The Congruence of Vocal Truth

How interesting it is to see young singers walk to the crook of the piano to sing and hear them announce their selections in a bright, cheery voice:

“Good morning, my name is Sophia Soprano, and I will be singing “Crois-tu que ma voix soit ainsi?” from the opera “Les abasourdis.””

The fresh-faced, youthful girl begins her first phrases in a sound that could best be described as sepulchral. The tone is darkened, the larynx drawn aggressively downward, the back of the throat tightened in an effort to ‘make space.’ The resultant tone takes on a very noticeable wobble.

In this way, she believes she is singing in a way that is ‘classical.’

In a very real sense she has taken off one voice (her natural one) and replaced it with an artificial one – the ‘market’ sound of classical music (or musical theater, jazz, pop, etc etc etc).

A singer’s true vocal identity is often VERY difficult to ascertain until the function of the instrument has reached a high level of balance and coordination.  A great clearing out of falseness, pre-conceptualization, and freeing of vocal tensions must be undergone first and foremost. This responsibility rests largely upon the shoulders of voice teachers themselves.

To attain that end, the teacher of singing must be able to aurally discern what is genuine versus artificial. As I have said many times on this blog, unless a teacher can neutrally listen to the machinery of the voice without the bias of a GENRE or STYLE in their ear, then they will not be able to successfully undertake the true work of a technician on the singer’s voice.

Teaching to ‘markets’ is a denial of the human being before you, and their vocal truth as well as their future potential. It is a denial of the organic nature of the human voice, and the liberating factors of training it in a way that is predicated upon balance and functional freedom. You cannot be ‘somatic’ and teach to a ‘market’ at the same time. These ideas are inherently incongruous. Both have entirely different premises, and stand askew from each other in the same way that light stands apart from darkness. Let’s also acknowledge that the intersection of ART and COMMERCE rarely meet in the same place. What makes MONEY is often not what is artistically viable. Just because McDonalds makes oodles of money does not validate the nutrition of the restaurant. 

Many singers that work with me resist this exploratory vocal work because they do not feel the sounds they are making are in alignment with classical, pop, or musical theater standard ‘sounds.’ In effect, THEY DO NOT KNOW THEIR OWN VOICES. They are DEAF to themselves and their own nascent vocal freedom. They resist freedom and run from it, because they do not sound the way they ‘think’ they should when measured against a pre-formulated market sound.

In the same way that an educated ear can discern between the sounds of different automobiles and their engines, the teacher of singing needs to undertake months and even YEARS of active LISTENING to voices to determine the scope of their ACTUAL ability. The teacher must accept what the voice is ACTUALLY DOING in the moment it is DOING IT if they want to effect a true change in the voice and technique. Knowledge of the voice and its parts, acoustics, formants, etc is great – but it does not supplant the human EAR as the ultimate guide in teaching voice.

Can I listen for what is natural versus what is contrived? Am I familiar with what a natural voice sounds like, free of constriction, tightness, or other vocal faults? Do I recognize what freedom SOUNDS like in a voice? Do I understand the sound of INDIVIDUALITY of the singer versus the general market ‘template’ of vocal sound? Am I sensitive to over-culture in the voice? Does the singer sing with a manufactured, imposed, and postured sound? Do I know what that SOUNDS like? Do I have the capacity of, say, a fine sommelier, who understands gradations of the human palate when tasting wine? Can I be a “sommelier in sound”?

In an effort to work in this “outlying” way, the teacher of singing must recognize the individual qualities (and yes, technical limitations) of THIS voice as compared with ITSELF – not against some industry standard. As I have written in the past: the human voice is an EXTENSION of Nature; musical style is man-made. We should not confuse them.

The mandate that teachers must accept from the first lesson:

The “end product” of the student’s voice is a sound that NEITHER THE TEACHER NOR THE STUDENT have heard yet.

It’s inherent qualities are UNKNOWN and must be discovered through a pathway of freedom, release, and psychological authenticity. We can ONLY WORK with what we can HEAR.

The rest we have to discover like Lewis and Clark traveling across virgin territory. This requires not just an aural capacity and functional ingenuity on the teacher’s part, but a patience and care for the student as well, who will be taking this journey with the teacher as Sacagawea, leading onward to new vistas, new experiences, and new self-awareness. We don’t know what we will discover every time!

We cannot afford as teachers to be prejudiced to how we think the journey SHOULD go – it is always different. Every student is different and every exploration is different.

The ultimate aim of any technique of singing, acting, dancing, or painting is to free the artist to claim a broad variety of artistic expression, and allow them the fullest rein over their creative desires and needs. There are many indicators along our route of where we are in the territory of vocal and musical freedom, but we must be alert to missing other indicators along the way which are also important: greater ease in scales, more fluid vowel definition, increased stamina in exercising the voice, etc.

Exploring what is true, genuine, authentic in a singing voice –  this requires determination, courage, support, positivity, balance, stillness, mindfulness, and lots and lots of heart for VOCAL TRUTH. Nothing else should be our mandate as teachers of voice. Not ‘markets,’ nor styles, nor competitors.

As one of my great inspirations, Uta Hagen, said:

To maintain one’s ideals in ignorance is easy; to maintain them with the full realization of the existing circumstances is not. To accept “the way it is” is the opportunistic way out or the way of the ostrich; to attempt to battle it takes knowledge and character.

A singer’s true voice has an inestimable human, musical, and artistic value. As I tell students often, “Think about this: throughout the span of human history, through all the eons of evolution and time – YOUR VOICE HAS NEVER EXISTED BEFORE!”

Now why in the living hell would you want to sound like SOMEONE or SOMETHING else?