I have stated often that I am not religious. This is not a disclaimer but a point of fact. While I respect each individual’s religious persuasion, I, a raised catholic, find religions and their denominations to be chosen expressions of a spiritual reality that is all-encompassing, and far more inclusive than the covenants that drive them. Still, within the confines of each religious covenant (and my own personal choice may be seen as restrictive or naive by some) or even the denial of such, there is an element that connects them all. It may be called prayer or reflection, or meditation or even concentration. The atheist might agree that when we concentrate, we are able to focus our minds. But what is a mind? Is it considered the same as the brain? And what is it that is being focused? Is it merely thought? What is thought, or intelligence, or consciousness? More importantly, what has all of this to do with singing?
For this, we must consider the ritual that is vocal performance:
A singer and his conductor or pianist walk on stage; the audience applauds their entrance; they respond by taking a bow together; then there is a moment of silence as the performers ready themselves; then the music begins!
1. The singer and accompanist walk on stage for a performance. This is understood. The stage, formal or makeshift, is the place where performers present their work.
2. The audience applauds their arrival! But why? They have not done anything yet. If the performers are famous, the audience’s reception is often frenzied in excitement at the expectation. And that is the word: expectation! The audience expects something and thanks the performers in advance for what they have painstakingly prepared (hopefully) for its (the audience’s) benefit. For this expected product of art, the audience pays hard-earned money.
3. Then the performers bow. This is an obvious sign of respect for the audience, which is collectively the patron of the performers. The audience helps them make a living.
Ergo, there is a contract between audience and performer. The audience pays for something that only the performers can offer. What is it that the audience expects, pays for? A change of pace, perhaps or change of atmosphere, or a change in their state of mind or a change in their spiritual state.
4. Then there is that strange moment when the performers are silently concentrating (meditating, praying) before they perform the first note. In that moment of suspended silence, of silent meditation, of meditative concentration, of concentrated energy, the performers have their greatest power. It is then that the audience too is called to preparation, to concentration, to meditation, indeed to prayer. This is the moment in which the audience opens itself to receive the expected gift of art, just before being thrilled or disappointed. Experienced performers also know that there is a singular moment before curtain that the entire audience becomes spontaneously quiet. What is the collective consciousness or unconsciousness that makes a group of people invariably become quiet shortly before a performance? Performers who are aware capture that moment and call for house lights to go down directly after that moment, which is the audience’s signal that it is ready to receive the expected gift of art. If the performers respond to that moment of mass readiness appropriately, the other moment of silence just before the music begins could be superfluous, depending on the nature of the music being offered.
There is therefore a mystical aspect to musical performance. Or, this ritual I just detailed is nothing. We could chose to forget the Greek ceremonies that are the roots of classical and modern theater as we know them. We could also forget the church pageant-plays that are the roots of opera, and therefore musical theater by extension. But why should we?
In my experience, the superficiality of modern art is in great part due to an inability to access the inexplicable. The virtue of religious/spiritual education is to help the individual to have a means to deal with the intangibles in our lives. Whether we explain a déjà-vu experience in terms of the relativity of time and space, or in terms of extra-sensory powers or past lives is irrelevant. What is important is that we are conscious that these anomalies occur in moments of reflection, or meditation, or concentration, or daydreaming or prayer.
What it means to me personally is that our perceived individuality is greatly misplaced, that science and religion both agree on the connectivity of all matter in the universe through our intermingling atomic matter or through a communion of the spirit. That connection is real and sensed through a number of simple experiences that are often dismissed as tricks of the mind.
I have had performance experiences that have been life changing, for me most humbly and for the many audience members who have shared their thoughts with me after such performances. They have occurred when I was the most prepared, technically, musically and psychologically. In those rare moments which do not need to be rare, all concerns were dealt with and at the time of performance, the communion of souls was complete, maintained for the duration of the performance and we were all changed.
Whether it be through entertainment, or a call to contemplation, we singers change the spiritual state of the audiences we sing for. We may irresponsibly and unconsciously change them for the better or for the worse, or we may chose to acknowledge that we have a responsibility to prepare ourselves consciously for a mystical, life-changing experience that places us, the performers, most humbly in a place of honor and leadership, not unlike a priest or a pastor. Humbly, because it is only in cleansing ourselves of our ego (all the imperfections that bring us to self-consciousness, rather technical or emotional or intellectual) can we be free enough and open enough to lead the spiritual transformation that occurs during any meaningful performance.