My undergraduate voice professor, the late David W. Jones, would lean back in his pleather avocado-green swivel chair and say "Darlin'." (This was East Texas) "You have got to stand flat-footed and sing your sounds!" He'd sometimes say other things like, "I've got to get a martini, or I'm gonna get the SHAKES!" He knew how he liked a voice - virile and well-supported, and he knew how he liked his gin - with just a glance of vermouth. January 30 will the be the five-year anniversary of his death. I miss him everyday, but he's always close at hand because I carry him with me just as I do my instrument. Surely those of his vocal progeny who sing or teach still have his words in their minds and on their tongues. Just this afternoon I was teaching a lesson and heard his tenor drawl in my memory as I informed my student that "When singing a diphthong, find the principle vowel sound and stay on it as loooooong as possible. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, sing the unaccented vowel." A solid and easily communicated concept, especially for this diction nerd.
I may be so bold as to claim that I think I might have been an all-time favorite of his. At least he was really good at making it seem so. My years of undergraduate work are mostly blurry vignettes of random arias, 50¢ pitchers of beer at the now-burned down Jitterbugs, and the overwhelming sense that I never delivered on the promise of vocal development. That I offered little return on the investment. Blame a poor work ethic or claim late bloomer status, but as I could sense the department's mild, but general disappointment, Dr. Jones would put on a record of Mirella Freni or Anna Moffo, we'd talk about Florence (he wanted his gravestone to read "I'd rather be in Florence"), and he'd say "Darlin', you're going to wake up one mornin' and it's going fall into place. You just have to be patient and grow into it a bit." Are you kidding me? What about standing flat-footed and singing my sounds now? How do I do that now? What are my sounds?? Why can't I find them now?
Well, I finally found them, but most of the discovery has happened in the last year, the better part of which I have spent being somewhat withdrawn and at a distance, seeking perspective. It has been very evident to some friends, and others would never know, but in an effort to find answers about my voice, my vocation, and my place in the greater scheme of the world, I have sought to streamline things a bit. Always easier said than done, but it's a process, and an important one.
My mind is always busy. Rarely quiet, and often opinionated - extremely sober and encouraging, but unfortunately, also very irrational and negative. It's no surprise that what's happening inside emotionally, can reflect vocally, i.e. erratic vibrato, unfocused tone and intention, general technical inconsistencies. Therefore I'm trying to let my musical practice serve as a metaphor for my non-musical existence, and vice versa - slow, focused, forgiving, honest, calm, careful. This is contrary to my daily habits which are often happily frenetic and sometimes impulsive. It's not an assessment of destructive behaviors, but rather a reckoning of the true and silent strength that is sometimes shadowed by a mostly-healthy defense mechanism that laughs and smiles when one would otherwise cry. This is a fascinating psycho-spiritual study! Staying positive is a must! Not acknowledging hurt adds up and gets heavy. Therefore...we simplify, we meditate, we bring to the surface both the things which aide and those that inhibit. Pull up the weeds, nuture the blooms! (Is this saccharine enough for you???)
So here's a recent experience that I found rather important in this process and very telling:
I was singing for a coach who was keeping careful watch over my process. Breathing, tongue position, vowel shape and placement, support (air pressure), posture, facial tension...as I sang, carefully chiseling away the unecessary habits and unconscious obstacles, a floodgate opened and I began to weep. I stopped, recovered, and began again. This time, with efficient habits in place, I was able to sing easily - more freely than I have ever felt - only to realize suddenly that, while all the previous unecessary physical business wasn't in play, my right arm was raised in front me; an arbitrary gesture of zero importance. The moment I put my arm down, eliminating all physical excess, tears again! And a lot of them!! It was amazing! Just a bit humbling, but beautiful also. It informed me that the work that lies ahead is not as elusive as I have previously assumed it to be. It is meditative and ritualistic and honest. It is the intersection of intention and soul.
It is simple, like a fledgling ready to pop from the nest with newfound trust in my technique and in my body's ablility to carry out an efficient plan of soaring musical synthesis. Dr. Jones would say I'm "starting the sound the way I want to sustain it, and sustaining it the way I start it." The bare bones of singing summed up in 2 phrases. Less is certainly more and I'm finally standing flat-footed, singing my sounds, or better, sounds that could pass for a beautiful, professional product. Sounds that I would want to pay money to hear. I have been studying voice for 15 years, and only started feeling this way last May. I, who have spent the majority of my musical development apologizing for being only good enough, not necessarily good, think I'm good now. Poised to take off, unapologetic.