Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Art of Learning to Sing

Whether you're a new singer or a seasoned professional, the experience of working with a voice teacher can be truly rewarding. Partnering with someone who challenges your ingrained physical habits and limiting beliefs often results in breakthroughs that can take your voice, performances, and career to new heights.

Unfortunately, there are as many horror stories out there as there are tales of victory. Not only do singers often complain of spending their hard earned money– and time– with little to show for them, countless others leave studios vocally and even emotionally worse off than when they started.

What is going on here?

In my mind, it is a three part problem common to many learning environments. Rooted in disconnects between teacher style and ability and student confidence and learning patterns, the situation is further exacerbated by a lack of a shared vision for what they as a team want to create and how to best go about it.

What's more, the variables are often approached in the wrong order. While it may be tempting to first look for a teacher with the best roster, resume, or 'method', the journey toward optimal vocal learning is ideally begun by looking closely at yourself. I'm not just talking about your performance experience and technical understandings. Vocal training requires you to bare not only your voice, but also your heart and even your soul to another… to become truly vulnerable. This requisite openness often leads to unresolved emotional issues and insecurities– rather than the voice– becoming the focus in sessions, setting the stage for the potential development of co-dependent relationships that can hinder and even impair vocal and personal progress.

Next in importance, and often overlooked, is knowing what it is you hope to achieve. Do you want to heal an existing vocal problem or craft a style for yourself? There is a big difference between preparing for an impending tour and coming out of a vocal hibernation, just as there is between a technician and a stylistic coach. Working through potential songs for your American Idol audition with a classical teacher (or on legit technique with a performance or repertoire coach) is likely not the best idea, unless he or she is incredibly open-minded and unusually versatile. Being certain of what you want and need will therefore make the process of finding the right coach or teacher vastly more straightforward and successful.

Whatever your specific goals, in my opinion, the best teachers in any field are those who view the process of learning as a journey of co-discovery, rather than top-down instruction of an inflexible methodology. Central to the creation of this relationship is abandoning the notion that there is an unbalanced power dynamic between teacher and student. In fact, the opposite is true. When working with a coach or teacher- or for that matter, a doctor or lawyer- you are employing them to help you grow in a certain area of understanding. They are auditioning for you, so to speak; the onus is therefore on them to demonstrate that they're qualified to provide you with the service you're looking for.

Still, many people continue to believe that learning is simply the passive intake of information from someone who knows far more about a topic than we do. Indeed, a coach might know more about technique, but that doesn't mean he or she knows how to communicate that information in a way that's clear to you. Your participation is critical to ensuring that the process of learning– the giving and receiving of information– can be fulfilled. Therefore, look for someone who is eager to understand how you experience your voice and has a desire and ability to tailor and explain the principles of healthy singing in a way that personally resonates. Even the best coaches have their limitations, musical and otherwise, and the truly great ones will tell you what they do and don't know and specialize in, as well as if and when the time has come for you to move on.

With that in mind, don't hesitate to ask your short list of potential teachers whether they offer public workshops or master classes. Seeing them in action will give you a sense of their teaching style, personality, and process, and whether they might be a good fit for you. If this isn't an option, perhaps request a brief video chat prior to setting up an appointment, as well as whether you can email or speak with a few of their students about their experiences and thoughts.

Learning to sing is a journey that begins not with the right teacher or technique, but with you. Knowing who you are and what you want is the first step to unlocking your vocal– and personal– potential. Empowered with an open mind and a clear vision, you'll more easily find and partner with the teachers and coaches that are best able to help you move further along the path toward realizing your goals and dreams.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cash vs. Caruso

"Hi Jennifer. Wanted to let you know that I got the Johnny Cash show. I'm looking forward to it. On another note, I've been agonizing over that opera audition. My technique has been all over the place, and I have again gotten extremely confused and obsessed with it. So before I completely lose my mind, I'm going to try to start enjoying singing again. To hell with ‘opera technique’. It's making me crazy. I literally don't know what I'm doing with one song. I keep thinking my classical teacher has some secret from the golden era that's going to make me stand out way beyond everyone else in the world. But when I sing as you teach, I feel much better and way more in control. And it's probably the same thing my classical teacher’s talking about anyway. How many voices can you have?! Sorry about the rambling. This has been extremely frustrating. After forty years of singing, I'm still not ready..."

With my client’s permission, and thanks, I'd also like to share my response:

Let's look at the situation. You've been given a part in a show – for which you'll be paid, and well – playing one of the most famous and beloved singers of all time. The style and technique come naturally and effortlessly to you. You positively love the music. It's a joy to sing. The show will be a great experience. You'll get to travel.

On the other hand, you're agonizing over an audition you have to pay for. The very thought of creating the sounds makes you anxious. You feel disconnected from both your body and the mind that is supposed to know and tell it what to do.

I know this seems like a terrible predicament, and a vocal one at that. But make no mistake. The real issue here is the disparity in attitude you bring to each. Opera isn't giving you problems. Commercial music isn't easy for everyone. Certainly there are distinctions between the two, which we've talked about in the past. But I can assure you that for you, the space between them is filled primarily with fear and insecurity rather than technical issues.

And on the wall of that space is written, to paraphrase your email: someone else has 'the thing' I need to succeed.

If you really wanted to 'stand out', you'd take your role and run. Instead, you take for granted a style of music that comes so easily to you, in which you’ve been and continue to be successful, and ache, obsess, and agonize over another. Why not just apply the same vocal, intellectual, and emotional tools you use in the former to the latter, and see what happens?

Before you protest that you've tried this, and that classical singing is just plain old harder, let me remind you that a) I've witnessed your 'attempts' in our sessions and b) I work every day with equally tortured 'Carusos' longing to sing Mr. Cash's music as gloriously as you do. Reverse the genres, and the emails I receive from them are the same.

As is the belief that binds you all together… that nothing worth having comes easy, or from within yourselves.

The timeless 'secret' you think your teacher has is not some elusive technique. It’s unconditional self-confidence, something that neither she nor anyone else can give to you.

Imagine for a moment that you gave yourself this gift, and that the classical repertoire came to you as effortlessly – and joyfully – as the commercial. Ask yourself, "is there anything about the idea of universal freedom that intimidates me? What would my musical – and personal – life be like without a struggle? What would it feel like to sit still, confident, and fulfilled where I am now, rather than constantly agonizing over what I've yet to achieve, what I've yet to 'get'? What is the reward I'm receiving from the frustration that comes from this impossibly hard work?"

Answer those questions, and you will be ready. For anything.

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