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Learning to Sing - A Philosophical Aesthetic

It happened again last week. It doesn’t happen often enough. It is too rare.

It’s that moment when a voice student puts enough elements of technique together to find that tone that seems to sing itself, that resonates freely, that brings that sudden realization that they’ve done something right, that makes all the previous attempts worthwhile.

It usually makes the singer excitedly exclaim, “Wow!” Another reaction is, “I’m not doing anything!” Sometimes they fall into a giggle. A look of satisfaction and the most calm, beautiful expression comes over their faces. They have succeeded, and they finally have an inkling about how the process works. They see how all the instruction and correction and trial and error are working in harmony to be effective.

One, resonant, sustained note or short phrase suddenly illuminates the instruction that has preceded the discovery. You don’t need a lot of breath to make it work and to sing a long phrase. No force is required. It is so completely fulfilling and surprising.

And then, the brain kicks in. What was that? How did I do that? How do I do it again? And, as one of my students said when he burst into my studio for a subsequent lesson, “I want to get that same sound again! It’s addicting!” That’s when we need to put thinking aside, and the overpowering desire to repeat the event, and we just need to work calmly, putting the pieces together and rebuilding the simple steps that made everything work.

This is the philosophical aesthetic value in singing that, in my mind, makes the act of singing most worthwhile. I always say the importance in learning to sing is the process, not the product. It takes a particular mindset to value the work, and the development of the “instrument” and the skills. It takes a certain willingness to make discoveries, and the patience to wait for them to manifest themselves. It takes a desire to become a singing artist. Selflessness, an ability to focus, willingness to take risks, and empathy are also qualities that I find in many of the singers who can access this sound.

We need a societal re-conditioning, and a return to valuing the creation of vocal art over the presentation of entertainment. I tell my students who want to avoid technical exercises – very often incorrectly referred to as “warm-ups” – and who want to cut right to singing their songs, that the exercises teach them the elements they need to hone, to be able to sing those same types of elements successfully, artfully in their songs. I explain that a trained dancer does tons of pliés at the barre, before practicing individual steps, before putting the steps together in a routine, before polishing the routine, before performing it. The skilled painter practices various brush strokes, learns to mix colors, learns perspective, learns about brushes and tools, often prepares preliminary sketches, and paints many paintings before putting all the pieces together in a masterpiece. A trained athlete spends many more hours practicing on the court, in the rink, on the field, than they usually spend in the actual game.

Façade training that allows untrained dancers and singers to prepare a performance that may appear on the surface to be exceptional teaches those performers only some of the information they may need to sustain a performing career. The steps and songs they have learned are limited. The basic physical, mental, and emotional conditioning required are lacking. A novice painter might paint a gorgeous painting. But how much better would it be if it were created with a little more primary knowledge? I found this out when I took a beginning acrylic painting class. I employed perspective, mixed colors acceptably, used proper brushes and brushstrokes. The result was a nice-looking work of art. Then my instructor – a professional artist – added a few strokes to the painting and changed it completely. The nice-looking painting became a much more artistic creation. I suddenly saw what had been missing, and how much more I needed to know.

I don’t expect an en masse return to artistic values in the general population. We have come too far in our fast-paced, need to immediately succeed, quantity over quality, whatever it takes, it’s good enough, my way or the highway lifestyle. But I will always treasure those individuals who come to me with open minds, a sense of creative adventure, and a genuine desire to take the time to learn.

“Proficiency in art is a contract with your self and the empowerment of your self.” – Paul Gauguin

“In my daily teaching practice, I aid students in discovering their individual sound, breath support, and tension-free singing, striving to foster artistic performances by freeing students of the restriction they often feel when unable to sing consistently. I attempt to instill responsibility and accountability in my students and expect them to take an active role in building technique and ownership of their voices.”

– Susan Boddie, from VOCAL CONSISTENCY AND ARTISTIC FREEDOM: Existentialism and Vocal Instruction in Higher Education

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