A series of experiences with my students this year has opened my eyes once more to the power of the human voice to convince, to inspire, to seduce and yes to combat the evils: fear, hopelessness, hate, apathy, etc. The words of Robert Louis Stevenson “ring brightly” as I relearn Vaughan-Williams’ Songs of Travel as a tenor: “…Fair the fall of song when the singer sings them!” A Kung Fu master once expressed to me how my discipline as a singer prepared me for the meditations of the martial arts, that singing itself was a form of Kung Fu.
I gave up the safety of a regular paycheck when I left Academia after 11 years that seemed to have flashed by before I was aware that my temples had become gray. I knew I could teach privately and perform and thereby make a living. I did not know what awaited me would be so spectacular and I sense this is only the beginning. I have submitted paradoxically that every one (pathologies aside) has a voice that could be trained to a professional level AND not everyone is a singer!
There is the “Vocalist”. One who has accomplished great vocal coordination and entertains with his fantastic physical powers. When s/he sings a high C, we are thrilled, as at the circus, when the trapeze artist makes a triple summersault before catching the next trapeze. We need thrills, and I pay to see such a performer.
There is the “Vocal Entertainer”. S/he, with great vocal material or without, enjoys the gift of timing and vocal skill. S/he has a keen understanding of what vocal effect or artifice will momentarily capture the audiences imagination. Like a great illusionist, s/he will take our musical/theatrical focus to one end of our attention and then surprise us at the other end, sometimes with a chuckle, sometimes with a tear. We applaud the skill, but we do not laugh to the bottom of our bellies and we do not shed a tear that runs over our hearts. We need to be entertained, and so I pay to revel in the skills of the performer.
The word “Singer” for me is a sacred word. I am openly not religious. Despite a strong Catholic background and various other religious experiences I find religion overall restrictive in my world. Yet one of the “singers” I teach shows me how open and infinite her religious experience is, and I am humbled by it and it stirs me to contemplation and even prayer. When I say sacred, I refer to a tangible, palpable communion of the spirit that occurs in many instances in life and most certainly when a “singer” releases a song, an act that is no less than the expression of the “eternal”, a revelation of that which is divine within us all, and as one of my students recently said: “the Breath of God.” At such an instance, all in the world is still, and only the communion of souls exists. Even the most hardened spectator cannot deny the illumination of his spirit. Our patron, Orpheus, even in ancient times was made legend because he was thus gifted. The Bard expressed it powerfully in Henry VIII (Act III, scene 1):
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing.
To his music plants and flow’rs
Ever sprung as sun and show’rs
There had made a lasting spring.
Ev’ry thing that heard him play
Ev’n the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by,
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart,
Fall asleep, or hearing die.
The singer’s art depends on the facility with which his/her instrument responds to the inspiration of the spirit. It also depends on his/her thorough knowledge of his/her craft. When skill and voice have been made instruments at the singer’s command, then must s/he enter in conversation with that which drives him/her from within, receive the breath of inspiration and expire the incantations that causes the very stones to weep.
Music is not a religion, less these pronouncements be seen in such light. It is one manifestation of the divine, a gift from the creator, a reminder that we are neither alone nor separated one from the other. The separation of our bodies is an illusion made irrelevant by the communion of souls as experienced through such manifestations as the singer’s voice, or a Rembrandt self-portrait.
The singer is not concerned with his own glory but is an instrument to facilitate this much needed illumination of the energy within. Such is the type of singer that has appeared in my studio over and over this year. It is an awesome responsibility and a source of great joy!
As I prepare to teach one particular singer, I confess that I am on my own journey of a vocal change and not as vocally refined as the student that I am about to teach. I study her music with all the skills I learned as a conductor, but am saddened that I cannot execute all that I have discovered on the piano. I have performed for some 25 years as a baritone and must give that up as well for a truth greater than my accomplishments.
I could turn myself into the semblance of a master, citing my baritone accomplishments and my 15 years of vocal science and remain comfortably in that vocal category. I have a doctorate, I taught in academia for over a decade, and have had performances with some important orchestras and sung many roles, etc, blah, blah, blah…
But none of those past accomplishments matter. I am now a tenor in training, a singer too, on the singer’s way to fulfillment of a calling. Part of that calling is an understanding of the singer’s way. I have been on the path for a quarter century and I understand what the singer goes through. Everything I have done, the Kung Fu classes years ago, the conducting classes, the science, the stage experiences (triumphs and abject failures) all converge to a set of skills that in all humility prepare me to face this magical singer who appears before me and tell her: “You must do this!”
In the Kung Fu class, when the master tells the student to do a deeper horse-stance, it is the student’s accomplishments that determine when the time for a deeper horse-stance has arrived. Likewise, based on the fundamental principles that guide vocal development, it is the student’s accomplishment that determine what the next step is. Every next step does not violate the fundamental principles of the first lesson. Dedication to the fundamental principles is the guiding light on the singer’s path. Hence the only thing that matters about my past twenty-five years of experience is whether the principles that have guided me thus far have been fundamentally sound. I believe they are. Otherwise, I could not face the magical singer who appears before me and tell her with any confidence that indeed: “You must do this!” It is those principles that made it clear that I have come to the point on the road when I was ready to develop my tenor voice. My baritone experience had reached its end. I was no longer viable in that condition. In retrospect, what I thought had been a wrong path was only leading to the truth.
As the Kung Fu master said to me years ago, Singing is a martial art. Therefore I use the Japanese compound 歌手道, Kashudo, or “The Singer’s Way.” As with every martial art, the greater battle is the battle within, and most singers understand this. But there is an outer battle. It is one fought with the principles that make singing essential in our lives. Mothers and fathers sing to their babies to soothe them, to calm them, to make them laugh and to make them meditate and sleep; in essence to reconnect them to the eternal consciousness that brought them here. Our weapons are the voice and the illuminated spirit which are indivisible for the singer. By finding the light in our souls and releasing it through our voices we inspire the illumination of other souls who then reject that which could extinguish their light. In such a way, we conquer our adversary by becoming one with him.
Another magical student said to me recently, it does not matter how brightly we shine, it is important that we glow as best as we can. Occasionally, the Kung Fu master would ask the newest of the students to lead us in the fundamental exercises. Often the newest student was more aware of the fundamentals because his/her mind was not cluttered with the fascination of advanced techniques. And since every advanced technique is based on the fundamentals, the advanced students often performed their advanced exercises better after doing fundamentals lead by the least among us.
The singer’s way is one of paradoxes. We learn confidence through humility. The teacher also learns through interaction with the students. We learn control by giving up control. Our grounding is based on release. There is a musical truth at every instant, yet is different for each singer. We walk a road that never ends. Mastery is not a point of arrival, but a way of walking the path.