All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in the Voice Studio
Often the deepest truths tend to be the simplest. When Robert Fulghum wrote All I really needed to know I learned in Kindergarten in 1986, his wisdom clearly resonated with millions around the world. So far more than seven million copies of that book have flown off the shelves, and the number is still growing. Thankfully I’m beyond my preschool days, but the learning never stops even after graduate school. Regularly I’m trying to soak up information anywhere I can find it through books, the internet, the newspaper, interactions with brilliant colleagues and yes, VOICE LESSONS. After years of working with coaches and teachers, I’ve noticed that certain themes emerge with stubborn regularity. Perhaps since I want to get the biggest return for my money spent on coachings, I’ve found that information learned in the studio can be helpful for all areas of life.
I feel like a coach is someone who takes on a unique combination of roles:: counselor, confidant, a friend, a family member, a manager, a therapist, a medical doctor, a conductor, a singer, a pianist, an entertainer, a trainer, a colleague, a business advisor and trusted member of my personal board of directors and a motivational speaker. In no particular order, here are a few bits of information that can help singing and general daily living:
REMEMBER TO HAVE FUN. That’s what artists DO! Isn’t it funny how the word “opera” translated from Latin means WORK, and a theatrical drama is called a PLAY? When singing becomes overly intense or stressful, I need to remember that we are essentially being paid to dress up and play pretend. Right now I’m part of a production at Opera San Antonio where I’m donning an outrageous costume and portraying an animal. Despite the playfulness of this opera’s concept, I still occasionally fret about certain details in my singing or staging. It’s crazy how we singers often forget the reason why we chose to pursue this career in the first place: because it’s FUN. As a child I would run around and sing, making up songs as I played in the yard. That sense of wonder, improvisation and spontaneity should always still be there. Vocal coachings provide an opportunity to hone my craft and polish the minutia in each phrase. That detailed training should ideally only be one phase of preparation. We’re establishing healthy muscle memory so that I can let go and simply enjoy myself when curtain comes up on opening night. This same philosophy helps me even when I’m not singing. If I’m annoyed by a delayed subway train or a random, trivial problem I try to remember not to take myself so seriously. Joan Rivers offended many with her caustic one-liners, but she taught us the value of laughter in the face of pain. I was lucky enough to be in the audience for her final performance. As an eighty-one year old woman, she knew death wasn’t far away. Did she cry about it? No, she cracked jokes about it!
LEARN TO FEEL. The acoustics of singing create a situation where it’s not helpful for a singer to produce sound only for his or her own hearing. I’ve heard numerous teachers and coaches say, “FEEL it, don’t listen to it.” Sometimes if I search for the right feeling of release, the sound will naturally follow that course and create something efficient and beautiful. I guess the transfer for life would be to trust your gut. If I’m faced with an uncomfortable situation, I find my innards crying out: “STOP! Don’t do this! Let’s take a step back and think about it!” This is a plea for help and a call for consciousness. Come back to your center (keeping aligned) and proceed with awareness.
AWARENESS is paramount for healthy singing. It’s half of the reason I pay for lessons and coachings. Bad habits can SO easily creep into my vocal production. A teacher will ask me, “WHY are you doing that?” I often don’t know, because I didn’t realize I was allowing those involuntary faults into my singing. It’s important for me to sing in front of a mirror whenever possible. A good friend can be just like that mirror. That companion will recognize and praise my positive achievements, but he or she can also be candid and let me know when I’m being a prick. Those trusted allies are the most important people in my life. They can fearlessly tell me the truth about myself. I might temporarily feel resentment, anger or pain when I first swallow this little pill of candor, but ultimately I realize it’s making me healthier, happier and more whole. Negative energy can sometimes eat away at me like a cancer, and my best friends aren’t afraid to give me a tough diagnosis, cut me open and tear out the source of pain. Only then can healing begin!
BREATHE! It sounds ridiculous, but it’s important not to forget. This is true literally and figuratively. Doctors, coaches and therapists will all tell us that when in the midst of something stressful or challenging, it’s imperative to take a moment, perhaps count to 10 and focus on your inhalation and exhalation. Slow down each breath and thank God that you still have the capacity to receive that oxygen. It’s so simple, but it’s essential. When facing a particularly tricky vocal passage, I’ll begin nitpicking each note for the best placement and resonance. However, it’s amazing how quickly those issues resolve themselves once my breath is being used efficiently and effectively. The same concept is often true in life. I find myself fretting about details in certain situations, but many times I’m not seeing the forest for the trees. I need to step back, take a good look at the situation and remember what’s most important. It’s the same concept in the popular book, Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff, by Richard Carlson. It’s incredible how much stress melts away when I realize how trivial most of my worries truly are. My sweet, brilliant and hilarious uncle taught me this important principle. He faced mammoth challenges in his life, including a battle with cancer that took his life when he was only 46 years old. I remember once when he saw me forlorn for some reason, he simply asked, “What difference will it make in light of eternity?” The funny reality is that of course I don’t even remember what was troubling me nearly two decades ago, but I DO remember that profound lesson he taught me, and I try to apply it to my life even now.
STAY GROUNDED. Do your homework! Keep moving. Be smart about your choices. Make informed decisions about proper performance practice, know your history (vocal predecessors, stylistic conventions regarding performance practice, etc).
TAKE RISKS. Once I feel a certain degree of safety and trust in the voice studio with a teacher or coach, it’s astounding how much of an adventure we can create together. It’s our time to play and paint with musical and vocal colors. I often put so much pressure on myself to perform once I’m on a job, but that’s a symptom of forgetting the fun. It’s immeasurably helpful to remember that sense of élan that comes when I’m just like a child painting on a blank canvas. Singers can produce myriad colors with the voice. It’s so much more interesting for the performers and the audience when there’s a cornucopia of emotions, sounds, dynamics and embellishments. Those beautiful shapes and sounds don’t occur by accident. They emerge after experimenting countless times on a single phrase. An Olympic ice skater nails the triple axle in the big competition, but how many times has she fallen painfully on the hard, frigid ice in the practice rink? Learning a new aria or role can be unimaginably challenging. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. Perfection is something we all strive to achieve, but it simply doesn’t exist in humanity. On the stage and in life, all I can do is my very best. It’s liberating to accept imperfection and just enjoy the journey.
The whole idea of remembering those who have come before you is incredibly important. I work with Eve Queler, and she reminds me of the way Gedda sang an aria when she conducted him 40 years ago. That kind of precious information handed down from a living source can’t be learned as well from reading a book or listening to a recording (although those can also be useful tools).
BE A SERVANT TO THE MUSIC. I think this applies to the human experience. Those I know who are most filled with joy are aware and convicted of a cause that is greater than themselves. One of the biggest struggles I faced when first considering a life of singing was the stereotype of the egocentric artist. We all know of performers who fit the negative stereotype of the diva. Thankfully I’m learning that these selfish, closed-minded folks are in the small minority of professional musicians. On the stage, in auditions and at work in the studio I always try to remember that it’s not about me. Joyce Didonato so eloquently states a bifurcated adage: singers must be supremely selfish when it comes to preservation of one’s personal wellness (rest, preparation, mental and vocal health, etc.), but ultimately the work must transcend all of that. Making music or any other kind of art is most effective when it’s used to communicate with people, to convey important and sometimes uncomfortable truths and to inspire people with unspeakable beauty. This sense of using my voice and my life to somehow give back to society is a guiding force for all that I do.
DON’T WORK BEYOND YOUR MEANS. My college professor once quipped, “Never sing louder than beautiful.” She knew that I have a tendency to push my voice and try to create bigger sounds than I’m physically capable of making. When I fall into this trap, I’m not actually creating a bigger sound; I’m just adding tension and hindering beauty in the vocal tone. It’s imperative to pace oneself in singing. This applies to a single note in a song, but it extends to issues of broader repertoire choices and a career trajectory. We singers fall in love with the music, and sometimes we want to accomplish everything all at once. If an opportunity for a young singer to perform a substantial role comes, it’s incredibly difficult to say no. However, unless that singer is 100% vocally and mentally prepared to tackle that role, the temporary thrill may cause long-term damage in the future. I attempt to remember this concept when I’m making financial decisions. The recent recession shed light on a credit crisis in our country. Credit cards can provide a swift and enjoyable shopping spree, but the consequences are painful and long lasting. Restraint is not glorified in today’s society, but it’s the better route – in singing and in life.
BE AFFIRMATIVE: This mindset is applicable for athletes, accountants, doctors and artists. Instead of obsessing over what NOT to do (don’t grab on your tongue. Don’t crack on that note. Don’t run out of breath. Don’t push on that cadenza, etc.), it’s so much more helpful to focus on what I DO want to accomplish. My tendency can be to mentally warn myself or scold myself in the midst of singing, but it’s less stressful and more effective to focus on positive objectives: communicate the text, keep supporting, keep everything aligned and so on. If you believe in “The Secret” or the law of attraction, you’re familiar with this concept. It may seem a little too touchy feely for some folks, but I believe it’s an enduring philosophy because it’s relevant. If I’m continually fixated on lack (I don’t have enough money; I haven’t accomplished everything I want; I’m not as happy as I should be), then I can’t keep moving my life in the direction I ultimately desire.
I treasure the lessons I’ve learned from vocal study, and I look forward to more continued growth in singing and in my broader life’s journey. It’s such a joy to share these experiences with wonderful teachers who also function as advisors, trainers and friends. I appreciate how generous they are with their time, energy and support, and I can’t wait for more opportunities to share this information and inspiration with the next generation of wonderful singing artists.