Will There Really Be a Morning? (this was me, and I have a recording on my computer to prove it!
This is the picture of my friends from Oberlin that was on my senior yearbook page. What a week!
Now, if my vocal technique were like that bench, my life would be easy. It would just be there, and then I could dump all of my interpretation, diction and style on top of it. But unfortunately, vocal technique is more like learning to use a combination lock. It should be simple, self-explanatory--it's a combination of a few components that, when correct, open the door to a great sound. A few weeks ago, when my teacher was on vacation, I took a lesson with one of her colleagues. She told me that much of vocal instruction these days has become about what you're supposed to do when you sing, and a lot of young singers, myself very much included, tend to get in their own way by doing too much to create the sound. I am an inveterate larynx-squeezer. I tend to articulate with my jaw. I breathe loudly, feeling for the coldness of the breath on my hard palate.
There should actually be a lot fewer steps to creating sound than we think there are, she pointed out to me. Three, actually, which makes singing a lot like opening a locker. #1--breathe. #2--create a resonant space for the sound. #3--phonate. Once we've opened that locker, we can put things in it--text, rhythm, performance practice, dramatic interpretation. And eventually, the steps should become second nature. After a few years of practice, most people can open their lockers without pausing to figure it out. But I'm not at that point yet, just like I've never been able to open a combination lock without thinking, "Okay, now, which direction do I turn it first?" I still have to think to myself, breathe silently, don't engage your throat, open the pharyngeal space. Most of the time, I get it wrong.Before surgery, my voice was like a jammed locker (I know, the similes are getting out of control). Even when I had the combination right and turned the knob the right direction in the right order, the locker wouldn't open. So I pushed and pulled and sometimes kicked it in frustration. Vocally, I was doing everything I could to improve my technique, but my instrument stood in my way. So I compensated. I squeezed my larynx and led from my throat and didn't connect the breath, because when the breath initiated the sound, the flaws in my instrument were obvious. I was faking it.
At the end of season 2, Peggy got a haircut and a makeover from the gay German import to the art department, Kurt. The premiere of the current season saw Peggy in sleeker clothing--according to one style blog, she has a slight Katharine Hepburn edge to her style, with a hint of femininity.Now, anybody who knows me can tell you that I love dresses, and being a singer, it can never hurt to have too many. But a few days ago, I decided to clean out my closet. I sold four dresses to a used clothing store in town, along with a couple of tops and sweaters I'll never wear again. What made this notable is that the dresses I chose to get rid of were the ones that made me look young, like a little girl. Floaty, poofy skirts, ruffles, buttons down the front, pastels, white gauzy material with bows in the back. They were good purchases at the time--one light pink dress I wore for a recital I gave freshman year, age 18, another blue polka-dotted dress I wore last summer for performances, age 20.
7:30 AM. As good a time as any to blog about how much I hate swelling tests.
No, actually, that’s not really fair. The swelling tests—which comprise singing “Happy Birthday” very high and soft (so that the “to” lands on a high C# or D, if I’m lucky) and doing high pianissimo staccati—are very important and useful. The reason I hate them is because my cords are always swollen. And whose fault is that?
Mine, much as I would like to pin it on somebody else. I talk too much. I talk too quickly. I probably don’t talk properly half of the time. My practicing is inefficient. I sing in my apartment when I’m doing the dishes, and in the shower, and at barbecues while I’m waiting for the grill to heat up. I clearly haven’t figured out how to have a social life and not ravage my vocal cords.
This is not to say that my voice isn’t functional this morning (look, there’s the word that inspired the title of this entry). Actually, if I tried to sing, it would probably be just fine, and certainly clearer and easier than it ever was before the surgery. But now that I’ve tried to do swelling tests and utterly failed at producing satisfactory results, I’d feel pretty guilty if I practiced. All I can think about is what my cords looked like the last time I got scoped, and the doctor’s voice telling me that my cords were healthy, but a little swollen, so this should be a warning to me to be more careful.
This is the kind of thing that stresses me out to the point of wanting to change my career path and go into academia (I was a very passionate musicology minor in college). I know plenty of people who have never done swelling tests. Most people who have never dealt with vocal cord injuries or problems have no idea how to check to see if their cords are swollen. And I know that the fact that I had nodes probably means I’m susceptible. But it makes me nervous, and anxious about the future. If I decide to pursue opera seriously, will I be spending all of my time alone, worrying about my vocal health? Sometimes it hardly seems worth it.
ALBERT: I pierced the toast!
ARMAND: So what? The important thing to remember is not to go to pieces when something like that happens. You have to react like a man, calmly. You have to say to yourself, “Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?” It’s not the end of your life. Try another one.
ALBERT: “Albert, you pierced the toast. So what?!” Ahh, you’re right! There’s no need to get hysterical. All I have to remember is I can always get more toast!
I suddenly recognized the revelation that you can “always get more toast” as something that I need to keep in mind as I begin my journey towards a career in classical voice. If I have a bad practice one day, I need to put it behind me—I can always try again tomorrow. If I screw up an audition, there will always be the next one. And if this isn’t the career for me, in the end, it needn’t be the end of the world. I can always find another path and get another piece of toast.
Basically, I’m going to use this blog to keep myself sane, and to record my thoughts regarding this profession. I’m a soprano (which means naturally inclined to insanity and histrionics), and I’m taking a year off after finishing my undergrad in June. I also had surgery to remove nodes from my vocal cords this past May, the results of which I’m still discovering and learning to understand. This will be the first year in the last sixteen that I haven’t been in school, and as I’m hoping to apply to grad school this fall, I need to keep my voice in shape. I’m hoping to motivate myself to sing daily by forcing myself to write about it, and if I don’t sing, I won’t have anything to write about.
And I hope that these thoughts will be of use to other singers someday, especially those who are facing vocal difficulties or doubts about their vocation as I have so often.