Let’s hope so.
I practiced a morning focusing technique called the Morning Pages for years, which was taken from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Sometimes, I would work myself up into a tizzy by trying to solve every nagging worry, and I would then spend a page writing over and over, “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe,” until I ran out of space. In my worry, I had forgotten to breathe, which is distressing to a body bent on survival, so the worry became magnified.
Tired of Pretending
Tonight, a recording of Barbara Bonney singing Andre Previn’s “Vocalise” reminded me of an episode from about a year ago. I was driving out of Tombstone, Arizona, and I had had just seen my father and sister for the last time for several months. I was sad, and I was trying to escape it. I didn’t realize that, of course. Instead I thought I was keeping myself from becoming attached to those feelings by keeping my body rigid and upright. Instead I just made it harder to breathe and kept the feelings hovering in my unconscious somewhere.
And then, I just let go of it. I just let myself wallow in the feelings and be done with it. I was tired of pretending. I was right then wonderfully sad, slouched, and relaxed. I could breathe again. The sadness coursed through me, but it was not a bad feeling. It was beautiful.
So what does this have to do with singing? Well, I’ll tell you.
We are involved with an emotional and naked art form as singers. Sometimes all the gabbing about posture and breath support and all that, which is necessary, cuts us off from the nakedness of singing. It is a primordial primitive thing that we work with. It is related to laughter, crying, babies’ yells, screams, moans, sighs, groans, surprised clips, giddy giggles. My teacher reminded me of this last week by having me think of desire so potent that it hurt. This caused a chain reaction of upward moving breath pressure along the front of my spine and a desire to get all the feeling out of me. I allowed the desire to exist and followed its instruction.
Out came uncomplicated vocal expression.
Letting go, to me, is related to recognition. Oftentimes that is enough to release. If we are not warmed up, we can either blast our poor voices out of the water and hurt them by trying to make them something they are not at that moment. Or we can recognize them, listen, and follow. Our voices will tell us what to do. If we are upset, we can pretend we’re happy and lock up our feelings in our tight torsos. Or we can recognize the feelings and sing through them. Our voice will tell us what to do. No answer applies in every situation. Instead, through listening, we will find the little core of truth that is the creative path.
That’s easier said than done, especially because we all are blind to some extent. This is why we ought to be thankful for our teachers who point those blind spots out. But we do have some power ourselves to find our tight spots and release them:
Just breathe and find places that do not move. Then ask why.
As I have said before, I believe in onset exercises. This week’s vocalise is one I developed to eliminate breathy tone while also training balanced (non-breathy non-glottal plosive) onset. However, by modifying it slightly, it can prove useful to anyone, especially for working out fast inhalations.
So when working on this vocalise, demand lots of voice but little hiss on the [z]s. I am always amazed at how well this works at clearing up someone’s tone. Also try to avoid gasping at the breaths (I got the idea for this exercise from Miller’s The Structure of Singing
, and I believe that he is correct about silent inhalations). Be sure to try different pitches, different voiced fricatives like [v] (I am indebted to Dr. Martha Rowe at New Mexico State University for her original suggestions about voiced fricatives), and different rhythms. Demand that the tone come out fast and have some vibrato to it (yes, even on the consonants!) and that the breaths be quick.
Let’s say a young student goes to a teacher. She has some desire to sing better, but she has not yet developed a sense of what “better” is. She sings in choirs and thinks that classical singing is for her. As the teacher guides her, the student becomes skeptical. The teacher may be asking her to do something odd or different than her habits feel is natural. So she resists even though she may be improving.
Let’s say a slightly older student goes to a teacher. He has listened to more classical singing and has formed an opinion about what singing is. Perhaps singing, to him, is loud and dramatic. The teacher however senses that other skills need to be developed before dramatic vocal weight. The student grows, but remains fixated on the idea of loud and dramatic and begins to resent the teacher.
Let us also say that a more advanced student goes to a teacher, and the teacher asks that person to do something unorthodox but not inappropriate, and the result is excellent singing. The singer is not sure what has happened because he could not hear it (explained below). The teacher seems happy, but the student becomes confused and begins to doubt the teacher.
Do you see what I am getting at? In all three cases, the students are missing some essential piece of information and are making judgements that may not be appropriate.
They are blind to growth.
Part of the trouble of learning how to sing is that for many of us our taste grows as our skills do. This means that we have no idea what makes “great” great unless we have the lucky occurrence to have been born surrounded by classical musicians and singers. We may hear that a singer sounds wonderful but may not know why until we have the skills ourselves.
Even if our taste is mature, we singers are not able to clearly assess our voices based off of the sound in our heads. That sound is distorted by various forces and is an untrustworthy guide. This can be frustrating.
[Added later: Recordings, too, are a poor representative of human voices. Often the best sounding voices on recordings are the smallest, darkest, and sometimes breathiest. So, the really big voiced singer who can shake rooms and instill awe in an audience is betrayed by relying on recordings to gauge their effectiveness.]
Thus, we put our trust entirely into a teacher’s hands who may or may not guide us safely to the singer’s promised land.
But how then does a teacher establish trust and a student become trusting?
There is no easy way around this problem because the teacher must teach singing but must also teach “taste”, feeling, and address, somehow, any other personal issues that may be blocking a singer’s growth. The singer must demand results for their money and time but may not have the artistic maturity to understand what the best results are. How can a beginning singer assess a teacher when the person perhaps most capable of making that assessment, the teacher, is defining the benchmarks that he/she’s trying to achieve?
It’s tricky to say the least. For both parties involved.
I just wanted to put these beginning thoughts on this out there. Having been both the skeptical student and the questionable teacher (sometimes within a single day), I do have some ideas about how to approach this, though they are hardly silver bullets. I will be discussing those over the next couple of months.
As always, your ideas are desired and appreciated.
I found out today, from my favorite source NPR, that Abraham Lincoln was an opera fan and that he had the Friedrich von Flowtow opera Martha performed at the second inauguration. Find that story here.
Below is a clip of one of my favorite tenors Fritz Wunderlich performing the aria “Ach, so fromm, ach so traut” from Martha. And, even if it weren’t President’s Day, any day would be a good one to listen to Fritz Wunderlich.