Valerie Nicolosi Niemerg
Lecture 8 - Look 'em In the Eye, Kid
Updated: Oct 2, 2022
When my four-year-old- son won’t look me in the eyes, it’s because he has chosen to be rotten. I can say, “Look at me!” fifty times, but he can’t do it. His eyes flit and float all over the universe, skittering this way and that in an almost supernatural manner, landing on every piece of furniture in a frantic effort to avoid the huge Mama face ten inches from his nose.
Why won’t he look at me?
He looks at me at other times. In fact, he looks at me at ALL other times. When he’s happy, when he’s sad, sick, tired, hungry, angry, goofy, hurt, proud, playing, dancing, helping with the laundry. He loves to look at me.
Unless he’s loving being rotten.
Then he can’t look at me.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s how we look to God. Like a four-year-old avoiding eye contact. When was the last time you went into a Mass and felt like you were standing in the Church Militant? There is nothing militant about this scene: eyes wondering around like our thoughts, slouchy, half-sort-of-mumbling heads bent down and voices evaporating into hymnals held safely on our laps or balanced on the back of the pew, singing just loud enough to claim participation, but not so loud as to disturb the person standing in front of us. . .
Isn’t there a battle going on here?
Surely if there were, we’d be standing differently. Surely if we were soldiers in some universal struggle between good and evil, we’d be keeping our eyes focused and singing out, as the Bible says to do almost two hundred times. It’s not a friendly little suggestion in the Bible, like, “Hey you might want to try this sometimes,” as though singing is some cute little spiritual side dish. No. The Bible says it over and over and over and over and over and sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing, sing SING!!
I think it helps the battle somehow. . .
There’s no certainty of that, of course. You have to do it on faith. . . like, everything else.
I admit. Outside of the safety of the pew, I’m not so militant. The whole suffering thing. . . don’t get me started. You should have seen what a wuss I was when cancer came along. But when it comes to this invisible war with powers we cannot see or understand, I think I’d most certainly have been in the Honor Guard. In this, I’m pretty militant. Mostly because I have a gorgeous voice and thirty or so years of training to back it up, if I do say so myself. . . but even soldiers aren’t born knowing how to fight. Even soldiers need a professional to step in and teach them how to engage in a battle.
Let’s review what we’ve covered so far
1- We should all be singing with gusto in church
2- Singing is moving air
3- Breathing for singing is different than breathing for watching TV
4- Stick your belly out
(That’ll be fifty dollars please)
Now there’s lots of stuff I can talk about regarding this whole “stick your belly out” proposition, and I promise I will as this blog develops. But I’m not writing this to make future opera singers. I’m writing this to get the average Joe-Catholic to stand up straight and sing in Church, darnit.
So, I want to check your posture.
I had a student once, let’s call her Margaret. She came to me when she was about fifteen years old, and she had what I would describe as a defensive posture. Her shoulders were constantly bent in a forward slouch and her entire torso was twisted so that when you faced her, you were really facing a shoulder. With this strange, curved alignment, Margaret was literally trying to hide herself with her own body. Such posture transmits huge insecurities to those we encounter. It’s the language of the body with which we say so much before we even open our mouths. Margaret’s posture said “I’m not even worthy to be seen, let alone heard. I need to hide myself, so you don’t have to see me.”
When we don’t stand tall and sing out in church, this is the message we’re sending to the other guy, the enemy, the powers of Hell. Don’t look at us. We’re guilty, insecure, full of doubt and anxiety, not worthy to be heard, a waste of time.
“Shoulders,” I would say to Margaret every single time her torso started twisting, and she would snap them back into position, not having realized she had begun to scrunch again.
“Shoulders,” I’d say in the middle of a phrase she was singing, because let’s face it, if you can do it while you’re singing, you can do it any time.
“Shoulders,” I’d remind her whenever she began answering a question, because the minute her mind was off them, they’d shrink back down and forward into her idea of a comfortable spot.
If it’s annoying reading “shoulders” over and over, imagine being this poor girl for six months. But she did it. Darn straight. She is a Child of God, the Master Creator. She fixed it and stood in front of the studio to sing a recital facing everyone squarely on. Her shoulders, to my knowledge, have never looked back.
Margaret has since grown into a lovely and confident young woman, a minister and leader in our community and a mother of two. Wherever she goes, she embodies strength, confidence and approachability. She effuses joy to all those around her.
How much we can give without ever saying a word. I always tell my students, “If you leave this studio today and never come back, you must remember nothing more than this important lesson: stand up straight and look people right in the eye.”
Look ‘em in the eye kid.
God made your instrument, so always go back to that. I’m not trying to find a posture that contorts your body, but the posture you were made to stand with, which the weight of living and the woes of this world have chipped away at over time.
Try a little exercise. Stand up and reach up to touch the very top of your skull, right in the center, where it reaches its highest peak. I often describe it as the place a set of headphones would comfortably sit. Now, let your arm drop, and imagine a string connected to that place on your skull. Imagine the string is gently pulling you up towards the ceiling. Try to allow the back of your neck to extend up wards. If you do this with full commitment, you should feel changes happen. For some they will be subtle, for others dramatic. The small of your back should be curved under, your shoulders should fall down and hang naturally pulled by the weight of your arms with gravity and depending on how bad your posture is to begin with, your sternum, that is the bone in front at the top of your chest cavity, might lift up and open outwards.
Now for some of you, that’s a lot of change. But what did I really tell you to do? Pull your shoulder back? Nope. Stick your chin out? Nope. Raise your chest up? Nope. I just told you to stand tall. As tall as God made you to stand. And you did it merely by lifting your head up from the scrunched position the weight of this world has put you in.
Now try it sitting down. Uncross those legs and put those feet flat on the floor. Lift that concave thing you call a back off the pew and imagine that string again at the top of your skull, and up, up, up you go.
OK, you can’t sit like this all through Mass, people will think you’re constipated. Just sit straight when it’s time to sing.
Now, the hymnal. Lift it up. Up to about your sternum level. No sitting it on your lap or dangling it on the pew in front of you. Hold it semi-vertical with two strong arms. Do NOT hold it directly in front of your mouth, or the book will block your sound (another ingenious technique of the slouchies). Adjust the height so that the book is raised, but your eyes and mouth can shoot out above it.
Many people who don’t know me tend to think I’m a snob. I had a girl at Eastman tell me that once. “You think you’re better than everybody.” I remember being so shocked by this, because it was far from truth. But apparently, I gave off an air of confidence. I understand now that it’s because I stood the way I was made to stand. Tall. Not like a soldier. Like a singer.