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singing lessons

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When I was a young child, a visiting preacher came to our country church. He brought his two daughters with him, and before he gave his sermon, they sang beautiful duets about Jesus. They had lovely voices which blended well. The preacher, meaning to impress on us their God-given musical talent, mentioned that the girls had never had any singing lessons. The congregation nodded and ooohhed in appreciation. I was puzzled. I didn't understand how not learning was a point of grace or even pride. After all, people who have natural abilities in sports, math, writing, art, or science find it extremely helpful to study under teachers who can aid them in their development and introduce them to things outside their own experience. Being self-taught (though sometimes the only option available to those with limited resources) is not a cause for pride or celebration. Why? Because that's just not how the communal, relational Creator set things up.

I have been singing since I was a child. Over the years, you could find me warbling melodies and harmonies in church, in school choirs, in a group of friends around the campfire, and even in a small singing troupe which toured part of the USA in the 80s. I love to sing, but I have never felt I was all that good at it. Sure, I can hit the notes and read music, but the tone of my voice has always seemed muddled, muted, even mousy, never ringing out clearly. In my late 20s, I decided that after decades of singing in my falsetto (which allowed me to fit into the mezzo soprano range), it was time to start using my lower-range chest voice. Those vocal muscles had not been used a lot, so I had to build up my stamina and work on my precision. My voice still tired quickly and I had little power or range, but at least I felt more comfortable, more like I was singing with my real voice.

This past September, for the first time in my life, I took private singing lessons. It is something I have always wanted to do and now I finally had the time and the opportunity. I found a very capable, kind vocal coach who challenged and pushed me (sometimes literally) in all the right places, but who also offered gentle encouragement every step of the way. It has been a rich experience in many ways, and I was surprised how much it required of me personally and spiritually. Here are a few lessons I learned in the process.

1. Singing is a whole body, whole person activity. It is not just about vocal chords and getting them to do what you want. We began each lesson with stretches and breathing exercises and letting go of any stress or tension. We made odd noises, we lay on the floor, we flapped our arms like airplanes and helicopters, we adjusted our posture. Sometimes we talked our way through to a more peaceful state of mind. Only after we prepared the body and mind did we venture into singing. I had no idea how much this body preparation affected my singing until I changed things up one week. I usually walked to my singing lesson from the metro station, a good half-hour through some of the most beautiful parts of Montreal. When Dean was away on a business trip, I decided to take advantage of having a car at my disposal and sleep in a bit. I drove to my singing lesson and arrived a few minutes late due to snarly traffic. It soon became apparent that something was different; my voice was more strained and less free-flowing. The only difference was that I had driven instead of taken public transit. As a result, I had not had any time to read and contemplate on the subway, no time had been given to walking and remarking on beautiful things. And it made a world of difference. What comes out of me is directly related to what I take in and to how I live, how I move in the world, and how much time I give to contemplation, preparation, and beauty.

2. Singing is about release, not effort. This idea really changed how I approach singing. I was used to my voice fatiguing rather quickly, but surprisingly, it was never tired after an hour-long lesson. I always came away energized and feeling like I was a bird floating in the air, able to sing with joy and gusto. And most of that had to do with just letting sound come out of me instead of pushing myself to make good sounds. This meant that a lot of focus was spent on the inhale (breathing, preparation, focus) and on letting the exhale (release) have a clear channel, obstacle free. And it worked. I discovered that when I access my whole body and mind in a deep inhale, I have quite a powerful voice. I actually surprised myself in many lessons, making sounds which had never come out of my mouth before. I was able to do this not by trying harder, but by letting go, by giving something away.
3. Singing is an exercise in vulnerability. I never realised how much fear was a part of my singing until my vocal coach started pointed out the tiny ways in which I was constricting my voice. I hesitated between inhaling and singing a note, I tightened up my throat when I came to a high note, I locked my hips and pushed out my chin to muscle out a note. I took shallow breaths and squeaked my way through my vocal break. All of it a result of fear, of thinking my voice would fail me and that it would produce ugly sounds. So we spent an entire lesson singing through and around my break, that awkward place between my chest voice and my head voice. And it was so much less ugly than I thought it would be. I found I had so much more strength and control than I thought I had. I also learned that tackling my weak spot head on and working to improve it in a safe place was a better approach than pulling away from it or avoiding it. Singing requires bravery and vulnerability. Fear masks and distorts my real, genuine voice, but when I am willing to be vulnerable, I can embrace and accept my unique voice and be willing to be heard for who I am.

4. You sing not only to others but to yourself. In one lesson, I was singing the late 19th century hymn, O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus. It was not that difficult a song, but required some precision and lots of breath. I was singing it okay, but my teacher and I both knew that something was not connecting. It is a song about vastness, so I tried to sing it big, arms extended, launching the words out to the world. I couldn't quite pull it off. We tried several exercises - phrasing, physical movement, voice placement - but it still wasn't right. Finally, my teacher told me to curl up in a ball and sing it to myself. I crouched on the floor, wrapped my arms around my knees, and sang: "O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free." And I was undone. Tears formed in my eyes when my soul heard the words it needed right then. Sometimes so much emphasis is put on projecting (or releasing) our voices that we forget to sing to our own hearts (see Psalm 42). We cannot project or give away what we do not first embrace and hold in our hearts.  

5. Singing is an exercise in integration. By design, singing is meant to be an integrative, holistic action. All of us have different aspects of our voice which are quite distinct: we can resonate in the chest, in the jaw, in the nasal cavity, and in the forehead. These all produce slightly different sounds. We also have a chest voice (the same timbre as our speaking voice) and a head voice (sometimes referred to as falsetto) which is more breathy and higher than our normal speaking voice. There is also the whistle register, the highest range, which is used to great effect by some sopranos (like Mariah Carey). It takes some training and practice to flow from one register to the next without strain or a significant shift in tone. I happen to have a very notable break between my chest voice and my head voice. That's just the way it has always been. But my vocal coach told me (and showed me) that it is possible to use these two registers together, to have the chest voice support the head voice so that I produce a much more solid, grounded sound. What? I had always assumed that the two were mutually exclusive, like jumping from one moving car to another, but I was wrong. They are actually meant to work together. Oh, segregation and compartmentalization, once again you rear your ugly heads.

The integration of my two voices or registers will take some time. It is such an unnatural sensation for me to access deep sounds when making high sounds, but it is possible. I know that part of the work is head work, getting my brain around a new, integrated way of thinking. Another part of the work is heart work, seeing my different voices as one. It is also spiritual work, having implications for how I perceive and practice my vocation(s). In other words, I must be careful not to compartmentalize my academic voice and my pastoral voice, not to separate my public voice from my private voice, not to divide my spiritual and my physical natures. For a culture steeped in specialization and individualization, integration is hard work. But it is worthy work because it results in more beautiful, grounded singing and a more beautiful, grounded life.

You don't have to take singing lessons to develop good spiritual practices concerning integrity, receiving and releasing, preparation, vulnerability, soul-care, and integration. But it could help. That has been the case for me.

Here is Selah singing O The Deep Deep Love of Jesus. Still undoes me.


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