Ego and the ‘Vocal Mask’

For those readers familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle, this post will come as no great discovery; or maybe it may!

Eckhart Tolle is a teacher and author of The Power of Now and A New Earth. In his book A New Earth, he describes one of the major dysfunctions of the human experience as the “ego” or the “illusory sense of self” which is based on unconscious identifications with one’s memories and thoughts.  The more that you make your thoughts (beliefs) into your own identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension that exists within yourself.

What does this have to do with singing?

Perhaps in constructing a singing voice that is based on a pre-conceptualization of ‘what you think I should sound like’ or ‘matching the market’, it shuts you off from the connection of making truly open, honest, and ‘naked’ vocal sound that has the power to touch the human heart?

As I ponder this, I often wonder if the overly-darkened, brusque, aggressive, and LOUD approach to classical singing gives the singer a chance to stand behind a ‘vocal mask’. The sound is impressive in some cases, and masks can be stunningly beautiful. But they’re still masks.

I also wonder if the rampant egoism that is found in parts of the classical community aren’t connected IN SOME large or small way, to the way that the people are MAKING SOUND. When you construct a ‘vocal mask’ to stand behind, you learn to identify with it, and own it. Identification and Labeling is what Dr. David Burns would call a “cognitive distortion.”  Identification with “my sound” or “my style” or “my way of singing” or “my limitations” stifle the open exploration and discovery of your true sound. My colleague Brian Lee posits that the idea of singing in the mask has a double connotation. Singing into a forward place pedagogically, but also psychologically singing into the construct of what you think the sound should be. Deep.

Other ways of labeling and egoic attachment include the fach system, “I’m a lyric-coloratura with spinto qualities.” The ego absolutely LOVES that!! It’s a label that it can identify with! But what if you’re not those things? Can you just be a singer? Yes, of course you have to put a voice type on your resume, blah, blah, blah. But can you just be ‘a singer’ or ‘a voice’? Why deepen the identification and box yourself in vocally and psychologically?

The word “identification” is derived from the Latin word idem, meaning “same” and facere, which means “to make.” So when I identify with something, I “make it the same.” The same as what? The same as I.

As I have journeyed through the experience of having a broken voice, I have come to learn to make any kind of sound in the quest to restore what I have lost. I became ‘pedagogically agnostic.’ Anything could be TRUE, and anything could be FALSE. I had to test everything against logic and reason. When I started up again, there was no ‘pre-concept’ of what I needed to sound like anymore. I couldn’t do any of my old ‘tricks’ to make my voice work for me. The edifice or ‘vocal mask’ that I constructed no longer worked, because the machinations of singing were not native to my truest self.

Whatever the ego seeks and gets attached to are substitutes for the Being that it cannot feel. You can value and care for things, but whenever you get attached to them, you will know it’s the ego. And you are never really attached to a thing but to a thought that has “I,” ‘me,’ or ‘mine’ in it. Whenever you completely accept a loss, you go beyond ego, and who you are, the I Am which is consciousness itself, emerges.

I think that’s what happened to me when I lost my singing voice. I couldn’t attach to it anymore so it was no longer there. I often said in voice lessons with teachers that ‘my ego had been burned away.’ I was no longer wedded to the results of working technically on my voice, and came to open myself to any kind of sound. Falsetto, Pharyngeal, Nasty, Dopey. These weren’t the normal defaults for me, but since I had no attachment to them or their success, I could submit myself to exercising my voice in that way.  There was no more shame in having a broken voice, but an open-hearted discovery to find out how to make it back.

The vocal sounds and singing that I do now connects me to something rather profound: a vocalism reflective of how I sang as a child: free, uninhibited, open, honest, and carefree. Singing like that FEELS GOOD, and we want to replicate behaviors that offer us a positive stimulus. Singing poorly doesn’t feel good, and so practice and efforts usually wane because we don’t want to experience bad things. This is Pavlov 101.

All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. That is why we may also call it Presence. The ultimate purpose of human existence, which is to say, your purpose, is to bring that power into this world.

Classical singers (and ALL singers), I beseech you to throw off your vocal masks, and embrace a generous and open-hearted way of singing.  Surprise yourself. Disentangle yourself from the attachment to ‘my sound,’ or ‘my voice’.

Bring your vocal and musical power into this world. I can’t help but think that THAT is the unique power that enraptures an audience, causes them to weep, and changes their lives forever. They will always remember that moment when you took off the mask and made them look at themselves and feel the oneness that we all share as human beings.


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