What happens when you realize you’ve had “write blog post” on your to-do list for about three months, and it never really happened? Nothing terrible it turns out. Other things were getting done: trips taken, tasks and projects completed, books read, music practiced, lessons and classes taught and taken, auditions sung, performances planned, meals cooked, and so much more! In the scheme of life, we are constantly shifting and juggling priorities, and it turns out updating this blog wasn’t much of a priority for me recently.
I could shame myself for this and wonder how it affects my brand and my online presence. I have definitely had those thoughts before. But then I think about all that has been done and what kind of a presence I’ve been in real life and have to think that all that is much more important. Ultimately this is the essence of the practice of life – noticing where you are at any given moment and accepting it as it is. You are free to change course at any time, to backtrack and start something over, or to enjoy the view right from where you are. I’ve been doing a little bit of all of these in different areas of my life.
So in the end I have to say “it’s all good.” Meaning not every decision has been the “right” one, but that’s ok. I haven’t always been so good at being present, but that’s ok. I’m coming to the end of 2018 with so much good work done and good work to come in 2019. But all the work and the tasks and to-do lists are besides the point. I’m ok right where I am.
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.
In May, I finished my Anusara® yoga teacher training, which has been a wonderful complement to my own singing, my understanding of the body as an instrument, and how the mind/spirit interacts with the body. One of the teachings of Anusara is the idea of the 3 As: Attitude, Alignment, and Action. These correspond to how to take action in each yoga asana (pose) based in yoga philosophy, and I’ve been thinking about them in relation to my singing lately. I’ve spent the last several years intensely working on vocal technique, and it is easy to only focus on this as I open my mouth to sing. The same is true for some of the students I teach – I can see them almost checking off to-do items in the moments before they sing a phrase, and even as they are in the midst of singing. When the Attitude is one of a hurried person checking off items on a mental to-do list, the Alignment will be clunky or rigid, and the Action will be stifled or lackluster.
In other words, I’ve been thinking that the time for understanding technique must come long before we get into our “singing” or “performance” mode. I’ve been asking myself and my students, “Now, what is your attitude toward this piece?” They sometimes list all of the things they want to achieve in the piece, or perhaps places they’re worried about, or technical concepts (for instance open vowel sounds) they want to focus on. But this is not Attitude. Attitude might be something like gentleness, confidence, acceptance, etc. It’s so hard to sing from a place of gentleness when one is singing an aria or song about murder and revenge! But the Attitude of gentleness should be more about the singer being gentle with themselves and letting the music speak for itself. If I’ve done my work in the practice room, and have the notes, rhythms, words, expressive markings, etc., down, then I can let that all go when I go to actually sing. I have to trust that it is in my brain and those neural pathways will do their work. If I can do that, then I have the freedom to think about what the character’s Attitude is as they sing a particular aria.
One common thing I’ve done in the past (and notice others doing) is technique stacking – I might take a thing I did in a coaching two years ago and have highlighted in my score, add it to the breathing idea my teacher just gave me last week, subconsciously knock on some diction point a choir director harped on about 10 years ago… and voila! I’ve stacked technique on top of technique on top of technique! Lamperti advises us, “The singing voice is so subtle and demands such multitudinous activities, that it can be controlled only when used naturally and thought about in a simple way” (Vocal Wisdom, under “How do you breathe?”). This is where I’m seeing the link to the 3 As….my Attitude can’t be one of how do I solve all the problems with this phrase, or page, or song, or opera. It must be much simpler.
We can see the 3 A’s like this:
Attitude relates to Heart/intention
Alignment relates to Mind/knowledge of technique
Action relates to Body/manifestation
This past week or so, I’ve working with the Attitude of “play.” We learned about the concept of lila in my yoga training and it has been on my mind ever since….when I’m practicing, how rarely have I approached my music making with the sense of “freedom and playful creativity!” I’ve been very serious about striving to grasp and master vocal technical concepts, memorize pieces, juggle with the rest of my life and work schedule….and meanwhile I’ve been very hard on myself for not achieving more. But all of this striving lacks lila….it lacks pleasure, spontaneity, connection with the grand vibration of the world, with the inspiration of the words and notes the librettists and composers have given us, it ignores the joy of creation, and the fact that the words and notes are static marks on a page until brought to life by the unique vibration of my own voice, body, mind, and spirit. Almost all children spend the first few years of life playing. Dogs and other animals remind us of this spirit of play too. They Align and Act from an Attitude of lila. What would your music be if you really “played” it?
That phrase that you hear in fashion, or even for costumes on stage, “are you wearing the dress, or is the dress wearing you?” came to mind a few weeks ago while I was teaching a lesson in my Denver studio. It’s easy to think you know the notes, rhythms, words, markings, and everything else the librettist and composer put on the page, but until that music is really “in your voice,” I’d bet the aria is wearing you…and sometimes the fit is really, really bad.
This happens for many reasons. The most obvious is that it’s not a good aria for you – whether the wrong fach, the wrong tessitura, you’re too young or too old, it doesn’t matter – but not every composer fits every voice well, or it might just be the wrong time for you to sing that aria. A good teacher will help guide a student to find the right repertoire, but this is difficult with certain subgroups of students, like the bigger voiced singers, who can take years to mature into their instruments, and may have to sing a lot of song literature and vocalises before they are ready for the arias that really suit them. But much more commonly, you are singing something that actually is right for you, but you have doubts…about that high note at the end, about the fioratura in the middle section, about that random chest voice spot, about how to sing that umlaut in the passaggio, etc., etc. Those doubts show up in your sound and your body language even if you think you’re hiding them. And then that aria is wearing you.
Think about the most skilled piano and string players – they painstakingly examine the relationship between every note in a piece, exploring how to create legato or make an interval really meaningful. We’re lucky in opera – we have words to create meaning and our breath (when used well) creates legato naturally. But do we as singers take the time to really sing each pitch and its neighbor on the page? Rarely. Or if we do take the time to learn the notes thoroughly, do we trust that our brain has accurately relayed that information to our instrument, hidden there in our throat? Most of my students learn their music faster than they think they do, and it is only doubt that holds them back from really wearing the aria themselves. When you hear great singers, even if you don’t like something about their interpretation, you know they have for sure made each note their own, in their own instrument. They don’t mimic what they’ve heard someone else do, or do something only because a teacher or coach told them to. They’ve considered it for themselves, made decisions about how the notes and words relate to each other, sung phrases individually a number of different ways, and then they JUST DO IT. They wear those glorious notes and words, and for that 5-minute aria, you’d swear it was written just for them, because they inhabit the music so well.