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  • Jeni Houser

Sing For Your Supper

How have I been keeping busy at home with no gigs in the short-term? I’m so glad you asked! I’m tackling big projects I’ve had in mind for a long time, thinking about big ideas, reading big books, and… COOKING big meals! Which, obviously, has me thinking about the connections between singing and food, my two favorite things (besides my people and my dog).


There’s only one thing to do as far as I'm concerned, and that’s to describe four of the ways that cooking and singing are alike:


1) Mise en place makes everything easier. Mise en place translates roughly from the French as “everything in its place.” In cooking, that means getting out all of your ingredients, measuring tools, cooking utensils, and preheating your oven (if necessary) before you begin. It also includes prepping the ingredients by washing and chopping. We recently acquired cute little dishes from a potter friend to facilitate our spice prep, and we generally place all the chopped veggies in regular bowls before we begin a recipe.


Mise en place is a useful concept for singing as well. For a practice session, it means having a mental game plan for what you’re going to work on and why, getting any tools together that you might need (like water, scores, a straw, tennis balls, a recording device, etc), and then starting off by prepping your ingredients… I mean, your technique and body. That’s right, doing some bodywork and breathing exercises before you begin singing puts everything in its place within your body. Then doing technical exercises and warm ups before jumping in to repertoire is the equivalent of chopping veggies before you cook them. Don’t try to cook whole onions and expect the end result to be edible and delicious; instead, break that stuff down into delectable bite-sized nuggets, which will enhance every single bite in the actual dish (i.e. allow you to make the musical and artistic choices you want to make and create beautiful sounds for audiences).

In a macro sense, mise en place in a singing career means that you have technical components in decent shape before heading into rehearsals and performances. Mid-performance is no time to be worrying about whether you can hit a certain note - the tough things need to be routined and habitualized in individual practice sessions well beforehand. Some singers are naturally technique-focused and enjoy working on the tiny vocal details, so this part doesn’t feel like a tedious precursor, it feels like part of the fun. For those singers, perhaps working with a coach to iron out all of the musical and language nuance is their version of the nitty gritty work. Doing all the “boring” stuff ahead of time allows for spontaneity and exploration during rehearsals and performances, which is similar to the incredible feeling of witnessing a complicated dish come together and meld disparate flavors into one perfect mouthful. Like a classic French stew, there are a lot of components required for singing opera, and it’s impossible to consciously execute all of them at one time, so the prep work of creating habits is essential. Speaking of all of those components...


2) Balance between many variables is necessary for a successful final product. If we’re making that classic French stew and accidentally dump in twice the amount of salt called for, suddenly it doesn’t matter how perfectly we braised the meat and how gloriously we deglazed the pot with (let’s be honest, relatively inexpensive) red wine, all we taste is salt. We have to balance the flavors of the ingredients and the textures we achieve through various cooking methods, plus we have to keep an eye on the clock as we go through the list of steps.

Likewise, I could be the most pathos-filled, specific, beautiful actress this side of the Mississippi, but if my voice doesn’t carry without a microphone or my Italian is completely unintelligible, I will not get hired for opera. I also can’t focus solely on technique without any knowledge of musical style or text expression. My energies must be balanced, I must build up my strengths (high-quality meat, let’s say) and minimize my weaknesses (cheap wine) in order to create a final product that is pleasing and worthwhile. And no matter what I do on those fronts...


3) Tastes are subjective. Some of you may have felt repulsed when I mentioned French stew as the cooking example. You are a vegetarian or you hate wine-based sauces or you normally like stews but it’s almost summer and you’re *really* into salads and toasts right now. Likewise, some of you may have heard me sing and asked incredulously, “she gets singing jobs?” Or you sometimes like coloratura voices, but you’re really much more into Wagner at the moment.

When dining at a restaurant, you are presented with a menu of options and get to choose to eat the one that appeals to you. By contrast, when attending an opera, the company has decided how your favorite role will be interpreted for you, and the artist on stage cannot possibly be all things to all audience members. (Thank goodness I can always watch Erin Morley as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier on Met Opera On Demand to fill my personal flavor demands.) It’s such an interesting thing to be a chef (I imagine) or an artist, creating persistently while knowing that what you value will not be valued by everyone. And yet (and yet!), someone out there will love your timbre and be moved by your artistry and want to eat every single French stew you create. You win some, you lose some. But by creating at all, you win much more than you lose.


4) It’s important to nourish both the body and the soul. Food and singing are full of nourishment. They are therapeutic. They keep us physically healthy and emotionally stable. It is possible to go overboard - to sing until your voice is exhausted or injured, to eat more than your body can process effectively - but at a base level, these are sustaining and fulfilling things.

Both eating and singing are also two-way streets with our bodies. As we keep active and aware of what makes us feel healthy physically, we increase our capacity for processing the calories from our favorite dishes and we increase our vocal stamina and ability to sing our favorite songs and arias. And meanwhile, those calories provide us with more energy and the act of singing calms our nervous system, giving back to the body as much as they take.

As for the soul, I probably don’t need to explain anything about what makes food or music special. They make us feel things. They provide connection to other humans. They allow for creativity, fun, and depth. That’s why I love them both, and why I am enjoying exploring them in new ways during this period without gigs and with an abundance of unstructured time. They are feeding me and keeping me going on tough days.


I hope you are all finding ways to feed your souls right now as well, whether through big projects, small moments of joy, or developing connections (you know, like singing and cooking) that tickle your brain.


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