A Meditation on Vocal Freedom

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

Nelson Mandela

What does it mean to be vocally free?

How would we define or describe the ideas of freedom as they relate to the singing voice? Can we recognize what is free versus what is not?

For me, freedom is the ‘unlocking’ of the vocal mechanism, and a broadening of artistic choice. No longer is a singer bound to sing within a certain range of notes, or a fixed type of song. Freedom allows the fullest spectrum of colors. It’s as if you’ve been handed the entire box of crayons; not just 16 colors.

How do I give freedom to a singer in a lesson? Is that possible? Yes and no. Freedom cannot be given, it must be experienced. In a lesson, I provide what I call a ‘stimulus’, and the student provides the ‘response.’ Based on the response, the next exercise or stimulus is chosen, and on the dance goes throughout the course of the session. At all moments the components of vowel, volume, and pitch bring the singer either closer or further from freedom. It is my job as the teacher to find those exercises that will allow a response rather than ‘make’ a response of the vocal mechanism.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

In every stimulus the singer is faced with a choice: do I do this exercise the way I want to do it, or do I allow something else, perhaps even more organic, to emerge? Often, my role is to over-ride the neuromuscular system, and provide a stimulus that I know WILL result in failure. This can be good, because it allows the voice to find a new way. For younger boys, I tell them that their voices may crack, and that’s okay. That’s good feedback! The voice is saying, “Hey, I want to move in a different way.” This is all part of the ‘indirect control’ that I talk so much about.

This ‘fear of cracking’ is one of the reasons that most singers overmuscle their voices to begin with. I let a voice live in those cracks. As W. Stephen Smith says, “Get cracked and stay cracked!” By that admonition I take it to mean, “Stay vulnerable!” Go to the scary place in your voice that you think ‘shouldn’t happen’. The shame of cracking then goes away, because it’s taken as a sign of something happening in the larynx. That isn’t to say that the voice SHOULD crack in an ideal balance – merely that the discovery of it allows for awareness of laryngeal response.

The fear of falsetto also encroaches into this perspective as well. Because the falsetto is something that we know actually occurs in a laryngeal mechanism, it can be a useful pedagogical tool to acquaint oneself with a functional concept of ‘different movement’ or ‘something moving’. Yodeling is also a tremendously liberating exercise which can free up movement in the system. Not all voices that come into work with me are in a place of balance. Oftentimes the chest voice is too strong, and the passaggio is non-functional. Using tools and responses of the natural voice, allows the voice to ‘find itself.’ Again – am I working in a path to freedom if I am trying to IMPOSE a sound on the voice? If a part of a muscular system isn’t functioning, why wouldn’t I work in a way to re-energize, innervate, and develop a correct response?

Nothing in the body works better by being atrophied, or being held in an immobile position.

Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.

John F. Kennedy

 

Vocal freedom is also individual. Daniela Bloem-Hubatka in her book on the Old Italian School uses a phrase called, “corporate singing.” In it, the idea is that the voice is fashioned after a model or a ‘way’ of singing. This is aesthetic training. If I am a teacher that likes dark sounds, I am doing a disservice to every student that walks in my studio if I train them in that ‘specialization’. To impose an aesthetic or preference for sound on a voice is to put that voice into chains. These chains may be happily worn for a lifetime, as the student builds their entire identity around this sound, and learns to ‘identify’ with what they term ‘my sound.’ This is fatal to the growth process because one becomes afraid of any technical idea or exercises that make the voice move in a contrary way.

A vocally free voice is individual. Think about the voices of Pavarotti, Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Joan Baez, Frank Sinatra. Each one of these voices operates within a framework of individuality of self, as expressed through song. Each is obviously singing within a particular style, but each is individual. The same could be said for the Old School singers. Some were described as ‘silvery’, others as ‘gold’. Sameness in art and life is to enforce a status quo. Teaching should allow for the freest response from the soul of the singer. I hope every singer finds that in working with me.

Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.

Sigmund Freud

Freedom is scary. In fact, freedom can be downright terrifying. It takes us out of the known, and into the unknown, into the land of pure potential of being.

Vocal freedom goes against the grain of everything we hear and see in music these days. I’ve blogged on the market before, and singing that ‘end gains’ to a market is bound to fit the criteria of the market, but not the truest expression of the singer’s soul. One will have the requisite sound, but does the singer’s soul come along for the ride? In most cases, no. The singer is still technically limited, and the fear of discovery by an audience for being technically lacking can cause tremendous psychological suffering. And so, that ‘fear response’ puts the artists in a battle against the audience against this discovery, and singing publicly becomes a kind of torture.

Freedom in singing requires a hell of a lot more time and work than singing with a lack of freedom. It is rather simple and quick to fashion a voice after a model, or a trend. The painstaking, daily, heart-breaking, heart-opening, fastidious work of freedom in singing is rare. The cracking, the breaking, the wavering tones, the faulty intonation: these take TIME to ameliorate. But the germ of beauty that comes from this work is like the bud on a branch, just ready to blossom into flower.

Those who embark on a singing journey to freedom should surround themselves with others who share that common directive, and enable freedom and ‘the self’ in every session. They shouldn’t settle for quick fix, band-aid solutions. They should learn to see, root out, and expose pedagogies of singing developed upon constraining freedom and enslaving a voice. They should join hands and take up arms and fight together for a new way of singing. A way built on individuality, functional truth, and vocal freedom.

Now, let’s sing this scale, starting on ‘ah’, and see what shows up today…

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