For most of us, the early vocal memories are happy ones. Yet those may not be what you remember first, when you think about singing. Instead, you may remember a music teacher saying, "I want you to just be a listener, dear." Or perhaps you remember a parent or a sibling making faces when you sang and telling you to "Shut up." You may have been told, in dire tones, that you were "tone deaf".
There are a million ways to silence a child’s voice. We are each born with a body that is made for moving and a voice that is made for sounding. Have you spent time with a baby lately? Babies move and vocalize freely and constantly, even in their sleep. They are exploring the possibilities: babbling, gurgling, making "raspberries". As they grow older, they begin to imitate the sounds they hear around them, trying out both speech and song. And we all know that no matter how long babies cry, they never get vocal fatigue! But if the baby is crying, soon an adult will be saying, "Shh. Hush now. Be quiet." And as the child grows there will be many situations where his or her vocal expressions, even the most happy ones, will be considered inappropriate. In the Victorian era, children were often instructed to "Be seen and not heard" or to "Hold their tongues". While adults are more permissive nowadays, our society retains strong prejudices against free vocal expression.
As a voice teacher I see many of the casualties of this climate of vocal repression. The first thing people tell me when they call is, "I can’t sing." But the very next thing they say is, "I really want to."
"I believe that everyone can sing," I say. They laugh nervously. I can hear them thinking, Uh-oh. Is she some kind of nut?
I did not start out believing that singing was universal. As a child, I loved to sing. By the age of five, I had announced to the world that I was going to be an opera singer. My parents sought to encourage me; without intending to, they gave me the idea that a.) I was exceptional, and b.) that was why they loved me. It was a poisonous combination. Whenever I begin teaching another frightened, insecure, tonally uncertain student, I remember with pain the haughty tone with which my child self ordered my mother, "Don’t sing. You can’t sing in tune."
By the time I set off for music school at the age of twenty, I was full of the mixture of terror and arrogance which so often defines young classical musicians. I had already had several years of formal lessons, and had sung in a highly-regarded chorus and as a fledgling soloist. These experiences had taught me that there was a Right Way to sing, and that I was usually failing to achieve it. I yearned to attain the status of a Real Musician; it seemed to me that the more I learned about music, the further I found myself from that exalted goal. Amazingly, I still loved to sing.
Over the next several years, as I pursued the goal of becoming a professional singer, I was fortunate enough to study with two excellent and humane voice teachers. They did their best to teach me that no matter how much technical skill I acquired, the essence of singing was an experience of joy and love. Today, they stand at my shoulder as I hear myself exclaim to a student, "You sound fabulous!" (Teacher #I) or "Just honk it right out!" (Teacher #2).
Yet over and over I found myself asking, "Who am I singing for? Am I ever going to be good enough? Why am I doing this?"
Meanwhile, I hung out my shingle as a voice teacher. Students came, bravely telling their stories. "In my family, We Don’t Sing," one said. "But I dream that I am singing, the way some people dream that they are flying." Another one told me, "My brother has perfect pitch. But I am completely tone deaf."
I had been teaching several years, still fighting my own internal battle "To sing or not to sing", when a student handed me a book.
"I think this just says all there is to say about singing," she said.
I looked at the cover: Song and Silence: Voicing the Soul. I had never heard of the author, Susan Elizabeth Hale. The cover photograph was an unusual image of a pile of red rocks, which on second glance appeared to be a head, open-mouthed. Looks flaky, I thought. Raised in the dusty groves of academe, I have a strong suspicion of anything too "New Age". Yet when I opened the book and began to read, I was quickly engrossed. I read about Hale’s early, joyful singing—she quotes her mother as saying that she sang the first few notes of "Rock-a-bye Baby" before she spoke. I read about her experiences as a music therapy student, where "the natural joy of singing was stifled" by "the attitudes of perfectionism and rivalry that were bred in the music conservatory." And I read, for the first time, about something called "Toning".
Toning, as Hale described it, was a form of spontaneous singing, "a way of listening deeply to one’s self ... and voicing what is heard inside." She offered practical instructions: "Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth ... allow yourself to sigh or groan..." Sounds flaky, I thought again. But I tried it.
I waited until I was alone. It was okay to practice my vocal exercises and arias with other people around, but I couldn’t imagine letting anyone hear me making spontaneous, possibly horrible noises. Although I frequently encouraged my students to sing loudly and freely, even if they thought it didn’t sound good, I felt a strong taboo against ever letting anyone hear me when I wasn’t at my polished best! Even with the house to myself, I began cautiously. Who knew what sounds might emerge?
To my surprise, the voice that came out was strong and confident—more confident than my "performance voice" often was. This voice seemed freer, easier, more playful. I found new colors, new possibilities of range and emotion. I was intrigued. Some years before, I had been part of a workshop called "The Opera Lab", which endeavored to expand the acting skills of classical singers. We used to sing while doing all sorts of strange things: rolling around on the floor, wearing a blindfold. At the time, I despaired that I would never be able to achieve onstage, the vocal freedom of expression that I found during our experiments. With toning, I had rediscovered that organic voice.
One formative influence that Susan Elizabeth Hale mentioned in her book was the former singer of the Paul Winter Consort, Susan Osborn. With the encouragement of Voice Teacher # 1, I signed up for a three day workshop with Osborn at the Omega Institute. On the first evening, I sat on the floor with fifty other participants, wondering what I was doing there. Osborn invited us to breath and sound together; what emerged was such a hideous cacophony that I seriously contemplated heading straight home again. Yet when I slunk into class next morning, I found myself joining in a spontaneous musical meditation which was as soft and harmonious as any group of monks chanting. I watched individual singers stand up in the middle of the circle and sound/sing their deepest feelings. Encouraged by Osborn’s warm presence, one singer after another progressed with seeming ease from harshness to sweetness, from stiffness to playfulness, from fear to powerful joy, rage or grief. With very few exceptions, the "performances" I heard were infinitely more moving than anything I had ever heard on the concert stage.
I was hooked! Following Osborn’s encouraging advice, when I returned to my home town I began to look for other women who were interested in forming a "song circle". Within a short time we had a group of fifteen women who were eager to explore Toning. We met regularly for several months, and had a wonderful time. It was a particularly powerful group of women: each one of us was a professional teacher, healer, performer, or a combination of all three. Imagine standing in a group of such strong women voicing together their deepest feelings. Even for me, the consummate skeptic, the energy was palpable.
Over the past couple of years, I have continued to explore the possibilities of spontaneous singing. I had the pleasure of taking a short workshop with Pauline Oliveros, an early adventurer in the field. Before anyone had ever heard of "Toning", she was meeting with groups of people and creating freeborn vocal "compositions" and musical events. Among other things, she now trains others in what she calls "Deep Listening", which she describes as " connecting to the universe of sound and processing what one hears" through ritual, breathing, listening/sounding meditations and other methods. Susan Hale, author of Song and Silence, came to Brattleboro and gave a wonderful workshop on Toning, chant, and storytelling. Through Susan I learned of English singer and teacher Chloe Goodchild, whose work, according to her publicity materials, "focuses in the naked voice, the real sound buried in the bones obscured by inhibition and social conditioning."
There is a wide world of possibilities for anyone who seeks to discover spontaneous, authentic vocalization. Omega and other centers of alternative education offer workshops with people such as Don Campbell (author of The Mozart Effect) and Kay Gardner. Some people are interested in the potential healing properties of sound. Others are seeking to release their emotions. Still others wish to expand their skills as performance artists and teachers. And of course, I have completely overlooked in this article the vocal practices of other cultures and spiritual traditions.
But without any teacher, even without a companion, you can set out yourself upon a journey of vocal self discovery and liberation. It’s easy—and while it may be scary at first, soon you will be eager for more. Like my student who told me "We Don’t Sing," you may find yourself saying, "I just feel like singing all the time now. I’d really rather sing than do anything else."
Here’s how you start: sit, stand, or lie down in a position where you will be comfortable for a while. (Later, you may want to add free-form movement, but let’s keep it simple to begin with.) Close your eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Try sighing. Let your throat relax. See if the sigh wants to become a noise. Keep breathing—in, out. On each out breath, allow a sound to emerge. If you wish, let the sound become a tone. And another tone. Fabulous! Just honk it right out! Everyone is truly a Real Singer—including you.
Kate Judd has been singing all her life. She has an Artist Diploma in Voice, and is a Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique. She teaches privately in Brattleboro and Bennington, is the voice instructor at the Putney School, and has taught at numerous educational institutions including Bennington College and Harvard University. She can be contacted at email@example.com, or by calling (802) 257-1358.
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