Singing Wisdom from Lao Tzu

Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard. Plants are born tender and pliant; dead, they are brittle and dry. Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.

Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.)

It has become one of my studio mantras that ‘Dead things don’t move.’ This analogy came to me originally from Jeannette LoVetri, who once commented “Nothing in the body works better by being fixed in place.”

Lao Tzu’s ancient wisdom is applicable to every singer. As I often say, the voice is IN Nature, and is subject to its laws. These laws are on display in plants and flowers every day if we’re willing to take notice. In our more modern times, we have become disassociated with Nature as technology and industrialization have spread across the human landscape.

The singing voice is a miracle of Nature. The system is a combination of the breathing system and the digestive system. These vital functions of the human body are mutually exclusive. We cannot breathe and swallow at the same time. The fact these two opposed systems meet together in a singing voice is a testament to the wondrous and fascinating ability of the mechanism to coordinate into something greater than the sum of its parts.

All voices are subject to these Natural laws. There is no evading these requirements if the voice is to be considered properly trained and ‘brought out.’ All voices need the ability to move, to be invigorated by freedom of movement.

The operative word in all vocal training should be ‘supple.’ I love this term. It denotes a vocal mechanism that is free to move to accomplish a kaleidoscope of vocal color, pitches, and dynamics. The voice that does not move well is a dead voice. It is not enlivened by movement, but stunted and atrophied from mis- or disuse.

The Great Masters of Singing knew these principles of Nature, and worked from them when building the great singers of the past. The necessity for fluent coloratura, strength without force, and dynamic contrast are seen in the vocalise collections of composers like Concone, Panofka, Abt, and even Rossini.

If your voice is not able to move, the mechanical needs of the instrument are not being met. A free voice is range-y, clear, bright, and moves with assurance. You might even have an enviable trill – the trill is another sign of freedom of movement in the throat.

Ultimately, every student must ask themselves, “Is my voice free?””Am I as free as I think I am?”

For some singers, freedom of vocal movement is the most frightening concept in the world. With freedom comes a process of de-control. As I’ve learned from author Edward Foreman: “Technique is a control system to eliminate fear.”

Freedom is not a technique. Freedom is a way.

My sincere hope for you is that you are able to find it in your singing.