In the 1941 animated Disney film Dumbo, the eponymous pachyderm becomes celebrated for his flying skills.
Our little hero becomes a star based on the fact that when he holds onto his magical feather, it gives him the power of flight. His little friend Timothy Mouse convinces Dumbo that the feather has given the elephant this magical skill.
A crisis emerges in the denouement of the film, when Dumbo loses his grip on the magic feather. All seems lost as the little hero plunges toward the earth. Once Timothy Mouse reveals that the feather wasn’t magic, Dumbo realizes that he can fly on his own. From that moment, Dumbo is able to fly around the circus tent, astonishing the crowd and becoming a celebrity.
He had always had the power of flight. The magic feather was just a psychological crutch.
Many vocal ‘techniques’ are similar to Dumbo’s feather.
These are talismans that are clutched either psychologically or physically by singers in an attempt to ‘fly.’ The belief that they must breathe in a certain way, lift a certain thing, open a certain part, push something. All feathers.
Many singers sing their entire careers while clutching desperately at feathers, not realizing that they do not need any of them in order to sing freely and well. To take away a singer’s feather can be an enormously fearful and painful experience. Much like Dumbo, no one wants to see the futility of their feather while plunging headlong into a tub of water.
As teachers our responsibility is never to hand students pedagogical ‘feathers.’ EVER.
Because once grasped, a singer will be loathe to release them, even despite our best efforts to help them put them down. These feathers, intended at first as ‘quick’ solutions or ‘techniques’ often DO help the student in boosting their confidence in the short term, but become stony inflexible WAYS of singing that only wreak havoc in the long term. What starts innocently enough becomes engrained and pernicious to release.
These feathers become limitations in achieving vocal freedom (or flight). (Masterclasses are REPLETE with Dumbo’s feathers – they practically wallpaper the space in which they occur – like a down pillow had exploded over everyone present.)
The ultimate lesson of Dumbo’s feather is that he always had the power of flight. The feather was a psychological crutch. Singing techniques that make singers DO something in an effort to achieve either self-confidence or quick achievement become crutches that the student will struggle to let go of, especially in extremis.
The question every singer must ask is, “What are my feathers?” Where are you holding on to magical thinking and useless placebos in an effort to gain control of a process that ultimately should not be controlled?
Like Dumbo, letting go of these feathers might surprise you, giving you powers of flight you never dreamed existed. All because you were vulnerable to allow the beauty and freedom that already exist in the vocal mechanism to emerge.