One of the profound lessons I’ve learned over the course of working on my voice is that ‘functional success’ often comes easily when I’m not pushing for a result or ‘end-gaining’ (to borrow a term from Alexander Technique).
There is something pervasive in the idea of ‘earning’ something. Whether that something is success, accomplishment, fame, or fortune. For some people, instant or easy success can cause feelings of deep unease, make one feel that they are a ‘fraud’ or ‘imposter,’ and creates feelings of self-loathing.
Our American culture lives on myths of people slaving away, and getting ahead by the sweat of their brow. It would only be natural that singing would go the same way: if I’m not working hard, pushing, or driving, then I’m not ‘earning’ my vocal progress. In the arts, we’ve made it into a cornerstone. I remember watching “Fame” as a kid, and Debbie Allen’s character would say, “You want fame? Well fame COSTS. And right here is where you start paying…with sweat.”
The tortured artist is part of the mythology of singing, too, sadly. One only need invoke the name of Maria Callas for an example in our own time of a singer that ‘suffered for her art.’
I myself am a victim of this mentality. As a male singer I have always thought that the powerful upper range of the male voice was built on effort, force and gusto. It took a vocal crisis for me to realize that perhaps a re-evaluation of this ideology was in order. What I’ve noticed is that ‘rightness’ and ‘beauty’ in the sound came more easily when I wasn’t ‘working’ for it. When I frankly just gave up on it, the voice worked. When I let the voice lead ME, startling revelations came fast and furious. And yet, the voice was still me!
It’s like those moments in our youth when we are frustrated, perhaps we’re even crying with rage, and then something happens that makes us ‘figure it out,’ and we then laugh through our tears. Children do this all the time. For me, the release of incorrect physical response caused that exact ‘jubilance through frustration’ feeling. It was EASY, fun, and the sound was lovely. And then we wonder why did we rage for something so easily attained?
But the mind, watching all things, suddenly filled my brain with doubt. “That’s too easy,””That can’t be right,” and other feelings of total mistrust immediately clamped down on the excitement of what I had just felt. The body rejoiced, the brain was skeptical.
Here’s a simple analogy:
What would happen if someone came up to you on the street and just gave you a dollar out of nowhere?
How would you react?
Would you think “I don’t deserve this,” or “What did I do for this?” or “Is this person making fun of me or tricking me?”
It’s just a simple dollar – and yet we can’t accept it. How sad for us that the greater richness and beauty of our voices lies dormant within us, awaiting its release – easily within reach – startling us with its ease and grace – and our minds want to trample it because we think that it shouldn’t be that easy, that we don’t deserve it? We reject the voice as easily as we reject that simple dollar bill – because we don’t think we deserve it.
Henry Wood wrote a book that haunts me, “The Gentle Art of Singing.” I think about that title a lot and wonder what it would be like to never force a tone? What it be like to sing with total ease and freedom – not only freedom of the instrument but freedom from the fear? Techniques of singing can sometimes become the armor we construct to hide behind to avoid exposing ourselves fully to an audience. Interestingly, it is this very vulnerability and openness that draws others to us and connects us to the world around us. Singers that create armor around themselves rarely touch a human heart. The heart knows real when it hears it. Even children, unversed in musical nuance or knowledge, can be moved to tears by genuine heartfelt singing.
When something ‘works’ in a lesson – let’s work to accept it and rejoice in it. We are worth more than we know, and we all DESERVE to sing in a way that is congruent with our deepest selves.
You are worth it.
Take the dollar – it’s yours.