Practice for Real Life: An Interview with Soprano Jennifer Sgroe
I recently had the chance to sit down with soprano, voice teacher, and yogi Dr. Jennifer Sgroe to chat about how her yoga practice has affected her life as a singer. I first met Jennifer in 2011 when we were in a production of The Magic Flute in Boston together. She is a lovely person all-around: easy to talk to, interesting, and full of joy and excitement as she talks about yoga and singing, two of her favorite things! She shared many inspiring stories with me during our conversation and I’m so excited to pass her wisdom along to you here. Onstage she specializes in contemporary American opera and art song and repertoire of the Baroque and Classical eras and on the mat she enjoys a daily home practice tailored to her needs as a busy singer and voice teacher. Dr. Sgroe is a colleague of mine on the faculty of the New England Conservatory Preparatory School and also maintains private voice studios in Boston and New York. For more info check out her bio at the end of this interview!
What brought you to yoga?
When I was an apprentice at Utah Opera they gave us our own yoga instructor and this was the first time I ever practiced yoga. It was quite transformational for me. I come from a dance background, so my whole life was spent in my physical body. I started dancing when I was four and I danced 3-4 days a week throughout my childhood. I belonged to a regional ballet company for a while. I danced up until I was about 16 or 17, when I started getting into singing and eventually I had to make a choice between continuing to dance or studying singing. All this to say, my body responds well to physical motion.
I’ll never forget my first savasana. Our teacher Marie prepped us that during our first savasana we might experience sensations or feelings that could catch us off guard because it might be the first time we were getting breath into certain parts of the body. She warned that we might feel happy or sad or energized or calm, and that that was totally normal! So we laid down into savasana and I first started to feel emotional, sort of happy but also overwhelmed and some tears started to come. I thought to myself, what are you doing? Quit crying! And then I remembered what Marie had said and I started to calm down and center myself. I began to have the sense that my soul was bigger than my physical body. It was the first time that I felt like I understood what soul was outside of my physical body. It was very unusual and it stuck with me. I’ve only ever really experienced a glimmer of that again but it’s something I remember now when I meditate. I could literally feel it, that my being extended outside of my physical body. It was very moving and eye-opening. I learned something in that moment that I only sort of understand at the time.
I learned a lot about myself that year practicing with Marie and my colleagues there. I had just finished my graduate work and it was during that time that I lost my mother. There I was living in Utah with four people that I didn’t really know and yoga helped me deal with some of the stuff I was going through with my mom’s passing. Things had been moving so quickly before then, I had been finishing school, we had sold my family house right before I left, I had packed it up, then all of a sudden I was there in Utah for the whole season. Yoga ended up being really important at this time. It was really interesting, although I was a fast-paced person, I was always a pose behind in our yoga classes. I had this need to go slower and hold poses longer and I think it was my body’s way of showing me what I needed. It was the biggest gift at that time in my life.
Has yoga been a consistent part of your life since then?
Yes, very consistent. Some days and weeks more than others but on the whole yes. There were days when I was working on my doctorate when every single day I would practice for 90 minutes before going to class or to teach. I primarily practice at home by myself because it’s usually too hard to fit a class into my schedule. There have been times in my life when I have been able to fit classes in regularly, like for a while I was going to vinyasa classes regularly and I found I really liked them. I would like to practice more with guidance but mostly now it is a tool for me to keep my body and my singing well and healthy. I did have a very bad concussion and neck injury a few years ago and for a while I wasn’t able to practice yoga because of the injury and the symptoms it caused. I did a lot of PT to recover which was very helpful. Also, I’m grateful to yoga because I think the body awareness I had developed through yoga helped with my recovery. Eventually I was able to start to reintroduce yoga back into my life.
How has yoga influenced your singing?
It has influenced my singing in several ways. At this time in my life I often teach all day, basically 9-5, and then I still need to practice singing for an hour or 90 minutes afterwards. To make this possible I will do an Alexander Technique-style lie down on the floor. I give my musculature 10-15 minutes to chill out and then I do some modified stretching/yoga consisting of partial sun salutations, neck rotations, and some twists. It takes about 15 minutes and then my body is ready to sing again. I can then have a practice session that feels like I haven’t just taught an 8 hour day. It rinses off the day and resets the musculature.
A few years ago I sang Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro and we had these very long days of rehearsal. That role is very comfortable but it really sits in the middle of the voice so I must absolutely stay connected to the breath and body, since my voice sits fairly high. At the end of a 10-hour rehearsal day my body is tired. During that time I would literally crawl from bed to the yoga mat first thing each morning. I’m a morning practicer, that’s the way it works for me. Again, it gives me that feeling of rinsing off the fatigue-I don’t drink caffeine or coffee or anything so yoga is my wake-up! It has taught me to meet my body where it is, go from pose to pose, go from moment to moment-that’s the other aspect of the practice. When you are really tired in the middle of a practice, you have to just practice being in the moment. I think as a singer, when we are performing or in an audition, the best practice we can do is just to be in the moment, and yoga re-enforces that. It keep the body refreshed instead of stressed and it teaches me to be mindful. I remember when I was practicing bikram, I especially liked all the standing balancing poses. I love to do standing balancing poses when I can’t get my head straight, because you can’t think of anything else when you are trying to balance!
Additionally, yoga helps me be mindful of where my body is, my breath, my alignment. It has given me the kinesthetic ability to understand what is going on when I’m in the act of singing-head and neck especially. That awareness is constantly evolving. These days I’m thinking so much about the trapezius muscle, sternocleidomastoid, and jaw-they are all just so bundled up! If you can release that space between the shoulderblades and the base of the neck, I think it takes a lot of effort out of the jaw and tongue.
Do you incorporate anything from yoga into your teaching?
Absolutely. At the beginning of most lessons I lead students through a few poses to open the breath and help them find good alignment. I also incorporate a rudimentary understanding of basic Alexander alignment. I’m not a certified Alexander teacher but I have taken some classes and find it very useful. I have found that alignment work encourages the breath in a way that is more instinctual. Alignment and breath go hand in hand!
Describe your personal daily yoga practice.
I am a creature of habit. I mostly do the same thing every day with small adjustments. Currently, I still do my head and neck exercises from my PT to help me mobilize my upper spine. The rest of my practice is based on a few different classes I have come across and adapted for my own use. It’s mostly vinyasa flow although sometimes the plank/chaturanga/updog sequence can exacerbate my reflux so I have to careful. I always do warriors, triangle, some version of flow, seated poses, twists, savasana and then I end with seated meditation. Ideally, my whole practice usually takes between 75-90 minutes. There are days when I take all of that time to do my practice and then the rest of my day is crazy with absolutely no time for any breaks and I kick myself for taking so much time on the mat. But inevitably I think, thank god I did it because what would I be like if I didn’t practice!?
For instance, recently I had an audition and I took the time to do a good yoga practice that morning, which is what I usually try to do on an audition day. Then I got ready, warmed up, and left early so that I had plenty of time to get there at least 20 minutes beforehand and then...my GPS took me to 4 different incorrect locations before I finally found the right one! I finally made it there 10 minutes late! What I had to sing was challenging and of course I had to start with the most challenging, high, soft piece right off the bat. I often hold affirmations in my meditation-they come to me during meditation and then I will carry them with me through my day and discover what they are about. So during this stressful audition situation I was trying to be self-affirming. Was I as perfectly settled as I would have been if I had arrived 20 minutes early as planned? No. But did I find my grounding? Yes. I am grateful for the practice to at least have a brain that could reset itself and not spin out and go to anxiety. Yoga and meditation give me a flexibility of my brain and my body to center myself. That’s another thing that was very important in my recovery from the concussion. When you are recovering from a concussion you are essentially waiting for the brain to reboot itself and the neurons to refire. I looked at my recovery as an opportunity to have a rebooted, new brain. It’s been really important to me to remember this because it means I don’t have to react with old brain waves. The meditation and yoga are active tools for me to build new neural pathways. I find myself now with more choices-I don’t have to react, I can hit pause. We can call it mindfulness but it goes a little deeper than that I think. I’m trying to teach my students this as well.
This is exactly what I love about yoga, that it is a practice. It’s a lot like singing in this way. I love practicing singing, I could easily spend 2 hours after an 8 hour teaching day in the studio. I am so happy there, in the studio, in practice. Being on the mat is practice for real life, for all the things that life throws at you, and practice in the studio is practice for all the things that the musical life throws at you-performance and otherwise. The opportunity to practice is such a gift, I revel in those moments so that when the big moments arrive I am ready.
There was another audition recently that happened to fall on a day when there was a huge snowstorm in New York City. I had reserved a warm up room and when I got there they informed me that they were closing early for the day. I instantly felt the anxiety rising me inside me-what do you mean you are closing?? I have an extremely important audition in two hours and I need to warm up and get myself ready!! But I just had to be mindful and make a back-up plan, which is what I did. I called around and found another warm up room at a different studio and I raced over there and had just enough time to get ready and get there. I then sang probably the most centered and honest audition that I ever have. I don’t know how it happened but I thanked the practice because that is where the magic happens-when your practice is so ingrained that it becomes your default. I am still working on that but I felt it that day. I still can’t believe it happened because I have never had an audition like that where I was that much in flow that it felt like the middle of a performance. It felt so honest and in the moment, like I finally sang like me.
Tell me more about your meditation practice.
I am mostly self-taught with meditation, aside from a little bit of instruction in yoga classes. I would love to get more instruction on it at some point but I basically have figured it out for myself. Doing yoga is what led me to meditate. I find it very hard to meditate without doing yoga first but doing it at the end of my yoga practice feels like the simplest thing. I think it’s because I am a person who comes from body movement. I have always found release, calm and insight from body movement. That’s why Alexander was actually harder for me because it is a much more static practice. I found it mentally exhausting!
Do you do any pranayama exercises?
I like breath of fire. It awakens the muscles used for singing and warms me up if I’m cold.
Is there anything from yoga philosophy that you have taken into your practice?
Yes! When I was in college I took as Asian philosophy class. We covered all the primary Asian philosophies-Buddhism, Daoism, the Bhavagad Gita, Indian philosophical traditions. Then there was a time period during my doctorate when I didn’t own a TV and I stumbled upon a bunch of old Yoga Journal magazines at a garage sale. I read through those wonderful articles and I came across the principle of Ahimsa, non-violence. This has become a really important principle for me. Non-violence on the mat, non-violence of thought, non-violence in relation to ourselves, and non-violence in the act of singing. Not being too effortful or abusive of thought or physicality. But mostly it’s the non-violence towards ourselves that I find so useful. I don’t think I’m ever really acting out violent thoughts towards other people in the world, it’s mostly to myself so Ahimsa is a great reminder to try not to do this!
Would you recommend yoga to other singers?
Absolutely. I have used basic foundations of yoga in group vocal technique classes I have taught. I would have them bring mats and we would do a basic vinyasa to sort of lead them into the practice. I feel that yoga helps a young singer understand their body and develop kinesthetic awareness and breath awareness. Differently from Alexander, you develop these things through movement and energy and everything is always united with the breath, which I think is a key similarity to singing. I have a student who started with me when she was maybe 13 or 14 and she ended up going to college and is doing a double major in voice and biology. She came back for a couple of summers to study with me and one of these summers I noticed that her body was much stronger and I asked her what she was doing differently. It turns out she had been doing yoga and barre classes and she had this different understanding of her core muscles and a new sense of alignment. I think this illustrates how important this work can be.
The other benefit is the self-discovery. I think yoga is an opportunity to get to know our bodies in a gentle, loving way. We are invited to meet our body where it is through yoga in an accepting way, much more so than in other forms of athleticism.
BIO: Jennifer Sgroe began her musical career in dance and musical theater before moving into the operatic repertoire. She holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Kentucky, a Master of Music degree in Opera from The Boston Conservatory, and the Doctorate of Musical Arts in Voice from the University of Kentucky. Her DMA document made the first formal study of the songs of Boston composer Scott Wheeler.
Dr. Sgroe has taught voice for the past 10 years at the university level, in private studio, community music schools, and high school after-school programs. Past university teaching positions include New York University, the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University as an instructor of voice and diction for singers. She also has a background in opera outreach education having worked with several opera companies as a teaching artist, including Utah Opera, Opera New Hampshire, Opera of Central Kentucky and Lexington Opera Society. She is a proud member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) which encourages “the highest standards of the vocal art” and promotes vocal education and research at all levels.
As a performer, Sgroe is an active recitalist, having collaborated with pianists Cliff Jackson, James Busby, Nan McSwain and Beverly Soll. Recent recital programs have included a survey of 20th Century American opera arias, an introduction to the art of the song recital, and a program which investigates the connection between the human spirit and the natural world through song, poetry and photography.
Highlights from her past operatic performances include the roles of Susanna and Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Adele (Die Fledermaus), Romilda (Xerxes), Pamina and Papagena (Die Zauberflöte), Monica (The Medium), Noémie (Cendrillon), Greta Fiorentino (Street Scene), and Drusilla (L’Incoronazione di Poppea), as well as the premiere of the role of Esther in Scott Wheeler’s operaDemocracy: An American Comedy at American Opera Projects in New York.
She has performed with Utah Opera, Commonwealth Opera, Boston Academy of Music, Amherst Early Music Festival, New Trinity Baroque, Knoxville Symphony, Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, Lexington Opera Society, the AIMS Festival Orchestra in Graz, Austria, Delaware Valley Opera, Opera del West, Longwood Opera, New England Light Opera, New York Lyric Opera Theater, for the General Assembly of The United Nations, and at Carnegie and Radio City Music Halls.
Internationally, Sgroe has been heard at the Sastamala Gregoriana Early Music Festival in Karkku, Finland and The Dartington Festival (United Kingdom) under the direction of conductor Graeme Jenkins. Highlight concert performances include the soprano soloist in Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem, at Dartington, Handel’s Messiah with Commonwealth Opera, the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, and Schubert’s Mass in A-flat Major in Graz, Austria. She was a winner of the National Opera Association Vocal Competition, the Settimane di Lugano International Festival Competition, the 2010 David Adams Art Song Competition, and the 2010 Opera New Hampshire Vocal Competition. She won 2nd place in the 2010 Boston area NATS Artist Award recital competition and went on to represent Boston as a New England Regional Finalist. She has been named a NATS Foundation Award Winner and a Liberace Scholar for Excellence in the Creative and Performing Arts. Additional info: www.jennifersgroe.com