Lately I’ve been privileged to witness my students really discover what their voices are capable of. I think one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is watching students be surprised by new things in their voice, the looks on their faces when they realize that that sound came out of them.
It doesn’t really matter what sound it is. It’s new to them, different, sometimes even disconcerting because it feels foreign, sometimes frustrating because, well, “Why can’t I always do that?!” But most often, there is joy. It is the joy of knowing there is more to them than they knew, that they already have the capacity to do something that may have seemed out of reach; now it’s just a matter of making it a habit.
Ultimately, the goal I’m always working towards in lessons is freedom. Vocal freedom is not just impressive or useful; it’s beautiful. Not all beautiful singing is perfect singing…but I do believe beauty requires freedom. To paraphrase and adapt Pope John Paul the 2nd, freedom is not in simply doing what we like but having the right to do what we ought. Music requires a spirit of service and in order to render it justice, we need the ability and control to do what we ought, that is, sing freely. This is work that can be done from, shall we say, both ends. When we embrace freedom, when we let go – of inhibition, vocal tension etc – , we discover where we can refine control. And when we focus on that area of control, on the boundaries, the outlines, the specific spaces of our voice, we find the areas where we can work for greater freedom.
The incredible thing is how much this work never fails to involve our whole person. The voice is tied to our identities. It reveals so many aspects about ourselves: strengths, vulnerabilities, fears, habits, comforts. It’s truly a space for growing in self-awareness, an opportunity to grow in self-respect. Patience and attentiveness to the tiny differences this or that adjustment makes, whether it’s in posture, diet, or any aspect of one’s warm up routine, is part of the act of love that is art.
Recently, I praised someone while they did a certain section of a piece that was particularly difficult. It wasn’t perfect, but I could hear the improvement, and hear what it would probably sound like given more time and ease. He gave me a rather incredulous look, and said: “I don’t hear what you hear.” I responded that I knew that was the case but that I was positive this was something he could do well.
It struck me later how profound that was because it’s true: we frequently don’t hear what others hear in our voices, or see in ourselves what others see in us. We feel stuck in our physical limitations, weighed down by our stress, our past; however, sometimes it is simply being seen and heard by someone else, a witness, that begins our steps into new awareness, and freedom. The witness shines a light on the “yes” spoken by the person who has chosen to make themselves vulnerable. He or she echoes back this yes, and makes it easier for the other person to choose to say “yes” again.
It’s a precious space to share and I’m grateful for it.