Singing naturally

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.

7 thoughts on “Singing naturally

  1. All of this is in Jane Austen. In Pride and Prejudice she mentions several times how Mary, the middle sister, is technically more skilled at both playing the piano and singing than Elizabeth, but Lizzy is much more pleasing to listen to, because her paying and singing are aimed at pleasing the listeners with her songs, rather than displaying her techinical skills.

  2. I think perhaps the idea is to learn the rules, so you’ll know what the possibilities are, and then to transcend them. Exactly how the transcending is done, I can’t say. I think you simply have to have spent years and years perfecting your craft, both through technique and through your own love of it. In fact, when I am doing my best work in the arts, I’m usually not thinking in words at all. But that doesn’t mean I’m just daydreaming, either. Make sense?

    We don’t have vocal training specifically around here. We have visual art and violin training. But I see a lot of parallels across the arts.

  3. Laura,

    I think perhaps the idea is to learn the rules, so you’ll know what the possibilities are, and then to transcend them. Exactly how the transcending is done, I can’t say.

    One of Schoonmaker’s points is that there are plenty of areas where we transcend the techniques easily, e.g. we learn and then quickly transcend all the little skills involved in driving a car. Perhaps one of the things that makes this more mysterious in the arts is that it isn’t immediately obvious that the objective is something different than just exercising the techniques—not­ “in addition to,” but actually different. We don’t work the pedals and steering wheel for the sake of doing it, but in order to pilot our vehicle somewhere, and the difference is pretty clear. We don’t make string together words in our mind and then make the appropriate scratches on paper for the saking of doing it, but to in order communicate something to the reader; in that case the difference may not be quite as clear.

    With singing (maybe with painting, too?) the difference is far from clear to the average person. What is singing a song besides making musical sounds with your mouth?

    Just as an aside, I wonder if “air singing” (the vocal equivalent of “air guitar,” e.g. karaoke or singing along with the radio) actually works against developing an understanding of what singing is, since it encourages us to focus on conjuring up the feeling we get when we hear a song, rather than on doing something to convey that feeling to those who are hearing us.

  4. And I wonder if sung prayers, like in the Lutheran Worship book, would be a help? We’ve always been a singing family, in that I’ve always sung lullabies, folk songs, hymns, and that sort of thing to my children, and the older kids sang a little when they were small, but in the last five or six years since we’ve been singing our evening prayers I’ve really noticed a huge improvement in my children’s spontaneous singing throughout the day, and mom (who is not only naturally gifted musically, but is also a trained musician and music teacher) my has commented positively on the quality of their singing.

  5. Kelly,

    All of this is in Jane Austen.

    Not fair, of course, since just about every interesting social fact can be found somewhere in Jane Austen, if you look hard enough.

  6. Perhaps this is what is so sweet about children singing. My then 2yo could sing the tune to Amazing Grace before she could talk. It was beautiful then and now but richer now with understanding.

    With literary reference (enjoyed the comment about all social issues being found in Austen), in the Anne Shirley books by LM Montgomery, Anne is encouraged to write what she knows and it is then that she succeeds. Same thing in Little Women with Jo and her stories.

    As a family, we have been singing Psalms for worship. Since this is still new to us it is going to take some time to be familiar enough with the tunes and words to sing the words with more thought.

    I have often thought that for a song to be successful it needs to be easily and simply sung and easy to hear and learn the words to.

  7. The primary purpose of vocal instruction should be to develop the voice so as to avoid injury and strengthen the range of the singer. I am involved with a community theater group that has a professional vocal teacher (and symphony director, and tenor), and he tells stories of what most teachers actually end up doing, which is to work on the style of the voice to the expense of function. He would never encourage the student to do what the teacher does above, but would instead focus on particular physical traits which could lead to problems later on. He is very very good at that— he once diagnosed a problem with one vocalist while she was singing in a group and made one tiny suggestion which allowed her to fix a problem that had been plaguing her for months.

    He would certainly agree that different styles of song require different styles of singing. Though we do “light opera” (Gilbert & Sullivan), we don’t sing in an operatic style; we sing in a musical theater style, valuing clarity of words and emotion over pure tone.

    His advice in a nutshell:
    —Stand (or sit) up straight
    —Breathe from the gut
    —Force the air from your diaphragm, never your throat
    —Don’t strain; if your throat hurts when you’re done singing you’ve been oversinging and need to pull back
    —Intensity of tone is always better than volume; accuracy of tone is best
    —Open your throat as well as your mouth

    I think that’s good advice for any singers, because no matter what you’re singing you want to be kind to your voice. And I’ll add, especially for folk singing, that you should never be afraid of letting the emotion of the song display on your face; a smile will carry into your voice, and a frown as well.

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