On the day I arrived at the Eastman School of Music so many years ago, I was eager to dazzle the world with my amazing voice and stellar artistry. As I unpacked, in my dorm room a friendly face appeared at my door. “Hi!” she said. “Do you want to see my knives?"
Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up.
Do you want to see my knives. . . Welcome to Eastman.
Like an idiotic drone in one of those Steven King stories, I followed her down the hall to her room where she reverently slid open the top draw of her dresser. There, sleeping in perfect rows on a bed of clean black velvet lay a series of oddly shaped blades almost glowing under the dormitory’s florescent lighting.
“My knives,” she said grinning. Then she explained that she played something called the oboe and how store-bought reeds were not nearly as good as hand made reeds, and oh, you don’t know what a reed is? Then she actually took out the oboe and a small piece of cane to demonstrate with one knife, and then another, walking me step by step through the whole cutting, gouging, smoothing and tying process.
When her presentation finished, as though I had now passed some woodwindy rite of friendship, she asked, “and what instrument do you play?”
“I’m a singer,” I said a little apologetically.
“Oh,” she replied. “You play the Divine Reed,”.
The Divine Reed. At the time, this phrase didn’t strike me as important. But looking back, this moment was God’s little introduction to the real venture I was embarking on. All the endless hours of coachings, rehearsals, lessons, ensembles and masterclasses I would have at Eastman were just small steps towards a far greater goal than mere art or paychecks. This adventure I was on, it was not about my pretty voice.
Being a musician is already a somewhat monastic life. You surrender all hope of financial security and spend your days locked in a tiny room, playing notes over and over, considering them like little pieces of Scripture. But singing goes beyond even the mystery of art. No Stradivarius cut the wood from a tree to carve this instrument. No Steinway built the hammers or laid down the action. This instrument, the singing voice, it came from your mother and your father and God’s great desire to create you. This Divine Reed within you, is wholly manufactured by His hands and not those of some earthly master, not even of yourself.
Not even yourself.
I wasn’t the sparkliest singer on the Eastman stage. “Your diction was amazing” was the compliment I got the most after performances. I was twenty-two. This was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that I had a beautiful voice, like that other girl, who I’ll call Sarah, a petite size-six soprano with perfect hair. She was the definition of a female dog incarnate. I mean, if she could spit on your mother’s grave, she would only do it when she was absolutely sure you were looking. But when Sarah sang, it was like hearing a crystal bell ring in Heaven. It was so beautiful, everyone in the room stopped and forgot what they were doing. Even birds paused on nearby window sills, entranced by such an unearthly beauty while for thirty seconds we all forgot that we absolutely hated this girl.
“You have such a beautiful voice!” everyone would say to her in the backstage greeting lines.
Fed up, one day I finally complained to my private teacher, John Maloy. “All anybody ever says is that I have great diction.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Darn the man. He knew what was wrong with it. But it was senior year, and he was also our English Diction prof, so the compliment delighted him.
“Well of course you have a beautiful voice,” he said.
At last! Twitters arose inside me like a drug addict ready for a fix, but before a single hair on my scalp could ascend to the pleasure of my own esteem, Herr Maloy slammed his hand down on the piano, erupting echoes through the high-ceilings of his studio.
“That’s not a compliment!” he shouted in his most terrifying Helden tenor voice. “What have you got to do with that?”
So stinking close.
We don’t get credit for this thing in our throat, no matter how lovely. Similarly, we don’t get to criticize it, any more than we can criticize a mountain or a waterfall. Who can dare to understand God’s eyes? Or for that matter, His ears? It’s worse than false humility to say, “Oh, I have a terrible voice.” Because you are not accusing yourself of something. What have you got to do with that? What you’re actually doing is pointing a finger at Heaven and wagging it around a bit. “You up there! This is Your fault!”
I wonder if anyone ever told God he had good diction.
I spend ninety percent of my time in the private studio, getting singers out of the way of their voice. People pay me for months, years, even decades of coachings to break down all the “it should’s” and “I don’t like’s” and “sounds wrong’s” until we at last find the voice beneath all that. The one that God made, and not the one the student wanted.
The first lesson in finding your singing voice is that this is no instrument invented by a mere mortal master. It’s a brilliant and inscrutable work of love. To learn to know it and accept it is to come into a closer relationship with the One who built it for you. When you are unhappy with how your voice sounds, remember that. It’s true, not everyone was meant to sing in a concert hall. We’ll talk more about that later. But everyone was made to sing. And singing is about so much more than just a pretty voice.
Now go throw out those knives. We won’t be needing them.