Sometimes we teachers cannot help it! We occasionally get on a philosophical soapbox attempting to explain to students that success in the field has so much more to do with “extra-vocal” things. In my new studio space in New York, there is a photo of George London. It is an ad by Columbia Artists from the early 1950s promoting their magnificent Bass-baritone. One does not need to know much about George London or his unusually resonant and elastic voice to realize that promotion of a singer has in fact little to do with their voice quality and so much more to do with their ability to exude a charismatic energy, which has everything to do with a sense of confidence in their talent. Yet it is not only about how George London fit in his balletic tutu-like outfit, portraying Don Giovanni, but rather how he got to the point where that photo became necessary.
According to the moving biography written by London’s wife, his beginnings were relatively normal, but that magnificent voice was accompanied by a 1950s American post-war ideology of self-reliance and self-determination. The dominant questions back then were “what can I do to move myself forward?” or “How hard do I need to work to get there?” Granted, operatic expectations were clearer. A voice perhaps played a bigger part, but musicianship and stage-deportment and language skills were as important even at a time when there was no internet and access to a foreign country was nearly a pipe-dream. Nevertheless, singers back then in large part were musically more aware and linguistically better studied. My own former teacher, George Shirley, still has the best recording of the role of Pelléas available anywhere and his French diction is flawless. How does an African-American born in Indianapolis and raised in Detroit get to pronounce French that well and to sing the quintessential French opera better than most if not all French speakers? And this during the American Civil Rights era, when it was very difficult for African-Americans to get cast in lead roles in opera?
Having spent six years in the company of George Shirley, I can say without hesitation that I have met few people in the world who are as positive as he is. His success came through perseverance and hard work and a voice devoid of “pretense!” I have aspired to be like him since I met him. Authentic! True to myself. Yet as much as we claim to value authenticity, the world is a paradoxical place that seeks to assimilate people into the “general” consciousness. And performers, who are supposed to train to seek their inner truth, are just as easily victimized by this fear of coming out of the “norms”.
Most singers I meet are afraid to be themselves or are afraid to discover who they truly are. Yet the only chance they have to become special in their field is to discover their unique voice. To be “natural,” “unpretentious,” “transparent” is usually untrained out of us when we come out of the womb, perhaps already before. Young opera singers for the most part have already formed a “false” voice the moment they decided to follow the path of operatic singing. They usually manufacture stylistic idiosyncrasies before they have developed a sense of what their true vocal center is. The search for the true voice is “personal” it is “intimate” it requires a sense of “defiance” against anything false, which includes most often family conditionings that we have come to accept as innate.
Most of the singers I work with are very hard working people. But very few are willing to work hard at the things that are hard to work on. There is a reason that truly “realized” people are few. It is because it takes a “revolution” against many things we were taught to hold dear in order to become our true selves and as much as I hate to admit it, most of us are not willing to take the scary adventure of ridding ourselves of our earliest brain-washings.
We are all of us afraid. The question is whether we chose to be defined by our fears or that WE define ourselves despite our fears.
I tell my students always. I cannot guarantee anyone’s success. You succeed only when you are prepared and willing to go “All-In!” “Walk the tight rope without a net!” “Put it all on the line!”
Nothing is more difficult for me than to see the potential in a student and then see them turn away from it! Turn away from themselves!
The conflict I see in the average aspiring opera singer is the following: A little voice deep inside says “you are here to sing!” And so the desire and instinct to sing is powerful. But the brain that has been washed says: “what makes you think you could ever become a successful opera singer?”
Most singers are more willing to listen to the second voice even though they cannot silence the first voice. So they are tortured, pulled between the truth of their inner purpose and the denial by their learned fears. That kind of torture is exhausting and depressing! Consequently they use their energy on easily achieved goals to soothe the inner fear of failure. They resist inner change and deny themselves the very experiences that can teach them how to deal with this inner struggle. Even though they do not realize it, they have already given up! It does not matter how many positive examples they see before them, of colleagues who have persevered and conquered. They prefer to see the reasons why they are bound to fail. “I’m not thin enough!” “My voice is not big enough!” “I’m not big enough!” “My voice is too big for the current market!”
If you are not willing to tell the negative voice: “Shut up! You’re distracting me! I’ve got work to do!” Then you should shut up! Because you are distracting people who have got work to do!