A Place of Calm

One of the particulars of teaching voice that has always felt clumsy to me is that awkward moment when the lesson begins and we transition from a place of chatting to the first exercises.

For a long time I felt stymied because I wasn’t sure if the first thing I was choosing to do was the RIGHT thing. Is this beginning scale going to set the system in motion in a way that engenders freedom? How can I help the singer find their way to the ‘singing place’ within themselves?

Many teachers start with routines of stretching and massage, and those might be great ways to begin, but they never resonated with me. I recall my choir rehearsals in high school began with a massage train, each of us massaging the back of our neighbor, only to turn and repeat the process on the other side. But in today’s environment massaging a student is a big no-no, and I’ve learned the hard way that even a warm hug can be misinterpreted, causing me no end of embarrassment when the student expressed their discomfort.

One of the most interesting and inspired choices for beginning a rehearsal is mentioned in James Jordan’s thought-provoking book “Sound as Teacher.” I highly recommend this book, intended for conductors, as a way to deepen one’s hearing skills. I know it is a text that I will return to many times over the course of my career. Jordan is an advocate for the use of plainchant in the choral rehearsal to foster listening skills, attention, and a sense of CALM.

I’ve come to realize that allowing for calm is more important than the selection of the perfect scale. Giving the student a transition from the outside, noisy, anxious, frenetic world to a place of calm has proven to be the solution that I’ve been looking for. I make ABSOLUTELY NO CORRECTIONS to anything at the start of a lesson. As I’ve mentioned before, it does no good to make the student self-conscious from the get-go. I call this particular aspect of training “Letting the Horse Out of the Barn.”

I think that it is vital to allow music making to come from a place of stillness and peace regardless of the complexity of emotions being expressed. More importantly, calmness allows the vocal musculature and the body to react in a way that is devoid of a frantic approach to singing. When the throat is free from constriction, sound can more freely ‘resonate.’

It’s also important to understand the difference between CALM and LETHARGY. The two are not the same. The singer can still be in a state of readiness and exhibit qualities of calmness.

Students may exhibit lethargy in lessons, which is the opposite of a calm readiness to sing. One of the best ways to work with this energy quality is to SPEED UP the exercise patterns and tempi. The student will need to vitalize their energy to meet the increased demand placed on the system. This is the same way that increasing tempo on a treadmill requires that the body be ‘ready’ for the task. Contrarily, a student that is ‘wound up’ needs exercises that are more slow, quiet, and methodical in approach. One of the most CALMING ways of working a frenetic student’s energy is to get them into LONG tones sung PIANO for the duration of a single breath. Then repeat. Working this way becomes a sort of ‘meditation’ in tone that has a calming effect on the student’s energy.

At no point though do I make the student self-conscious, or just ask them to ‘energize’ or ‘calm down!’ This is counterproductive from a psychological vantage point. It’s likely that they will overcompensate an energy ‘mood’ in the desire to be where I want them to be.

As a Functional Voice Teacher, I need to work with their energy INDIRECTLY, using – yes – PITCH, VOWEL, and VOLUME – even these simple elements can control the energy in the lesson, and they DO solve a multitude of issues with no recourse to mechanistic, direct, or local-control methods. It gets to the heart of the issue without asking a student to do jumping jacks or lie on the floor for protracted periods of time. Lesson time is precious, and we should spend every minute in the growth and development of the student’s vocal abilities. A calm beginning lays the foundation for productive musical work within a framework of physical and psychological peace.