Know thyself

Lamperti says ” ‘Know thyself’ applies to the singer more than to other professions, because to sing well, body, soul and mind are tuned together to do it” (Vocal Wisdom in the section “Know thyself”).  The “self” is a complicated subject, but I tend to agree with Lamperti that having an ongoing excavation of yourself is a necessity as a singer. Science is showing us that our notion of our self is perhaps too fixed – so many cases of traumatic accidents causing personality shifts or behavioral changes are documented elsewhere. Yet we know that the “I” exists and is worthy of exploration.

One of my teachers recently commented that every thought and experience you’ve ever had comes out in the sound of your voice – just ponder the implications of that for a moment. If everything that’s a part of us and our life experience thus far comes out in the sound of the voice, then of course we should explore what exactly those thoughts and experiences are, with judging them as good or bad. This takes practice too, and a devotion to understanding how we each work. I’m reading another translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the great yoga philosophy texts) right now. Sutra 1.22 is translated as “As persons are leisurely, middling, or intense in their practice, so excellence is achieved accordingly.” The translator Nicholas Sutton then goes on to comment, “success in yoga practice is dependent on the amount of dedication one is willing to give it.” Gee, sounds like that might apply to music too! And life! I can’t help but draw these connections from my yoga studies with my life as a singer….like so many, I have been scared of “excellence” or fulfilling my potential in the past. Now I have a greater ability to look at my habits/thoughts/experiences and see them as not good or bad, but rather to just “know myself” better. I can be free to dedicate myself to practicing (in yoga, singing, and yes, life itself) with less judgment or expectation.

So these two ideas of devotion to practice and “know thyself” are really linked in my experience. A butterfly flies around seeking nectar because that’s what it’s designed to do. Some flowers are dripping with the good stuff and some are duds. Like the pollinator who flies devotedly from flower to weed to tree seeking pollen, I can practice seeking myself, through the practice, and come to relish the experience for itself – no conditions or clauses in the contract.

Singing in the midst of grief

…It’s one of the most wonderful and hardest things to do. I sometimes have students come into a voice lesson, and maybe they’ve had a hard day, but they really can’t sing. We’ve all felt that tell-tale tightening of the throat when we’re about to cry, or trying not to cry. That sensation could not be further from the “open throat” that voice teachers through the ages have taught.

Yet, when we’re in times of personal grief, communal grief, or even national grief, singing can be a very special way of honoring that emotion. I’ve had advice from several professors over the years about how to approach this problem. One director, as we were working on an especially emotional opera (The Dialogues of the Carmelites – in which almost the entire cast of nuns are guillotined), advised us to just go ahead and cry while we were singing, since if we tried to hold it in, our throats would definitely get tight. I think I know what she was going for – but if you’ve ever tried to carry a pitch or legato phrase while you’re actually crying, you know that’s pretty impossible to do. What I think she meant was to acknowledge the emotion and rather than try to stifle it, let it come out in the sound of the voice. This goes hand in hand with the idea of having an open Throat Chakra – if you feel free to express yourself and use your voice, your throat will stay physically open. If you are trying to stifle your thoughts or emotions, it will tighten, and even fractional tightness will effect your core sound as you sing.

I encourage my students (and myself) to stay in the moment and not get too emotional while singing. Emotions are tied up in past regrets, future worries, and all kinds of other distractions from being in the now. When we come together to sing in honor of a tragedy, part of the power is the sheer force of sound coming from a group of people singing, and you can only truly experience that if you are in the moment. These group expressions of grief are needed to collectively share the emotion – a kind of congregational open throat. And if it’s a lone solo voice, at a funeral for instance, maintaining the integrity of your sound is essential to letting the listeners have an emotional experience, while you remain calm. It takes practice to find out how to honor your own emotions without letting them get into your vocal tract, but it is totally possible – and may even lead you to get more out of the power of your singing. Candle_in_the_dark