Quote of the Day

No single exercise, vowel, or position of the mouth or tongue (as the case may be) can cure all difficulties. The only method that can be helpful must be built up on commonsense under close observation of Nature’s laws.

Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931)

Melba, Nellie. “Melba method.” (1926).

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Spontaneous Action in a Voice Lesson

The buzzword of the past couple weeks in my studio has been spontaneous.

This can be difficult for some singers who are married to a certain way of making vocal sound. They often have a tough time “letting go” of a way of doing something because they are (often erroneously) attached to an incorrect aesthetic conceptualization of their own voice.

What does spontaneous mean?

Here are some WONDERFUL definitions I grabbed from the dictionary:

  1. coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned.
  2. arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting.
  3. growing naturally or without cultivation, as plants and fruits; indigenous.
  4. produced by a natural process.

I absolutely LOVE every single one of those definitions, because they also describe a way of working on the voice that accords with its Nature. This is that wonderful hallmark of the Old Italian School!

A singer that is self-conscious will usually prevent spontaneity in their vocal approach. They are often overly rigid, and psychologically and pedagogically dogmatic. They have dug in their heels with the way that they sing, and have ‘armored’ themselves into ‘their’ sound.

A self-aware singer is open to all possibilities, understands that the act of singing is a process, and are not constrained by intense judgement of their work in the studio.

When a student is faced with a stimulus in lessons (an exercise that combines some combination of vowel, volume, and pitch) they can react in a habitual way (which can be useful for unlocking further muscular entanglements), OR they might surprise themselves by letting go to see what ‘shows up’.

Often in lessons I will say, “Let’s just see what shows up – no need to judge anything.” BOY – does that relieve a singer from a need to ‘make’ a sound in a certain way, or work to impress me!! One student said to me, “I just want to make you happy.” My response to her was, “There isn’t anything you could do that WOULDN’T make me happy! Everything that you are doing is teaching me, too!”

So let’s get down to singing:

We start to do an exercise.

Let’s say it’s a nasty nay, or a hooty oo above middle C.

And you don’t like it.

Impasse.

Until you actually try something, you really can’t have an opinion of it. Much like a book you haven’t read, or a meal you haven’t tasted, or a movie you haven’t seen, judging something beforehand will lock down your spontaneity and freedom of movement in singing.

You can’t claim to have freedom of musical communication unless your options of interpretation open up into a MYRIAD of directions, NOT ONE. If there is only the ONE and ONLY way of doing something, how is that artistic? The goal of becoming a creative artist is to get all the crayons in the box, not just 64. More paint, more options, more color, more choice. This is bad because…???

Many students who come from a classical vocal tradition resist exercises based in function because they tend not to be ‘beautiful’ right away. They throw them off their axis, as Seth Rudetsky so comically says. As I say many times, and will continue to reiterate – Beauty is a by-product of a correctly functioning vocal mechanism. It is an EFFECT of a functional CAUSE. Peter T. Harrison in his book on singing has a whole chapter on this very idea, which is worth a read. Cornelius L. Reid as well remarked that,

the benefit to be derived from a healthy coordinative response is that it provides absolute spontaneity of expression…The singer then becomes able to express what he has to say the way he wants to say it, not the way he has to.

My job as a teacher is to unlock, liberate, and free the voice in front of me for the widest abilities possible. This IS the bel canto school. Can you sing fast/slow, loud/soft, high/low? If not, you have a limited palate of options as an artist.

Aesthetics and tonal judgement can be a slave master to the singer, and freedom is the enemy of a slave master. Break the chains! Follow the freedom train and drop your judgement. Try a new exercise and see what shows up.