Not being a natural singer, but being a natural learner, I have ranged far and wide in search of material that can teach me about singing. There isn’t much, at least about the kind of folk singing I try to do. There is some about art singing (e.g. opera), but much of it is focused on techniques that aren’t directly applicable to folk singing—in fact, some of them are antithetical to it. Periodically I will pore through that material, trying to glean deeper truths about song and singing that might be helpful.
Imagine how intrigued I was when I ran across an article by Bruce Schoonmaker, a fellow who teaches operatic singing, entitled Singing Without Technique. The bulk of what he has to say has been hard for me to digest, but I’m intrigued by his idea of singing by not singing:
The student arrives for his lesson. He has prepared his voice to the best of his ability, and now he desires his teacher to take him beyond what he can do on his own. He starts to sing. “Don’t vocalize,” says the teacher, and the student responds by making sounds more naturally, more colorfully, less mechanically. “Don’t sing,” says the teacher, and the student forgets his technique, forgets his tone, forgets himself, and becomes engrossed in the drama of the moment. “More,” says the teacher, and the student steps beyond his dearly held limitations, infusing his voice with more feeling, more beauty, and more strength.
I’ve heard things like this from my real-life teachers, but I don’t think I understood the reasoning behind it. They usually focus on what you need to be doing as you sing (i.e. telling the listeners the story of the song), and I took that as meaning that I should do something in addition to the technical work I was already doing to make musical sounds.
What I hear Schoonmaker saying is that I should tell the story instead of singing the song, trusting unconscious mechanisms to take care of the technical part. This makes sense to me, especially because I often find myself getting caught up in technique and its results (e.g. a sung note that is particularly resonant, or a tastily rhythmic phrase), which leads to singing that sounds affected rather than natural.
The article ends with a pretty cool Eastern proverb:
To the ignorant singer a song is a song;
To the intelligent singer, a song is not a song. It is technique and interpretation and musicality; it is the high notes and proper pronunciation, etc.;
To the wise singer, a song is a song, but it is not the same song that the ignorant singer sang.
In another article, The Meaning of Vocal Technique, Schoonmaker says that there is something beyond technical excellence that is required in performance:
There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something else. There is a sense of beautiful singing that demands something be added to it. I own a recording of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Strauss songs. She performs them with beautiful vocalism, exquisite breath control, and adequate musicality, yet something is missing–call it passion, spontaneity, or risking. Her singing lacks this special dramatic quality, this rendering oneself emotionally naked before the microphone. She sings a beautiful rehearsal.
And then this anecdote:
Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.