Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Finding the Voice That Was Never Lost
Chapter 3: Language
Chapter 4: Learning
Chapter 5: The Brain in Singing
Chapter 6: Fear and the Psychology of Singing
Chapter 7: Putting Theory into Practice
My voice has always been much more to me than just an instrument. It has been a constant companion, unashamed communicator of my deepest feelings, and soother in times of pain and frustration, working consistently and effortlessly for as long as I can remember. To this day, a sense of wonder still overcomes me every time I sing.
Having such a great relationship with my voice, it was always difficult to relate to the vocal troubles of those around me. For years, I watched friends go to teachers desperate to learn, often to encounter hours of practice they did not seem to comprehend or necessarily benefit from. To make matters worse, each coach appeared to have a personal philosophy of how to sing properly, so finding one universally correct technique seemed to be an impossible and frustrating challenge.
I wanted to help, and became determined to find a way to communicate what felt like second nature to me. What I discovered, though, was rather startling: while I knew that my voice worked, I was not quite sure how or why. If I did not understand what I was doing to create sound effortlessly, how could I possibly explain it to anyone else?
With time, and more than a few tumultuous experiences of my own, I was able to develop an effective way to communicate the principles of beautiful and healthy singing to my friends, and eventually to my colleagues and clients. By looking not only at the voice, but also at the mind, body, and individual as a whole, a seamless and natural philosophy began to emerge, one with consistent, powerful, and long-term results.
Whether you are an award-winning vocalist or simply want to sing well in the shower, my goal is to help you discover the beauty and wonder of the voice that has always lived inside you. Beyond technical facts, we will learn together how to comprehend and utilize your instrument, and the mind that runs it, so that singing can finally become the joyful, integrated, and effortless process it was intended to be. Even if you have never sung a note in your life, the insights contained in this book about societal conditioning, learning, language, non-verbal communication, and fear will help you to establish and nurture a greater sense of self-awareness and understanding, tools that will serve you well in your every endeavor.
Many misconceptions of singing and the voice abound. Where do they come from and why are they so popular if they are not true? Like many accepted truths, most are tidbits of information that we have picked up casually and unconsciously from our environments and society. The problem is that unless we consciously choose to accept or reject every one that floats by, prevalent opinions turn to truths right under our noses, regardless of their veracity.
This principle extends far beyond the realm of singing. Societally conditioned belief systems abound in the arenas of work, relationships, and beauty, to name only a few. If you have not taken the time to consciously consider how you feel—and want to feel—about the world and your place in it, it is highly unlikely that you are going to stumble upon your vision. Instead, you probably will default to the systems and perceptions held by the majority of people around you.
Nowhere in the language of vocal technicality have I found a description for the sensation of feeling my whole body engaged in a held tone that seems to dance and resonate throughout my being. Language cannot express the experience of “comfortably influenced freedom” (for lack of a better linguistic explanation) that I feel when my voice seems to take on a life of its own, sailing on the air like a kite on a bright, windy day while I stand far below holding the string. Neither have I been able to describe well with words the way waiting air seems to rest pressurized in my chest like a boat perfectly buoyed up on the water—my voice comfortably and harmlessly bobbing in the tides of pitch, volume, and expression.
These sensory, often visual and emotionally charged experiences of singing may seem unrelated to technical and teachable philosophies. But I believe that our languageless experiences, “physical voices,” and sixth senses speak to us with great power all the time, providing us with important, powerful glimpses into true technique.
Many of us are not aware of how to process and utilize what our minds and bodies are subtly trying to relay, however, because we are not paying attention. Just as we speak before we think, we try to “learn how to sing” before taking an inventory of what we already know. Rather than allow our bodies and minds the opportunity to show us what they intuitively understand about singing, we try to help by “breathing deeply” from our “support mechanism,” “lengthening” our posture and “reaching” for “notes.”
While our intentions are positive, these acts of “assistance and preparation” often cause more harm than good. Trying to implement technique without first considering that you might already be doing it naturally is a bit like taking apart the engine of a car before you have determined that it is not working. First, turn the key. Take the role of objective observer, and let your body and voice show you whether they may already know how to drive.
Once you have a firm grasp of your best learning practices, you must then put them into action by taking responsibility for your own learning. This not only means having a stake in what, how, where, and when you will learn, but learning to collaborate with your educators.
This turns the standard model of education on its head, as most of us believe that the balance of power in the teacher-student relationship is heavily in favor of the teacher. From the time we begin school, teachers are forced to take on the role of disciplinarian, above and beyond their teaching duties. These roles are intermingled over time, and 12-plus years of conditioning result in most of us associating the position of teacher with power, discipline, and authority.
Look carefully at these relationships, though. The balance of power is actually in your favor! When working with a teacher, hiring a therapist, or consulting a coach, you are employing them to help you grow in a certain area of understanding. They are auditioning for you, so to speak, and need to convince you that they are qualified to provide you with the service that you want.
While it might be difficult for a ten-year-old to demand a healthy, co-learning relationship with a fifth grade teacher, it is not unreasonable for you to do so as an adult. Learning is a give-and-take arrangement—a dance, if you will. You lead, now he leads. She leads, now you lead. The back and forth, not only of the specific information, but also of the experiences and perspectives you each have are key in helping to bring that information to life. This dance does not require the act of unhealthy submission. It requires the desire of both parties to fully partner, respect, and learn with open minds.
Regardless of your conditioning or experience, I guarantee you two things. First, accessing your creative mind is imperative for optimal singing. Second, you are already a master at doing it, even if you have never considered yourself a creative person. You may not be aware when you are operating in the intuitive mode or be able to consciously access it on command yet, but you are invariably skilled in its use.
Returning to an example from a previous chapter, ask the average person to explain the process of walking. I would bet that after a concerted effort and a few frustrated attempts at an explanation, most people would not be able to come up with an acceptable answer. Too many intricate physical and mental functions and reactions occur unconsciously when walking to put them into language succinctly, if at all. Try this experiment with tying a shoe, running, sitting, standing, and talking, and you will find the same to be true.
How can this be? How can we possess information that we do not technically understand? For the same reason we discussed moments ago in the conditioning section. As children, we experienced and processed the world in a languageless, timeless, and sensory way. We observed, emotionalized, and internalized information before we ever spoke a word, and yet that information remains just as concrete and real as any mathematical formula we might be able to quantify or facts we may be able to regurgitate.
While we cannot explain, or perhaps even logically comprehend, certain things or how we engage in certain behaviors, that does not mean that we are not fully knowledgeable. In a realm other than that of the dominant technical mind, which quickly dismisses information not packaged in a conscious, language-based format, we still “know” exactly what to do. Therefore, to truly understand wisdom, we must restate our definition to include all forms of knowledge and intelligence, both intuitive and technical.
When working with new clients, I always begin by trying to ascertain what it is about their voices that they perceive as problematic or would like to improve. Their desires run the gamut from increased power, range, and pitch accuracy to cultivating a more relaxed and natural tone. Although the factors that prevent them from achieving these goals may, on the surface, seem entirely related to the voice, I estimate that over 90% of vocal troubles are caused and/or exacerbated by some form of fear, insecurity, or lack of self-confidence.
Can fear really cause so many problems? Absolutely. Fear, by its very nature, is a call for self-protection and inhibition. As such, it ensures that the transition to the intuitive mode never fully occurs. The ability to be open, vulnerable, and brave; to take chances, explore, and play… fear prevents us from fully experiencing these things. Great singing requires a confidence that unmanaged fears will never allow, and no amount of technique—no matter how sound and solid—will be beneficial in combating tensions that exist because of fear and insecurity. Therefore, an integrated approach, one that addresses both the voice and the mind, is required for optimal vocal development.
Learning technique has become a clinical, uncertain, and literally out-of-body experience for many people, one that demands the extension of yourself toward a foreign, complicated set of tools and understandings that you currently do not and cannot inherently possess.
The reality, however, is quite different. Technique, in both healthy practice and by definition, is not an external goal, but rather “the manner in which technical details are treated (as by a writer) or basic physical movements are used (as by a dancer); AND: the ability to treat such details or use such movements: a method of accomplishing a desired aim.”
You will note that this definition assumes that these details are not only already possessed, but are under the command and direction of the one possessing that technique. The singer is empowered and in charge, not the technique. Thus, the idea of technique, while certainly involving knowledge acquisition, is, in practice, about empowered and integrated implementation (the “treating” and “using”) of what we already know and have learned—from the inside, out.