singing is hard

A couple years ago I got the idea to take voice lessons. This is something I had been thinking about for a long time. After all, I frequently work with singers, so it makes sense professionally to learn more about the actual technique and physicality of vocal performance. My real reasons are more personal, though. I am deeply moved by beautiful singing. I'm such a sap, I get all choked up at the most random stuff, like Lady Gaga singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl this year (seriously, she was pretty good) or an exceptionally good performance of Der Hölle Rache (Diana Damrau totally owns this). I can sing but never had any real training, and I guess I just want to get better at it.

So back when I first got this idea to study voice, I contacted a teacher I know in town, and tentatively set something up with her. Then I promptly got a rotten cold and lost my voice completely, and once I got better the teacher in question didn't get back to me (I don't think she was trying to avoid me; I think she was just really busy), so I put the whole thing on a back burner for a while.

Last summer, I decided to have another go. I had a trial lesson with another teacher (my friend Jane, whose students I've accompanied on many occasions), and the one lesson was fantastic! But then the house remodeling started and I got busy with work in the fall. Not only did I feel quite self-conscious about practicing singing with burly contractor sorts going in and out of my house with their country music blaring on the portable radios, I was spending every spare minute either answering their questions about stuff like where did I want the light switches or practicing my own collaborative piano repertoire to a noisy background of air compressors and nail guns.

Now, finally, my semester is over, the inside of the house is done (another time we'll discuss the landscaping that hasn't yet happened) and I've started voice lessons with Jane for real. It's so much fun, and in just those two lessons, I learned SO MUCH. Jane is a wonderful teacher. She is a warm and kind person who can put anyone at ease, which is really quite important when you're about to do something vulnerable like sing. At the same time, she is extremely knowledgeable and has decades of teaching experience under her belt, so she doesn't miss a thing. She can tell in an instant just where I'm holding tension and has a dozen suggestions for how to fix it.

Singing is hard, and doing it right does not come naturally. I have certain advantages over many beginning singers in that I already read music fluently and have a basic knowledge of the major languages of vocal literature (German, French, Italian). I also have a pretty good handle on breathing and a fair start on breath control. Beyond that, though, I'm a total novice. Here are a few basic principles of singing I have to work on over the next month before my next lesson:

1. Open your mouth. I know this sounds obvious, but it's very strange to open your mouth enough for the sound to come out. We don't open our mouths that much when we talk, so it feels like a huge exaggeration to open it wide enough to sing. Wow, does it make a difference, though.

2. Stand up straight. I tend to shift my weight from side to side. It's better to be centered.

3. Relax. This applies to pretty much everything but the diaphragm, which controls the breath. It's nearly freaking impossible, still, for me to relax all the parts that need to relax. I have body parts I didn't even realize could even be tense until Jane pointed them out. I tend to point my shoulders forward, jut my chin out, tighten my jaw (this is common among singers; I hear voice teachers tell their students to drop the jaw all the time), pull my tongue back and try to control everything with my neck. This leads to breaks and squeaks and other embarrassing noises.

4. Warming up is fun. I think I'm enjoying the purely technical exercises more than anything at this early stage. I did not expect this. I expected that I'd want to get right to the repertoire and sing some lovely Schubert already. Instead, experimenting with scales and arpeggios on different vowels and nonsense syllables is the best way to find my voice, focus on all those physical challenges like posture and tension, and figure out how to make the sounds I want. I've ordered a couple of vocal method books (this one and this one) to change it up a bit.

5. If you do all that stuff right, you can even sing through phlegm.  The pollen count is really high. I don't need to elaborate further, do I?

6. Stop while it still feels good. There's no reason to sing yourself hoarse. Better to stop early and stay healthy.

Who knows where all this is going? I have no particular desire to sing in public. Heck, I don't have an end goal with voice lessons at this point, and that's okay. I have enough goals and deadlines in the rest of my life that it feels good to do something purely for the joy of doing it.


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