Valerie Nicolosi Niemerg
Lecture 13 - Identify the Border
Updated: Oct 11, 2022
One of my spiritual weaknesses is that I am easily led. If I hear enough good arguments for a sin, I might just start thinking it’s a good idea. I only know this after looking back over the landscape of my life and noticing a pattern wherever my deepest regrets lay. Whenever I really ask “what happened there?” I notice that there was someone else, often someone I loved or respected, who literally “talked” me into it.
That there is me identifying the border in my spiritual life. That’s the place where I cannot cross due to my own personal weaknesses. Readjusting my habits to avoid these circumstances, means that I try to surround myself with people who are intelligent in their faith, and who I can call on as a sounding board when my “gut” is telling me something is off, like my husband.
(Sorry! I KNOW that's a horribly misplaced modifier, but it's so funny I'm keeping it. Believe me, anyone who knows my husband, will agree! hee hee hee)
Now before my Liberal readers get their fur in a flurry, please understand that the “sins” I’m talking about are not “opinions” about political matters. I’m talking about basic behavioral choices that I’ve made that have hurt other people or myself. This is not philosophical. It’s very scientific, actually. I’m talking about your basic, daily, grinding, every day, we’re-all-jerks-except-God, sin. To grow spiritually, I had to work hard to identify what was “helping” me to make bad choices. The acquisition of such a powerful knowledge is what I lovingly call my Catholic faith.
Last Lecture I wrote about the natural break in your voice and I compared the two voices, chest and head, to Heaven and Earth. A singer should be able to recognize what each voice feels like and “choose” each at will. What does chest voice feel like? What does head voice feel like? Can you sing that note in your chest voice? Which voice are you singing in right now? Is that head or chest? Part of vocal training is spending a bit of time identifying these two “voice” sensations, just like in the spiritual life we have to spend the first part of our relationship with God, getting to know Him and ourselves.
Once you have a sensory awareness of what each voice feels like, it’s time to address the border. The break itself. We must figure out which note exactly your unique and individual God-given voice “breaks” at. Where precisely does your voice stop singing in chest and switch up to head? I have nothing near perfect pitch in my skill set, but I can tell you when I’m singing an F-sharp. I don’t need a piano. I can tell you standing in a corn field in Nebraska. Because that’s the note my voice breaks on. Stinking F-sharp. Hate that note.
Everyone’s break is unique, just like everyone’s weaknesses to sin are unique. What is it that sets you off? That you tend to falter on? It’s pretty consistent. Growing spiritually means striving* to identify and scrutinize your weaknesses and then humbly redirect your life to accommodate God’s Will for you.
What’s your border? Identify your personal border. Know the exact note. Take out a musical staff and draw an “x” on that border. This is not some deeply philosophical issue. It’s very precise and mathematical. Understand that when you are singing above it, you should be in your head voice. And when you are below that note, you should be in your chest voice.**
Is it possible to sing in your head voice below the break? Yes. I have worked with many a student (usually women) who are masters of this vocal deception. Let me tell you some of the symptoms: quiet, unable to project without tightening the vocal apparatus (which doesn’t work), forcing and discomfort, tone seems breathy or wispy, in some outright crackly, and you run out of air very quickly.
Likewise, it’s also possible to carry your chest voice too high over the break (usually with the men, but women do it too). This will have the effect of a shouting, straight tone, strained sound and most often, off-pitch or “flat” singing.
In our Catholic faith, there are two realms. One where sin exists and is allowed to roam freely, and another “higher” realm where sin cannot dwell. If you try to bring sin “up” with you as your grow spiritually, your spiritual life will always be “flat,” lacking in brilliance, and frankly uncomfortable for both you and those you encounter. It’s a “fake” faith. It’s artificial, and everyone recognizes it. Also, it’s a lot of work and your faith itself will not thrive and bloom through the years.
The same is true in singing. The singer must know the natural border in their voice and keep chest below it. I have known singers who destroyed their voices after a summer of pulling their throat up too high. I have even known singers who have permanently ruined their voices after a single production (show) of pulling up chest too high. I will talk more about permanent damage in a future post.
Know the border. You may be able to find it yourself by singing some repetitive exercises up and down the scale and hone in on exactly where things “switch.” But honestly, if you really want to know where your break is, you will probably need to invest in some private lessons with an experienced teacher. If you think you’ve found the border, there’s a good chance, you are deceiving yourself. Even I don’t locate a student’s border note on the first lesson. It takes me several weeks to subvert the vocal espionage that the singer is enacting on their break. No one means to pull one voice over the border, but just like no one generally means to sin …. we all do it.
Healthy vocal training, like spiritual growth, aims at bringing the singer to an awareness of the two voices. So that when the singer goes from head to chest or vice-versa, they mean to do it and it’s not a four-car accident. This is where the concept of “Mortal Sin” comes in. Someone once told me that it’s pretty hard to commit a mortal sin. Mortal sin is when you know what you’re doing, you have achieved that understanding of a things inert “wrongness” and you want it so badly that you do it anyway. In singing, you must control your voice and not let it control you. Once you know where the border lies, you must be vigilant and “choose” the holy life, by making that switch from head to chest and vice versa, not by accident anymore, but by your will.
Know your border. Adapt to a more “conscious” singing. Choosing Heaven or Hell is not an accident. Choosing head or chest voice should not be either.
* Through regular examination of conscience brought to you by our sponsor. . . the Sacrament of Confession.
**I should just quickly insert a disclaimer here. My dear menopausal women. . . your break moves. Yeah. Sorry about that. My experience was that during menopause, my break would shift from day to day, up or down within a whole step on either side. It stinks. Especially since, as a breast cancer survivor who was on menopausal-inducing drugs, I had the pleasure of hot flashes for over ten years. But, have hope! It will settle back down after menopause.