My blog has been on involuntary hiatus as I wrap up my book projects. Complete Vocal Fitness is currently at the printer and will be released June 15; the manuscript for The Singer’s Audition & Career Handbook will be submitted to my publisher at the end of the month. To tide you over, here is a guest post from bass David Salsbery Fry.
I was recently asked what instrument I thought most resembled the voice. The stock answer I tend to give is the double reed family of instruments, since the vibrating surface of a bassoon reed, for example, most resembles the vibration of proximated vocal folds.
While there may some truth to that, upon further reflection, I think there is a better answer, and one that creates an inroad to discussing one of the specific challenges that singers face. I submit that the instrument that most resembles the human voice is the theremin. I suggest this because both the human voice and the theremin are microtonal instruments, and both are tuned by a graceful gesture of flesh.
Theramin virtuoso Clara Rockmore performs “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saëns
One of the most frustrating things for me to have to repeatedly bear witness to as a singer is the way in which our intellectual prowess is repeatedly maligned by some of our colleagues. We collectively ache for the day when the tired canard of referring to “musicians and singers” as though the former does not contain the latter ceases to be used as a dig against us. There is a common perception that singers simply aren’t good musicians, and this is reinforced every time we sing a wrong note. I don’t believe that this stereotype has any basis in fact. I believe that, at a fundamental level, we are bad at describing what it is that we do, and without adequate explanation our colleagues tend to fill in the blanks with a narrative that is unintentionally disrespectful.
What’s worse, one of the ways in which singers adapt to survive this hostility is to embrace the stereotype. In the face of accusations of ignorance or poor musicianship skills, singers tend to either:
- Become defensive and have their every action attempt to reinforce the notion that they know what they are doing.
- Play dumb to evoke a more sympathetic response from their colleagues.
Here’s the truth: tuning the voice is HARD, and it is not an intellectual process. It is a physical gesture that requires immense mind-body coordination, and the body always lags behind the mind.
By and large, the singers with whom I work are brilliant people, full of intelligence, perception and curiosity. So, how is it that one can be a week into musical rehearsals on a piece and still be singing wrong notes? The answer lies in our having at all times to respect a hierarchy of priorities.
I was by no means a bad student of solfège, but I found it to have limited applicability for my work as a performer. The issue is that, when studying solfège, the singing I did to demonstrate my understanding was driven primarily by my mind. I tuned my voice rigidly, which meant stabilizing my larynx with the smaller intrinsic and extrinsic laryngeal muscles that would ideally not be participating in the process much at all. The gestures that tuned my voice were jerky and inelegant. Imagine a theremin player playing with a stiff arm, rapidly and jerkily moving from pitch to pitch and holding it stable before moving to the next pitch. It would be unpleasant to watch, and equally unpleasant to listen to. This is what happens when you try to tune the voice with your intellect.
A theremin novice attempts “The Swan”
To sing accurately, your body has to know where the pitch you want to sing is and find it for you. The more mysterious and organic it feels, the more likely the resulting sound will be beautiful and free.
You cannot learn the theremin by first making rigid, jerky movements to find where the pitches reside in space, and then begin loosening the gesture to make it more elegant. You must BEGIN with the gesture, and preserve its elegance at all costs, gradually bringing mind and body in sync so that the pitches find themselves as though plucked from the ether. You audiate the pitch and gently and elegantly will your body to go to the place that will result in that pitch sounding. So it is for singers.
Our first priority is and must be maintaining a free throat and keeping our technique working for us so that the muscles that should set our voices into motion are working optimally and the muscles that should be uninvolved or minimally involved do not step in and rigidify our sound. So, we begin adrift, working with our gestural vocabulary and going where our voices are led. We sing awash in a cascade of other pitches made by instruments and other singers, and must find our place in it. Every pitch is either a warm invitation to join it or relate to it, or a landmine tempting us to go astray. Faced with the possibility of imminent humiliation if we sing a pitch other than what is intended, we must still resist the temptation to make our voices rigid. Even the most screeching of dissonances must be made elegantly, and the body will find that place long after the mind knows where it is. Onsetting on a dissonance or leaping into a dissonance is particularly challenging. It is where our flesh can betray us, but there are no shortcuts. We must be patient with ourselves.
Likewise, our colleagues must come to understand this if they are to help dismantle the stereotype of singers as ignorant non-musicians and foster an environment of mutual respect. To them, I would say: before you throw up your hands in disgust and dismiss singers as incompetent, I suggest you step in front of a theremin and try to play a tune that is familiar to you. I suspect it will be a humbling experience, and one that might elicit a bit of empathy for the daily work of the incredible vocal musicians who give life and breath to profoundly beautiful music with intelligence and grace. Be patient with us. I promise it will be worth the wait.