Anne Lamott’s wonderful sense of humor, paired with her heartbreaking honesty, makes her one of my favorite writers. Several years ago, I heard her read one of her stories on NPR’s “This American Life.” She talked about the power of music to comfort and heal. How it could literally transform lives [click here to listen to the story, which starts at 38:00]
I know this to be true. I see it almost everyday as I watch my students attempt to let go and see what comes out of their mouths.
I believe what we do as singers is one part technique and two parts blind faith. Yes, we must work on breath control, placement and vowels, but much good may they do us if we don’t trust that we can let go of our voice – something we literally build our identity around – and see if these techniques can be applied.
When my students learn a new song, they know I’m going to make them intone. For me, this means they will speak the text in a sustained way in head voice while maintaining proper breath support. I explain the step from that to singing is actually quite small. If they can intone the text in a released way, all they need to do is add in the pitches. The vocal chords do not understand high or low; when singing in a healthy way, their movement is minimal. They certainly don’t have any personal feelings assigned to the high Q# we sing at the end of a song. That’s our ego getting into the act.
When fear (the ego) gets in the way, the nets descend and our tone is negatively effected. Granted, this is not the only reason our tone goes sour, but I find more often than not we sabotage ourselves, sometimes before we’re even out of the gate.
We can only do this vulnerable work when we’re in a safe environment. That’s why I always try to create a nurturing atmosphere in which my students can explore. If you asked them, they’d tell you I work them hard (and I do), but at the end of the day, I think they know my studio is more like a laboratory where they can try things out. A place where we can collaborate in creating a more authentic and released way of singing.
This idea of technical freedom through a released sound has, for me, huge ramifications far beyond career longevity. I think it directly relates to what Anne Lammott was talking about.
I’m in the beginning stages of writing a commissioned work for the Manhattan Girls Chorus. I recently sat in on a rehearsal as they were preparing to sing with Zubin Mehta and the Isreali Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Listening to them, I began to tear up. Their voices were so clear and open, even amidst the dissonance of the piece they were singing.
Perhaps I’m a mush (I’ll gladly receive that), but I think what was going on in that moment had more to do with the openness of the girl’s singing than my fragile emotional state.
Michelle Oesterle, the choir’s founder and conductor, asked me to share some words of wisdom with the girls after they finished rehearsing a section. I explained what I experienced through their singing and the importance of what they were going to offer their audience. I told them their free and vibrant voices extend an olive branch to the listener, inviting them to take the same risks they’re taking: to remain vulnerable in the midst of fear and judgment. They will build a bridge onto which the audience can bring their authentic selves, offering them the palpable grace and transcendence I experienced listening to them.
That’s what art can do. That’s what music can do. And in my humble opinion, nothing brings about that transformation better than the human voice.
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