Lecture 3 - The Holy Trinity of Singing
I was forced into teaching. I didn’t want to teach. I was going to be a star! ... ugg. However, a dear friend who ran a children’s choral program at an Episcopal church tricked me into teaching my first students. She was very clever. That was almost thirty years ago and I’ve never looked back. I love teaching singing because it feels like an adventure in intimacy. Performing is over when the curtain falls, but teaching changes lives. It takes real courage and self-awareness to learn how to sing, and watching a student at any age meet that challenge is a great honor.
Singing teachers always keep a box of tissues on the piano. Training the voice is so intimate, so personal, so uniquely individual that eventually everybody cries in the studio. It’s a part of the process. You aren’t just working with a piece of wood or metal. This instrument is not in your hands; it’s inside your body. To produce it, you must use only yourself, your breath, your throat, your very bones and cartilage, and all that makes up “you” in this world. Your voice is a part of you, and a beginning student will have to quickly learn to distinguish between a criticism of their singing and the very core of their person.
This intimacy, the sharing of what’s deep inside ourselves through singing, most often comes with a natural reluctance. I’ve taught everything from lawyers to engineers and I am daily astonished at how the most courageous of men in my studio, men who flew in active combat over foreign lands, who faced fear like I’ve never had to imagine, are as nervous about singing as the next guy. It would appear that this very personal art form is like appearing before God; we are all the same. Singing somehow goes to the very heart of who we are, our deepest personal issues, and most of all, what we believe.
Every natural field has a spiritual element deeply hidden within. Alexander Flemming saw God’s signature in microbiology. Read what this scientist says about God’s presence in Chemistry, or what this mathematician says about the nature of higher mathematics. Okay, I’ll admit, I don’t understand half of what that last guy is saying, but he has six degrees, so I’m assuming he knows something about numbers. . . Anyway, go do a Google search for something called “Sacred Geometry” and prepare to have your mind blown. I believe that we would find evidence of God’s fingerprints reflected in any of the natural studies. This is no less true of the human voice.
There are three basic tenants to producing your most healthy, natural and beautiful sound. Three. Not fifteen, not two. Three. And they have a hierarchical order. The big one must be mastered first and entirely on faith, then that mastery is applied to the second, which connects tactically to the physical body, but the beauty comes only when the third, the one that runs between the first two, is open and flowing. Something about that sound familiar? The big one on faith, the second in the body, the third flowing between the other two? It doesn’t end there. When all three of these elements are maintained free from strain, pressure and tension, (for lack of a better word, let’s just call all that stuff “sin.”), a somewhat miraculous sensation occurs in which the singer feels their voice move outside of their body.
John Maloy, my teacher at Eastman, called this effect the “together” quality. “When you get it right, it feels like it comes together about six inches in front of your nose.”
How can this be? Haven’t we all been singing Happy Birthday since we were kids? Isn’t this thing inside our very bodies? How can I sing, and not know how to sing at the same time? My suggestion is to read a great book called “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. You’d think with all the long-distance runners in the world, the evolution of sports shoes, marathons, and super athletes, we all know how to run, right? Think again. There’s the way we want to run, and the way we were made to run. This principal applies no less to singing. As I often tell my students, when you feel a strain or pain doing it. . . you’re probably doing it wrong.
However, when you get it right, that is, sing the way your instrument was made to, three things come together to form something powerful, magical and invisible that literally moves outside of you. The human voice is a reflection of God in His creation: three persons, one Guy, inscrutable, all powerful, wonderful and when you work with Him in communion, miracles happen.