allow myself to let anyone down. 
It was in that moment on the train that I vowed to profoundly honor this role, and this legacy.
I endeavored (and continue to endeavor) every single day to deserve it.

You know, whoever you are, no matter where or how publicly you work on your art, we all must remember that art is, at its core, a service industry.
It is simply not about us, the artist, our ego and its agenda.
It is about the story.
It is about the truth.
It is about finding within the text and music and silences in-between, what makes us the same.
It is about serving the character,
     and in serving them, doing everything in our power to get out of our own way so that their story can be truthfully told.

I know that there are probably thousands of better singers than I. Some of them are the people I grew up admiring. Some of them are my friends. Some of them were in the cast of West Side Story with me! Some are distant phantoms I will never know or meet but I admire from afar. Many are singing beautifully in the shower in Iowa or New Zealand or Latvia. For many weeks before I reached San Francisco I allowed myself to be bogged down by those "better singers," in awe of their tone, legato, and breath control, and frankly, their life of training which I had truly only just begun.

One day in rehearsal it hit me very simply: I cannot be them.
There is only one them.
Just as there is only one Alexandra Silber.
This is not about comparison.
This is not at all about my voice, my high notes, legato or breath control.
In fact, this isn't about me or about singing at all.

This is about Maria.

And I knew in my soul, that I had a great deal to say about her.
I knew Maria in my bone marrow.
I had the ability to let Maria use my vessel to tell her story of love, courage, hope and strength.
I had the capacity to choose Maria's story over Alexandra's fears and insecurities.

And if I could find the strength to focus on Maria, rather than focusing on
     my self,
     my voice,
     the magnitude of this opportunity,
     the artistic company I am keeping, or
     the enormous legacy I am joining...
...then I would be just fine. Because Maria would be served, and with that purity of intention in mind, I trusted that the rest would fall into place...


Back in the kitchen standing over the dishes, as the final chords of Te Kanawa and Carreras came to a close, I realized something...
I realized that one day, there existed the possibility that the next inheritor of this great legacy, that future Marias-to-be, that people might be sitting on the 1 train bursting into tears with...me.
With Cheyenne, and MTT, and I.

And thanks to a chance encounter on iTunes shuffle, I saw it fully: this was the legacy.
Not my name on a roster of Marias on a Wikepedia page.
No. This moment of profound, connected-to-the-core, deep musical feeling alone in my kitchen.
Or on the 1 train...

None shall part us now.

17 June, 2014

I've Been: California 2014

Three Sisters

Being 'Aunt Al'

Getting to know the tiny little new Silber: Charlotte.

Putting Hannah in owl pajamas
Playing softball!
General frolicking
Jumping on the bed
Reading stories
     singing Hannah to sleep

Force-feeding my nieces [total critical] musical theatre

Doing some serious eating with my big brother

Thoroughly inspecting [what feels like] every single mall in Northern California

Shame about the view...
Playing in the pool
Sunning by the pool.

Climbing up the mountain and drinking and entire bottle of champagne whilst taking in THIS view [see right]

Walking up mountains
     and through forests

Surveying the “LAND!” my brother bought

the view from the ferry
Driving to Alamo with my former student, Jonathan...

Eating THE most amazing meal with his entire family

...playing bocci ball
...and WINNING!

Making friends with a gorgeous South Carolinian family on the San Francisco Bay ferry!

Giving directions to tourists and feeling “very” San-Fran-local

The team.
Going to the dentist. In San Francisco. Because that’s where my dentist is.

Walking across downtown San Fransisco…literally

Just… ya know…launching the West Side Story CD (Eeeeee!)

Reuniting with so many friends made last year!

Singing "I Feel Pretty."

In the presence of Rita Moreno

And freaking out
making-out with Cheyenne Jackson
...in the women’s bathroom…


....where I discovered that everything is named after a bird... Cool.

Love is Strange premiere

Flying to LA for a quick hello

Having lunch in LA with people I saw 4 days ago in NYC, because, friendship.

Getting "real talk" from my second family.

Driving to Cheyenne's house
drinking smoothies
falling in love with Jason, his fiancé, 
     and Billie Jean, his dog. 
...then singing along to ourselves on the CD in his living room. (Mature.)

Then supporting the gorgeous Cheyenne at the premiere of his new film “Love is Strange.”

Staying in Michael Arden’s cabana… while he is in London, because, friendship.

Taking excessive photographs of his cat, Eloise (because evidently I have an addiction to taking cat photos...)
Business: with the sea.

Driving in the city in a Ford hybrid LIKEABOSS...

Getting long overdue Manhattans (because Manhattans are delicious.)

Going to the beach with amazing friends.

Having my (now annual) “business with the sea.”

Brunch and drinks
and Brunch dinner
and Brunch and dancing
     with a lot of amazing pals, old and new.

Making a lot of new friends.
Making a lot of 'lemonade...' 

Our Girl Band: Mermaids of Babylon
Loving my birth city. Loving it big-time. 

Seeing the “For the Record” and loving it.

Partying hard and late and dancing LIKEABOSS in the LA



...a shit ton of sunshine.

07 June, 2014

Ask Al: Knowledge vs. Intelligence

Dear Al,

A few weeks ago my son completed his Freshman year of University. He is a dance major at a well-regarded institution, and while his dance abilities are (as objectively as a parent can state) extraordinary, his academic grades continue to suffer as they did throughout his high school education. It has crushed him.

I believe in my son fiercely. I don't care that his grades suffer in math and reading, but of course this is the real world! Grades matter! And critically, his academic GPA hugely influences his scholarship money.

The worst part is, I can feel my son "closing up," identifying as "stupid" and "slow," neither of which he is. He is warm, engaging, a social dynamo, musical, thoughtful, and the understanding and command he has of his physical body is incredible. 

As an artist yourself, do you have any thoughts about this? Most importantly, how can I help him respect his individual talents and "smarts?"


Mom in Pittsburgh


Dear Mom in Pittsburgh,

Whoa Nellie. Thank you so much for writing, because do I ever have something to get up on my soap-box and preach about this!

Society values and measures two types of intelligences: Linguistic (words) and Numerical (numbers). Those are the only two ways we determine “smart-ness” in our children today. In my humble opinion: That. Is. Crazy

Psychologist Howard Gardner's has developed the pioneering theory of "multiple intelligences.”  In the original edition of Thomas Armstrong’s (incredibly accessible ) book 7 Kinds of Smart, based on Gardner’s theory, Armstrong identifies seven distinct, measurable intelligences.

These include:


PEOPLE (interpersonal intelligence)
SELF (intra-personal intelligence)

In the revised edition, he adds two newly researched forms of human intelligence:
NATURAL (regarding one's natural environment)
EXISTENTIAL. (regarding one's place in known existence)

The theory holds that new intelligences are developing in the human psyche all the time. (Dear Everyone, Please read this book.)

Schools have to manage and assess the learning of children, so they create tests, establish incredibly limited benchmarks. Those SATs and ACTs? They exclusively measure only linguistic and numerical intelligences, and perpetuate the educational myth that anyone who doesn’t succeed in these two areas is not “smart…”

But the creative mind does not progress in a conventional manner, and our culture, as a whole, has bought-off on this concept of intelligence as an end-all gospel truth. Mastery of these "measuring tools" (ACT, SAT, GPA) grants access to scholarships, top schools, careers, and massively affects the future of our children.  Also, the Arts are often treated as expendable "frills" in our public education budgets. Emphasis on SAT scores and 4.0 GPA's leave little time for other pursuits.

Dearest Mom in Pittsburgh, these measurements are of knowledge and not of intelligence. (Particularly intelligence as defined by Gardner and Armstrong, above.)

Knowledge is information that enters the mind as a result of learning. The dictionary says this:

noun: knowledge; plural noun: knowledges
facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.

It is not to be dismissed, but it is achieved through memorization and often, mimicry.  Knowledge is easy to measure, thus easy to manage, and judge “smart” children from “not-smart” ones.  I don’t think I even need to articulate how damaging the labels of “not-smart,” “struggling” or, sadly “stupid” can be. Those labels and identities are toxic! Poisonous to the confidence of a growing human being, and can castrate even the most resilient spirits.

And knowledge is not intelligence.

©hula seventy
Intelligence is about capacity. Capacity for understanding, for the application of knowledge in a practical or skillful manner. For example, your son's emotional depth, married with what you describe as an extraordinary command and understanding of his physical body will not necessarily get him a high SAT score, but it positions him in ideal place to be the dancer he aspires to be. Intelligence encompasses the individual child themselves, with all their gifts, depths, experiences, understandings, talents and shortcomings and all their “letter-conditions” (ADD, ADHD, OCD, etc).

Think of it this way: a person may learn and know the steps of a great classic work of the ballet, but it does not mean they dance it skillfully or with expression. One may know the tune and lyrics of a song, but that doesn't mean they sing it with the furthest depth of human understanding.

When knowledge and intelligence marry with talent (innate) skill (learned) and hard work (required), together they comprehensively inform the present and future of an individual. 

Knowledge alone did not create the result. It was how that individual child chose to utilize that knowledge. The development of the creative mind is not measurable. Especially creative intelligence. There are no tests for this, no tools, no software, so don’t even try.  But as parents and teachers, we can encourage creative intelligence to develop naturally and brilliantly in our children; and as individuals, within ourselves.

I had a remarkable student last year in my acting class at Pace University. Let's call him James. James was a student accepted to the University through a program that provided acceptance slots for students with specific talents that weren't conventionally "good" students academically. But grades schmades--James was a great company member, a natural leader, outgoing, charismatic, and so deeply feeling (in fact, one of the most deeply feeling in his entire year group). He just didn't have the language skills to fully express that depth of feeling. He needed another way. It took me a little while to discover James' gifts, but when we entered second semester and the class became more physical -- I saw James in all his glory. I knew immediately that James' intelligence was in the movement of his form. There wasn't a single thing in the universe that escaped him if he experienced and expressed it through his body. Once I discovered that, I knew how to reach him. But critically, I named it for James, in front of all classmates. And I could see him stand taller, and get braver, because (I wish and hope) he felt truly seen and respected, so it gave him permission to more deeply respect himself.

Mom in Pittsburgh, I cannot change the system.
I wish I could.
But your instinct is totally spot-on: your son possesses intelligences that deserve respect. From you, from the world, and above all, from himself. 

One final thought about artists specifically:

Michigan State University physiologist Robert Root-Bernstien claims that most Nobel Prize winners have arts-related hobbies. French Physicist Henri Poincare said aesthetics was a "delicate sieve" that helped scientists sort through the confusion of facts and theories.

    •    Nobel Prize-wining chemist Road Hoffman is also a poet.
    •    Condoleezza Rice trained as a concert pianist.
    •    Leonardo DaVinci invented flying machines and painted the Mona Lisa.
    •    NFL player Rosey Grier used… um, needlepoint, to calm himself before big games.
    •    Thomas Jefferson played the violin.
    •    Einstein said the imagination was more important than knowledge.

Artists see, hear and feel the things other people ignore.

Artists see, hear and feel the over-looked, microscopic, or outright hidden links between everyday experiences, people and things. 

Because our artists, just like our scientists and great thinkers, have to see the world both as it is, as well as how they dream it to be.

Work hard.
Cultivate knowledge.
Honor Intelligence.



©hula seventy

06 June, 2014

05 June, 2014

"One Hand, One Heart"

One of my favorite moments shared on stage, in any place, with anyone, ever.

Not hyperbole.

With Cheyenne Jackson at Davies Symphony Hall singing "One Hand One Heart" lead by the great Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. I am so grateful it was captured on film.

Cheyenne and I were so profoundly connected during this song we could feel our souls mingle...

01 June, 2014

Ask Al: Patience

Dear Al, 
I have recently been mad at myself for not "leaning in" to difficulties and challenges of class, especially in regards to my vulnerability—I feel very unwilling to feel exposed. I try to push myself, but part of me knows I didn't give everything I could. I also realized I was trying to please too much this week. Please myself. Please you. Please whomever! And sometimes when I don't get the "attention" I desire, I just close up, shut down, and over-analyze. To use your term, this is not what my "highest self" truly wants! I know you cannot always provide answers to everything—you are not *actually* Buddha. You are Al. But I thought it was worth asking!

I hope this doesn't sound too "hydrogen-y..." I just feel like lately my energy has been "off." I think I have reached a new plateau and don't know how to take it to the next level. I get so impatient! I want to feel all of the results right away and with great intensity!



I get it. It happens! And it is worth asking. It's a question that plagues us alleven if we aren't artists!

There can't be growth without periods of reflection. The butterfly has to spend time in the cocoon. When we all appeal to our "higher selves," we motivate that highest self to make the most of the opportunities that ARE in front of us. (Plus, grouchy/ whiny/ arrogant/entitled/needy thoughts and behavior are contagious, so do everything you can to disengage with it socially or in your own head...)

Energy in life isn't always going to be perfectly "on point." So remember that it is not the energy itself, but your response to the energy that makes the difference!

It would be so much easier to get through life if we said:
"I really wanted that to be world rocking. I tried to facilitate that happening, and it didn't today. That's okay. It's all allowed to be a part of the process."
You are a very results-oriented person (many people are), and in many cases that is fantastic! But you must embrace the process! Embrace, and accept the fact that just because it doesn't happen TODAY, it does not mean it isn't currently in the PROCESS of happening.

Example: I sometimes get really frustrated with my Invisaline. I mean, here I am a thirty-year-old woman with invisible magic braces (so I already feel like a jerk), then I look in the mirror and I freak out.
          "Is it even WORKING?! I can't see the difference yet and it has been 10 weeks! 16 weeks!"
But of course... it IS working. I will calmthehelldown, look back on the original tray, and completely marvel at how much change has been achieved every single second of the day, even in my sleep, microscopic bit by microscopic bit... So I trust that one day, after all this consistency and commitment, I will wake up with straight teeth. I just have to stick with it, and not allow myself to get negative...
... Um... sound familiar?
Basically: you are my crooked teeth. 
No but seriously,
          The best and most permanent things in life are rarely built QUICKLY.
So trust that it is happening.
That you are learning.
Even if you can't feel your progress every single second. 

Thus your self-proclaimed "neediness" is understandable—you are feeling lots of growing pains (also known as "icky feels") and want to feel better.

But you're right: my approval or disapproval won't fix this in the long run. You have to make peace with the power and the role of "struggle" in the human growth experience. Accept the very human necessity to tolerate struggle, to embrace discomfort in the name of growth. (It's like stretching—without a little discomfort we can't touch our toes, or do downward dog, or the bendy lotus thing...)

Embracing struggle means making peace. It looks like this:
     "My energy is off, my planets are in the wrong house, it so cold I can't feel my face, I didn't cry in Acting class, and all of this is making me uncomfortable; but I'm okay and it's okay because I'm embracing the process. It's all allowed."
And you're right— I'm not Buddha, I am indeed Al.
But in this case, I think even Buddha would say "Make peace with patience." 

And remember, as the great John Steinbeck taught us in East of Eden:

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."




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