I recently adjudicated a voice competition for students of all ages, from elementary school to the collegiate level. It was wonderful to reconnect with several colleagues and be inspired by talented young performers.
While it was a great day in many respects, I want to highlight a silent partner in the proceedings because, to me, it was so prevalent. It has to do with our ability to know (and hopefully be) ourselves.
Let me provide some context. I heard more than a few singers performing repertoire beyond their age, as it relates to type or vocal maturity. I heard singers performing repertoire that was racially unaware and insensitive. I heard singers who tried to sound like anything but themselves – who attempted (or were taught) to add depth and color to their voices, as if their own voice simply wasn’t enough. Several of these singers were lifted up as the winners of their category.
I bring this up not to mar this particular celebration of young vocal artists or to point fingers at the students or their teachers. I bring it up because it highlights an issue I believe we must always be grappling with, both as individuals and artists, teachers and students: Who am I?
There’s so much to unpack in that three-word sentence. What do I even mean when that question cuts across so many different layers? Am I talking about my genealogy, experiences, tastes, voice classification, artistic predilections…?
Yes, all of that.
I believe some of the most important work we can do as teachers is help students and clients navigate the murky waters of who they at any given moment in an effort to elicit an organic response, whether that be a free tone or a clear objective. We are in the business of helping artists translate notes and words into their individual bodies. Sometimes they like what comes out. Sometimes they don’t. But if it is authentic and free, that’s a great place to start.
I have heard many students of all ages obsessed with trying to sound a certain way because it makes them feel as if they are more active in their singing or because it seems more stylistically correct. In both cases, they’re often doing too much work to match the sound in their head, especially when it’s not compatible with what the voice wants to do or is capable of sustaining. Undoing this can be a tricky task because it requires reversing bad vocal habits while also dealing with the mental/emotional ramifications of that. Indeed, I’ve lost clients because, in helping them find more vocal freedom, they became so far removed from what they thought they should sound like that they felt highly vulnerable and blamed me. Trust me, I can relate to how disconcerting it can be.
But if we want to move people with our voice, it must emanate from something honest. Good tone in speaking and singing has to start with a released voice on the breath. If we manipulate the sound to create a certain timbre, we do just the opposite. Style, phrasing, and language shouldn’t influence the freedom our voices experience. In short, we have to learn to like the sound of our own voice and all the different timbres it can create.
Knowing who we are should also greatly impact our choice of repertoire. If I go into an audition and sing “Old Man River” from Show Boat, I’m going to get very odd looks. And rightfully so. I’m a 42 year old white man. I have no business singing that song. It is completely out of my experience, and it would be cultural appropriation to try to put my stamp on it. So, the amount of lovely young white girls I hear singing “Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime is disturbing to me. The colloquial language in the lyric should be a dead giveaway that the song is not appropriate for them. The student (and sometimes the teacher) need to be more aware of how repertoire selections speak volumes about the performer before they even sing a note.
As Elaine Stritch once famously remarked, “Sometimes I’ve heard women in their 40’s sing ‘I’m Still Here.’ Where have they been?” This highlights the other issue with repertoire: songs that are simply not the right age for the performer because of where they are in their development. I would argue most operatic arias are beyond a singer in high school, but that doesn’t stop them from singing them. Similar, too, are the musical theatre students who want to try their hand at “Rose’s Turn” from Gyspy or other songs sung by characters 20 to 30 years older than themselves.
So, as teachers, what do we do about all this? I think the answer is two-fold. Regardless of what technique we teach, we must help students find honesty in their voice. I tell my clients my main job is to take tension away from them so they can be more expressive. I don’t care what “technique” works, as long as they experience more freedom in their singing. I ask them a lot of questions, so they develop an awareness of not only of how their tone sounds, but how it feels and even what it looks like in their body. I have found this keeps them from relying solely on their ear and allows them to more quickly embrace their true voice.
The next step is teaching how to choose smart material. When I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, I used to give a song assignment each semester, which would allow my students to choose their own material within certain guidelines. It helped me see how they saw themselves and gave me the ability to give feedback when what they chose was “off brand.” With my private clients, we go back and forth, choosing 3 songs per genre for their audition book. We each can veto the other’s choices but have to come up with alternate songs in return. I hope it helps them become more engaged in understanding who they are and what material fits them. As with technique, my job is to instruct them in such a way that they eventually don’t need me.
We’re entering a very busy audition season. It seemed like a good time to remind us all about starting with what we hopefully know best: ourselves. If we keep honing our knowledge of what we do well and choosing smart material that highlights that, I can’t help but think our chances of success will dramatically go up.
It seems fitting to close with one of my favorite Bernstein songs (happy birthday, big guy!): “Who Am I” from Peter Pan. This video features a beautiful performance by Samantha Williams, a recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music. The level of honesty in her legit singing is a wonderful example of how we can honor the song by trusting the voice we were given.
Let’s keep asking the kinds of questions Bernstein poses in this song. The more we do, the more we will continue to find authenticity in our work as performers.
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