If the art of painting is in seeing, the art of dancing in touch, or the art of cooking in taste, then the art of singing is in hearing. This month’s series will explore the use of all five senses in singing, but first and foremost, the sense of sound.
When I picture it in my mind’s eye, I see weathered rugs, wooden furnishings, and a fine view of New York from the top of steep black stairs. The air is still and the last soft rays of the evening sun pour through the sheer, lacy drapes, illuminating the pollen that swirls in fragrant clouds and the lilies that grace the piano. There are no family photos, although the walls are papered with opera posters from floor to ceiling, announcing performances from golden ages past. It is an apartment reflecting its owner; simple and straightforward, with everything in its proper place, noble, perhaps even stern, but devoted in every way to the study of music.
Six years have passed since that cool fall morning when the seven of us piled into the taxi, talking in hushed tones about how this voice lesson was like an audition for Julliard, Curtis and Eastman combined, and the memory of it now has a hazy, golden glow. Above all, I remember the formidable character of Marlena. She had nut-brown skin, gray and white hair swirled neatly against her scalp, and perfect, gravity-defying posture. She sat as if in meditation, with her hands folded neatly in her lap: a pose that she would abandon many times in the three hours to come. “Tell me about yourself,” she said, focusing with laser-like attention. As with many great teachers, you got the sense that she could see straight into your soul. Still, despite the extra-sensory perception, she was above-all a practical pedagogue. “Stephanie, there’s a man in the other apartment who wants to hear you sing.” “Megan, open your mouth!” “Lauren, never collapse here,” she said, pointing to a space high between the ribs. She practically attacked Charlotte, grabbing her jaw with her thumb and pointer finger to make her increase the space between her molars. “Show me a good breath. Now, why didn’t you do that when you were singing?”
I awaited my turn with more than a little trepidation, focusing on scribbling as many notes as possible into my notebook. What would she see when she looked into my soul? Some of the other singers had stunning vocal breakthroughs. I felt like I was due for one of those. In fact, what I really wanted was some kind of physical trick or exercise that would unlock the dramatic mezzo-soprano within.
At the time, I found her advice more troubling than helpful. “When you sing, you don’t hear yourself,” she said, after listening to my rushed rendition of Cherubino’s Non so piu. “You have no inner voice.” She went on to explain, “Before you begin to sing, you must listen to your inner voice, the voice that you want to hear when you open your mouth.” I realized after some experimentation that she was quite right. I found it extremely difficult to hear a voice in my head, without actually making sound. So I did what perhaps a lot of college students do, put the advice in storage and went on to focus on other more easily attainable singing goals.
I’m thinking of this again now because last week I had a voice teacher in Bangkok shock me by saying, “You know, so many singers nowadays are so quick to sing, that they never actually stop to listen to their inner voice. You, however, have a gift for listening.” After the lesson, I sat in a quiet corner of my apartment, and sure enough, I could hear entire songs in my head. Not only songs, but the actual voice as well, changing the colors and the texture and the shape of the tone as I listened.
Many things could have produced this change in me. It may be the great swaths of time I have spent alone, in the quiet, since moving abroad, which has heightened my sensitivity to sound. It could be from the hours I spend at night mentally singing through my music, when insomnia strikes. Part of it is probably my growing awareness of the delicacy of the voice, and a desire to “save voice” by emphasizing mental practice. I’d like to think it is from my week as an honorary monk. Regardless of the cause, I find that the practice of listening is a river that flows from music into all areas of life, and vice versa. That is, the more you develop your imagination and concentration in singing, the more you may find yourself “in the moment” when listening to friends and loved ones.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”
Like most people, I sing the most when I’m happy, when my heart is light and joy overflows in song. Yet I think I can also identify with Thich Nhat Hanh when he writes, “True happiness is based on peace.” Perhaps I am alone in this, but in moments of peace, the deepest kind, not attached to any external event, I often find that I lose the desire to vocalize. It’s as if the song that exists in the mind is already complete, and free from limitations of cords and breath.
Next week we’ll talk about the science of hearing. Ever wondered why our voices sound so strange when recorded, or if singers who speak tonal languages have better control of pitch? Meanwhile though I’d like to leave you with this poem by Gabriela Mistral, translated by Maria Giachetti:
Those Who Do Not Dance
An invalid girl asked,
“How do I dance?”
We told her:
Let your heart dance.
Then the crippled girl asked,
How do I sing?
We told her:
Let your heart sing.
A poor dead thistle asked,
“How do I dance?”
We told it,
Let your heart fly in the wind.
God asked from on high,
“How do I come down from this blueness?”
We told Him:
Come dance with us in the light.
The entire valley is dancing
In a chorus under the sun.
The hearts of those absent
Return to ashes.