Valerie Nicolosi Niemerg
Lecture 21 - God The Holy Spirit, Part I
It’s funny, I’ve been teaching this method of vocal technique for almost thirty years, and though students seem to grasp the concepts of low breath (God the Father) and frontal resonance (God the Son), no one ever asks me to clearly define the third element of healthy vocal technique.
Still, we talk about it all the time. Once a student understands how to use the abdominal muscles and direct their tone towards the hard palate, we spend the next six years on that other thing. You know? That other member of the Trinity? That inscrutable but ever-present fire of truth and grace?
God the Holy Spirit
For my youth choirs, I’ve always said this member of the Trinity is reflected in singing with a relaxed open throat. But really that’s not it. That’s just our part.
On the spiritual front, the presence of the Holy Spirit is nothing that we can ourselves merit. We receive the Sacraments, but Grace is not something we go to the store and buy. We receive the Sacraments. We receive the Holy Spirit. He is not something we take.
I have heard this mysterious member of the Trinity described as “the love that flows between the Father and the Son.” And for the purposes of studying and understanding healthy singing, this works. If the Father, is low breath, and the Son frontal resonance, then the Spirit is the air that flows back and forth between the two.
What a nice visual image, Valerie.
But how in heck does that help me sing better?
Our part of this Godly contract is the space. We make space in our souls and in our throats. In order to truly reap the benefits of the Holy Spirit, our soul has to have the right disposition. Think of your soul like the house of a hoarder. The Holy Spirit shows up for dinner, but there’s nowhere to sit because we’ve got too much stuff laying around. Too much we’re holding on to. Sins: grudges, fears, pride, vanities, lusts.
In the throat, this lack of vacancy immediately translates into “holding on” like the hoarder. Holding on to things, using the squeeze, tension, tightness, strain. Have you ever felt something similar to this when singing? Do you even know what you're holding on to? Do you understand that singing doesn't require this futility?
A singer must think of the throat as an empty space, through which the Spirit will travel. I’ve heard teachers describe the throat as an empty paper towel tube. I admit, I’ve used this image with some students, but it rarely works. Or at least not permanently. And here’s my theory as to why:
We don’t wake up one morning in our adult lives and say, “I think I’ll sin today.” Sin is much sneakier than that. Most the time, we’ve already committed the atrocity before we even realize sin is in the room.
We also don’t “intend” to have a strained throat.
“I think I’ll sing with tension today. Yes, that’s what I’m going to do. Today is the day I’m going to strain.”
Just like sin, in order to release the tension, we first have to figure out why we’re doing it.
Now, the sin is your problem. Use your well-formed Catholic conscience, contemplation of Scripture, spiritual direction and a whole lot of prayer.
But the tension while singing, why do we do that? It’s very simple.
We want to sound good.
Let me tell you something about your singing voice. The font is not for you. I will talk about this more in a future post, but for now, here's a story to explain:
I use to have terrible problems with my high notes. I had a great range for a Mezzo, but I could never quite satisfy the conductors, coaches and critics with my un-blooming top. I went to teacher after teacher, endlessly waiting tables to save up the money for lessons.
They would all do the same thing; work and work with me until I produced a shrill screechy sound that had sounded like static on a radio. Then they would jump up and shout “that’s it!” and I’d leave their studio and never look back. Because when I hit that high note, what I heard was a dying cat on a broken fence.
I would have had a much bigger career if I had let them do the listening.
One day, about ten years into my stage career, I was so fed up with this cycle that I decided to do it. I was in a production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville and I had a high B at the end of my opening aria. I made up my mind I was going to go out there on that stage in front of a thousand people and just screech that high note out like all those dumb coaches kept telling me to. I even placed my HD recorder out on the railing of the balcony before the show so I could have evidence of the horror.
As I held the note, I had a visualization of audience members storming out to the lobby demanding their money back. But when I stepped backstage, the Baritone playing Figaro grabbed me by the shoulders and said “That was amazing!”
He was right. When I heard the recording, I couldn’t believe it was me. It was amazing.
But in my head, it sounded like static and warbling.
We have to let go of what we want our voices to sound like, and trust that what He made within us is “good” as He Himself said on the eighth day. If your faith in your voice is placed entirely in your ability to “make it good” you are doomed from the start to always have a tense throat and never allow the Holy Spirit to resonate through you. Your voice is something you blow. You don’t make it. It’s already made.
Your Will Lord, not mine. Even in this. . .
But you can certainly block it off, scrunch it out and manipulate it.
You can certainly get in the way of what He made.
God the Holy Spirit is the voice itself. The resonance begun in your throat that has the power to spread through your body and set your very organs trembling with what the pedagogues call “bloom.” But the Holy Spirit can only bloom where there is no tension, no holding on to sin. No “my voice, Lord, not Yours.”
Sometimes I think this is why "sing" appears almost 200 times in the Bible. God knows. It's for us, not for Him. He knows that if we can learn to accept His will in this small thing, accepting the voice He made, and not trying to make our own, then when the harder stuff comes along, it might just not be so hard.
Perhaps this Holy Spirit element of singing is also why "Singing is praying twice." Because when we do it right, not beautifully, but submittingly, we are bending our will to His. Singing healthily is a small act of accepting God's will for our voices and thereby for us. And in that act, we are doing far more in prayer than any words or passion we could ever summon.