'For the young singer as well as the experienced, it is often a turn of phrase or a new angle on an elusive concept that can turn on the light of understanding'
I don’t know about you but for me, singing didn’t come easy. I loved doing it but I was fearful, self conscious and debilitatingly self critical - a terrible combination.
It was at least six or seven years after graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, before I began to ‘find myself’, in my voice. I had defensively separated my heart and soul from my voice so I didn’t have to take responsibility for its faults. My lack of commitment was the ultimate disclaimer. I felt safe because my singing wasn’t totally me.
As is often the case it takes the heart and soul of someone who loves you and understands you better than you do yourself, to put you on the right road. And so it was for me. (Always try to surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart). With this inspiration I began working regularly with the famous Welsh Soprano Rita Hunter and her not so famous but wonderfully uncompromising Welsh Tenor/Teacher/Husband, John Thomas. For a period of over three years, sometimes as often as three times a week, I spent my allotted time exploring the confounds of a classical Bel Canto technique. Fundamental to my learning was the arduous regularity of constant technical repetition. My daily ritual was to train the many different muscles to produce a properly placed and resonated sound. Up and down my tessitura I went three notes at a time until the whole range of the voice was aimed in the same direction – forward and high. For three years I never once sang a song in a singing class. Technique is everything and patience more so. After that the rest is easy. And it’s true as long as you remember that technique exists to make sense of emotional impulse and to give form to instinct. And this paradoxically has become my mantra after a very technical phase.
Singing is on the one hand an athletic pursuit, but the crazy thing is that the training and movement of the controlling muscles can only really happen in response to an imaginative and/or emotional impulse. Thought – feeling - sound. For me this has become my musical triumvirate.
The idea of consistently placing the voice in an optimum resonating position while maintaining an open throat and an appropriate diaphragmatic support, is impossible to achieve without imaginative and emotional ‘instruction’. It is this instruction and how it is delivered by a teacher and how you imaginatively respond and/or self instruct, that is the key to learning how to sing properly.
(As a side note what became apparent to me is that if you are uncompromising about the positioning of the voice, ‘forward and high’, the throat remains open and when resonating properly, the voice passes less air through the vocal chords to make sound. Suddenly you have more breath than you thought. The mystery of breath of course is something else again and it has everything to do with thought. But I will come to that later).
While working with Rita and John, in this constant zone of exploration and learning, I tried to make sense of how I viscerally or emotionally responded to the sounds my body was making. I became addicted to the feeling of making sound with this new found technical freedom and resonance. I explored the upper limits of my range, and opened up sounds that seemed to burst through the top of my skull. Simply making these sounds was thrilling. It was also thrilling to take ownership of what I was learning and not just absorb mechanically what was being taught and hope for outcome. This is lesson for all students. Be active.
I pondered that if I had an emotional reaction to sound then surely sound and how I produce it would react to emotion. Yes this seems intuitive and is true when we think of the primal noises we make instinctively at times of extreme emotion. But I had not heard it articulated in a way that had landed with me. I didn’t know how you could consciously and methodically use emotion to motivate and create sound, especially in the formal setting of a song.
I became very aware that if you produce sound just by repeating learnt technical processes the outcome is a disconnected noise, sometimes impressive but never a true reflection of how you feel. And what is the point of singing if this isn’t the case.
The mystery then was to discover and then practice imaginative emotional triggers to generate sound. The outcome is measurably better. Better sound, better supported and connected, inevitably true and ultimately engaging.
The combination of emotional triggers and an understanding of sound as an idea is what I call the Emotional Platform from which the impulse for the voice to express itself comes.
I also discovered how to use my imagination to make emotional and meaningful sense of breath as thought and sound as an idea. The concept of using breath to inspire ideas is a revelation and makes so much better sense than obsessing about physical diaphragmatic breath support. Later.
In these blog pages I shall reveal a range of methods and ideas about singing that make up my system for learning and performing a song. Singing a song is our ultimate goal and its complexity knows no bounds.