The Art of Transformational Voice

THE VOICE OF PRAYER

Some people like traditional prayers that are found in formal religions. Others don’t identify with praying at all. I think praying is deeply personal and whatever prayers likes it that way. In fact, there are likely as many ways of praying as there are people who do it.

I learned from Esther Cohen that one way to pray is just to say “Amen” a lot. It reminds me that life is its own prayer and I don’t have to get all fancy and ritualistic. I can just wake up to a sense of sacredness in any moment.

Rosy is dancing. Amen.

Randy shoveled the snow off my walks. Amen.

I sang at my friend’s funeral. Amen.

I feel tenderly toward the neighbor’s cat that is lonely and crying. Amen.

9 months post treatment I’m cancer free. Amen.

I’m both grateful and grieving. Amen.

The impulse my body has to inhale is the source of creation breathing me to life. The impulse to exhale is that source wanting to bring something to life through me. Following my breath is praying.

A subtle but relentless thought about someone is a prayer entering my willing heart. I dial the phone and learn that Sandy’s cat just died in her arms. Another day I call and Aidan says he broke his ankle. Practicing singing increases my tendency to tune into these subtle promptings.

My own broken heart is a petition spilling all over the day to call someone else to experience being the answer to prayer.

There’s an old Christian saying, “Singing is praying twice.” The reason religions often chant rather than speak prayers is because of all that happens for us as we chant:

  • The regular rhythm entrains and slows breathing and heart rates, encouraging deeper states of relaxation and concentration.
  • The vibrato is the same rate as in certain states of meditation and lucid dreaming, encouraging a deeper sense of connection with spirit.
  • The increased overtones stimulate the brain and immune system enhancing energy and focus.

It is possible to use the speaking voice in a way that generates all of these qualities, but most of us don’t do that. If we don’t want to chant, starting our day with a little humming can help. Breathing practices aimed at balancing and regulating the breath can also help.

The miracle of creation and the potential for love is in every breath, in each sensation, thought and feeling. Using our voice as prayer is a way to open to love.

STUDIO DYNAMICS

People come into a voice studio looking for different kinds of support, and each must be met according to the mixture of gifts and challenges they have to express and transform.

In private lessons everything is tailored for the individual. In classes it’s still necessary to support individual strengths and needs, as well as to create a more comprehensive application of the work so that everyone can benefit.

Focus on certain elements of vocal function that are common to everyone is a great way to bring a class together. When a teacher has an expansive, integrated knowledge of the voice and repertoire, it’s possible to learn even more in classes than in private lessons.

However, people can feel slighted when they observe that everyone is engaged differently. It’s important for everyone to come to an agreement that loving equally doesn’t mean loving the same. Loving equally means doing what is best for each person in a way that brings value to everyone present.

When we teach in class settings it’s useful to consistently remind students of their differences and how that makes it so valuable to be learning from each other. It also makes it clear why comparison is not useful. With each person bringing such unique quality and interpretation, they will all find their own niche in the studio and in the world.

Students can learn how to support each other by:
— Listening for what truly moves them and gives them chills.
— Finding at least one thing in other singers’ work that will help with their own singing.
— Noticing what is changing and improving in their peers.
— Recognizing that the better others are, the more they stand to gain.
— Truly hoping for each other’s best.

There can also be dynamics of compare and despair when there are studio performances. Generally, going first or last are considered plum spots, but it’s possible to shine no matter where you are in the roster.

It needs to be made clear that the music is programmed to give the audience the best listening experience. Let everyone know that their place in the performance adds something essential, and then share the elements you consider when creating the order.

The opening number is generally something that grabs everyone’s attention, which draws them out of their busy lives and into the performance.

The closing number is usually strong, uplifting and intended to leave everyone with a good feeling about the entire show.

Throughout the program there needs to be variety and flow, a complementary progression of keys, tempos, and content.

It’s too hard on an audience to have nothing but complex, demanding repertoire, even though those pieces are likely to get the big applause.

Doing a gentler, less complex piece doesn’t mean we are less appreciated, but people will be applauding from a quieter state of being.

These are important things to discuss and for everyone to feel good about because when you do a one-person show, the same principles will apply. There will be more applause for some numbers than others, and we mustn’t lose confidence over that.

I’d love to hear from you regarding studio dynamics that have troubled you, whether you are a teacher or student. Most especially, I’d love it if you would share with everyone here about things you do to support a thriving, supportive studio.

Happy New Year!

A VOICE FOR CHANGE

Years ago I attended a lecture by a teacher with such a long name I could never recall it. But I have never forgotten what he said.

He taught that we couldn’t possibly create peace, or love, or forgiveness, because these things already exist. We can, however, increase how much such things exist by embodying them.

As I listen to conversations about current world and civic affairs, I rarely hear embodied voices expressing inner responses of faith in the process of life, of peace as a present possibility, of forgiveness as accomplished.

I hear scathing remarks about individuals and events that are reactions from people who are afraid. They have not gone into silence and merged with their own creative source in order to come to a place of internal congruence before offering potential solutions to life that they themselves are capable of executing.

Here is how vocal mastery can support true and significant change at times like these. Work with a quiet, extended breath and overtone chanting:

  1. Slows cardiovascular and respiratory rates.
  2. Slows brain pulses to a more meditative and creative state of consciousness.
  3. Reduces the production of brain and body chemistry that promotes aggressive language and behavior.
  4. Increases the capacity to listen and truly hear other points of view.
  5. Energizes the entire physical and personality system so that it is possible to sustain consistent, positive effort toward a desired outcome.

No matter how many new leaders we have, no matter how much they try to shift, no matter how much we agree or disagree with them, until each and every one of us develops our personal capacity to embody and express dignity and grace, there will not be more of these in our days.

Such things can’t be legislated or enforced. They must be earned in the quiet of rigorous self-evaluation and honesty. Because the voice paces thoughts and feelings as well as the breath, when we work for precision, balance, and congruency in the tone, we develop these qualities in the whole of our being.

Whatever cultural or religious traditions we might celebrate at the winter solstice time of year, they are all meant to celebrate the potential radiance of the human spirit. The music composed for this time expresses our commitment to be loving, and when we sing together we have an opportunity to create a harmonious community around these values.

May your holiday season be one of joyful loving,

tender engagement and abiding faith

in the unfolding grace of our lives together.

VOWELS

Consonants articulate words while sustained vowels carry the voice into the world. We do not intone on a [g] or a [t] or a [p], but how forcefully or gracefully we produce consonants affects the vowel that follows and contributes to the quality of the voice.

Each vowel naturally has a different shape and quality. EE can sound clear and outgoing while OOH can sound soft and gentle. AH is in the middle with a combination of brilliance and warmth. Part of developing a consistent tone is in minimizing the differences between vowels.

“EE” as in feet and “A” as in cat make use of resonance in the nose and front of the face. “OOH” as in shoe and “OH” as in note open more into the back of the mouth and throat. By alternating between “EE” and “OOH” we can learn how to keep the brilliance of the “EE” in the “OOH” vowel, and the openness of the “OOH” vowel behind the “EE”. We can then insert “AH” in the middle and try to get all three sounds to be similarly balanced. “EE-OOH-AH-OOH-EE.”

Singing teachers and speaking coaches will often use vowel exercises not only to develop consistency, but also to shift vocal quality. Practicing bright, forward vowels helps with clarity and audibility. Practicing warmer, inside vowels reduces edginess and intensity.

The quality of vowels can also affect mood and energy levels. Bright vowels are more likely to stimulate positive endorphins and boost immune response. Warmer vowels are more likely to support relaxation and receptivity.

Sing or speak different vowels and see if you can feel where they resonate in your face and body. Play with exaggerating differences as well as equalizing sounds. Work these in combination with optimal breath support for the best vocal production and tonal quality.

PRACTICE AS PERFORMANCE

Vocal practice is about expressing fully and beautifully right here and now. It’s important not to wait for show time to turn on the magic.

Too often practice is only cognitive. It focuses on memorizing, or fixing the countless details that refine performance while leaving heart and soul in the hallway. The assumption is that once on stage or in a conversation, passion and creativity will magically integrate, that communication will be inspired. This is a dangerous assumption.

It isn’t enough to remember something, or to express it with precision and balance. Vocal art is created only when a listener is moved. Before practicing a passage, whether singing or speaking, connect with the reason for expressing it. The passage needs to be equally important every time it is repeated. This means using not only the critical mind to refine technique, but also the imagination.

The goal of performance is to deliver a message as though we are thinking of it for the first time in this moment. If we practice making every repetition of a passage as passionate and soulful as we can, we will never run out of variations, and we will be even more inspired in performance.

To renew your heart and imagination with each repetition:

  • Imagine saying or singing the passage to a different person.
  • Imagine they say something different to you each time you start.
  • Play a movie in your inner mind, allowing visual details to change each time.
  • Notice how the way you are engaging with the message affects your body.
  • Breathe openly and completely.

LYING AND YOUR VOICE

Whether it is a little white lie, a whopper, an exaggeration, or something we think we are saying to protect another, lying diminishes every aspect of our being and expressive power. It strips the voice of strength and warmth. Breathing becomes shallow and slightly held, the entire muscle system contracts and phonation is imprecise. Sensory receptors are blocked and resonance cannot be fully accessed. 

We tell lies when we feel overwhelmed and rushed, and want to get something or someone off our to do list. We exaggerate when we lack self worth and imagine this will get us what we think we deserve. We claim others’ accomplishments as our own when we are uninspired or inept. We twist facts to diminish others when our beliefs are mistaken or we lack curiosity.

Lies have a way of being revealed and we lose far more than could ever be gained. We might need to practice moving through difficult conversations, but the more we do it, the more empowered and insightful we become. Taking responsibility and having humility about our limitations often inspires others to help us in ways beyond anything we could hope for.

There is always a way to tell a truth and be kind. And it should always be done in person, if possible. Sending half-truths, excuses and terminations by instant message and email rob us of precious opportunities to deepen and share our humanity. And amazingly, our voice still suffers the diminishing effects. 

If there are chronic issues in your singing voice, especially in the shift from the speaking range into the upper voice, ask yourself if there is any place in your life where your are withholding truth. Find a way to make those amends or express your grace to reclaim the whole of your expressive capacity for singing as well as for speaking.

This is a potentially fraught topic, but an essential one because competition is currently such a popular option for aspiring singers to gain exposure. I’ll mention a few things that my students and I consider, and hopefully they’ll inspire your thoughts. I’d love it if you add them here in the comments.

Art is not inherently a competitive endeavor. It is an elevated means of communication, a transformative relationship with form, an expression of creative spirit. Great artists speak of their art doing them. They have to do their art because it won’t leave them alone until they do. They don’t create art so they can be compared to others and declared a winner.

Competitions can be heartbreaking if they are entered with the goal of winning instead of the desire to share one’s grace through singing. Any performance, no matter what the setting, must be for the benefit of the audience, and singers are the servants of that cause.

Competitions can be confusing if adjudicators give feedback that contradicts teachers and coaches. Because judges are not ongoing guides they don’t necessarily know where singers are in their process, and they can give information that isn’t especially helpful in the moment. They also might not have a mandate to encourage and support potential. In fact, some believe they have a responsibility to discourage less accomplished singers.

Singers often choose repertoire that they think can win rather than looking for what is best suited to them. Sometimes they look at previous winners or famous artists and try to style themselves after what others do instead of tuning in to their own genius.

  • Does a song suit the voice?
  • Does it reflect the personality?
  • Is it age appropriate?
  • Does it inspire the singer?
  • Does it meet the guidelines of the competition?

Singers can start to look at one another as enemies rather than as colleagues. They can become jealous instead of admiring others’ gifts. They can lose the spirit of playfulness and experimentation that is at the heart of making music with others.

Grades can be limiting because they measure only how well someone has met a list of standards, mastered a given technique or appealed to the particular tastes and preferences of the adjudicator. We all know of artists with decades of success that would score miserably low grades for their singing in a competitive setting.

Competitions can be the way we engage these issues and learn to navigate them with poise and authenticity.

If you want to do a competition, here are some things I’d encourage:

  • Make sure you will be able to use repertoire that’s suitable and that you love to sing.
  • Sing to communicate, not to win.
  • Accept feedback, but don’t be governed by it. Let your inner artist be your guide.
  • Perform the song(s) in other settings outside of competition.
  • Be kind to everyone you meet who is in anyway involved, especially other singers.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences with singing competitions, or how grades you’ve received for your performances have influenced you.