Writing about my vocal journey this week has made me think even more about it. It is amazing to me that I could spend more time thinking about my voice than I already do—it is constantly on my mind! Remember when I said that I was manipulating my voice to sound like what I wanted it to sound like to myself, inside my own head? It made me think about why I felt I needed to do that, and what the influences have been in life that have taken me from the pure, real, efficient sound I made as a crying baby, to the “sensitive artist” I thought I was being!
Think about the sounds humans find irresistible, that they have a visceral response to: a a baby's cry, a belly laugh, a scream, and a gorgeous singing voice.
Then I started to think how our society reacts to noise. Since we’re on the crying baby thing, take that: from the first moment the crying starts, the parents spend all their time trying to figure out how to get the baby to stop crying. A lot of us grew up being told quite a lot to stop making so much noise. Making a lot of noise, whether it’s with happy sounds or not so happy sounds, doesn’t really go over well. Especially for women. A diminuitive tone is widely considered attractive by men, and appropriate by older women, fathers, grandmothers, you name it. People went to hear operas and paid other people to be loud for them, so that they could feel the feeling and have the catharsis with out embarrassing themselves with the impropriety of it all. Learning to sing opera, I am still in the process of retraining my thoughts about how loud and how fabulous it is actually "okay" for me to be.
The other piece of this for our generation has been recordings complete with fancy editing and mixing. Listening to any classical singer’s latest recording, you might think that she has the lung capacity of a gorilla. No one has to breathe, no one is ever out of tune, there is no way to tell if you can really hear her over the orchestra, you could make a recording of the Vier Letze Lieder with a full Strauss orchestra and be perfectly viable even if you were singing off your voice the entire time. It has introduced a whole other idea of what voices are supposed to sound like. We have less and less affordable chances to hear live singing with acoustic forces and no amplification. We rarely have the chance to stand next to a formidable phonator and really hear what that kind of singing sounds and feels and looks like.
Electronically enhanced singing, whether in an arena with Katy Perry, or a recording with Renee Fleming is electronically enhanced nonetheless. It isn't the real thing. Since at least eighty percent of my youthful concept of what singing was comes from recordings, my ear trained itself to imitate sounds like these in my own singing. I started to think there was something wrong with me if singing required any effort at all, or if I produced a sound that was raw and primal. My idea of singing was that it was supposed to be something highly refined, highly precious. My teacher told me this: The resonant sounds we make are not refined, really, at all, although if it is being produced properly, hopefully it won't sound ugly, but slender and agile. We use our primal voices in the service of very refined music, but it is not for the voice itself to be precious in this way. Everything that is not our pure, clear, real voice is imitation and learned behavior.
Only recently have I stopped noting to myself as I practiced: “Damn, that note kind of sounded like Freni! Yes, finally!!” or “I need to get these low notes to sound more like Verrett’s.” It doesn’t dawn on me to compare myself to people, because I am not manipulating to sound like them. I know that the only healthy and resonant way is to sound like me, and there really is not much I can do about it. Freni and Verrett were singing like themselves, and that's why I love them! They have what no one else can have: their own unique sound.
Which is why what my teacher said is so true: The journey to the voice is the journey to self. What we do when we study in this way, is to try to get back to the essential US, pre-imitation of our mothers and fathers, the recordings that we listened to, and pre-cow-towing to the pressures of societal norms. It is learning to say: Who I am and what I sound like is okay, it is impossible to be like anyone else without hurting myself.
A truly authentic voice, like a truly authentic person (and so often they exist in the same body), is truly irresistible.