I haven't thought about the sixth grade locker room at my middle school in years, but now I find that I can picture it as clearly as if it were only yesterday. Locker assignments were alphabetized, so I was in the left-hand corner right next to my friend Jen. I'm sure she doesn't read this, but I don't believe I ever properly thanked her for opening my locker every morning for the better part of a year. In seventh and eighth grade, I had a locker in the hall, and I must have managed to open it by myself, because I have no memory to suggest otherwise. I do remember decorating the inside of my locker with pictures and magnets, and of getting a wrapping paper-and-candy display on my locker for my birthday.
By high school, I had taken to carting all of my books around with me in an enormous backpack, because my locker was on an out-of-the-way hallway where I rarely had reason to be. It's a miracle that I didn't develop hideous back problems. At my new high school in Phoenix, I claimed a bench in front of my locker (which I used for about a month, then abandoned). We used to joke that I should put a plaque on the bench, because for three years it played host to my books, purse and various other accoutrements.
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.
It's the beginning of a new year. I took all of my books and decorations out of my old locker, and they've assigned me a new locker. Except this one isn't jammed. It's one of the ones that were installed brand-new this year, say, and it's well-oiled and clean of any rust or dirt. It will open, exactly as it should. But I still use extra force to open it, because I'm so used to that old locker that would obstinately remain closed despite my best efforts.
I don't have nodes anymore, which means that my voice will do what I want it to do, if I can only get out of my own way. If I can initiate the sound from the breath, create the right resonating space for the sound, and muscle things less, I can control my vibrato and my whole range, not to mention discover a wide variety of dynamics and stylistic ideas that were unavailable before. It's just a matter of unlearning old habits and learning new, healthy ones.
Having a new clean locker was one of the thrills of starting a new school year, and having a newly healthy voice is no less exciting.. Now I just have to learn how to unlock it.