The past week, two of my students who take voice lessons in my Marin voice studio expressed their yearning for more consistency in their singing. I know this desire well: the ability to have your voice “work” every time you open your mouth, day or night, whatever the range or style. A lovely goal! And completely achievable. However, there is one element to consider and it’s a big one: We are organic beings, ever changing physically, emotionally and mentally in these bodies that are our instrument.
Imagine if you sat at the piano to play and suddenly the piano started moving around in three dimensions. Not so simple to play, huh? Well, our bodies are like that piano, moving around, breathing, resonating – it’s amazing that we can be as powerful and free as we are. When I think of vocal consistency, I think of puzzles like a Rubik’s cube. If one element moves, another interconnected one does also. And, ultimately, you must connect and take care of the whole, not just parts.
Some people are physically and temperamentally set up for singing from birth. My Italian mother, a singer, would say “e una voce naturale.” It is a “natural voice.” Versus “una voce costruita,” a voice that has been “built.” I remember, for instance, reading a book by Lilli Lehmann, “How to Sing.” She was describing how to sing from her kinesthetic experience. I didn’t understand a thing she said. Rereading it lately, however, I did, but felt that she was detailing her individual process as a “natural” singer. Now, there are definitely universal kinesthetic experiences while singing – that’s why we have expressions such as “chest or head voice” or “singing in the mask.” However, what that feels like to each singer – let along how you get there – is extremely individual.
The path to consistency is to clarify a kinesthetic or aural experience, determine what you’ve physically (or emotionally or spiritually) done, and be able to reproduce it. A teacher is there to tell you if what you are doing is what you think you are doing. (I know, sounds a little “whaaaat?”) Let me give you an example. Lately I’ve been working with the “ah” vowel. My habitual “ah” is a relaxed flattish tongue. I was getting a lot of “root of the tongue” grabbing in my upper “passaggio” (C5 to F#5) and when I was talking loudly during children’s rehearsals. So, through my own teacher’s ears, I discovered that my ringier, freer “ah” is much closer to my “e” vowel. (Try speaking “e” and then say “ah” without moving the tongue but allowing the jaw to respond.) However, and this is where our “faulty sensory perception” that F.M. Alexander talked about comes into play. Since my “ah” tongue was so relaxed, it was pulling back, even though I couldn’t sense it. I had to think that my “ah” tongue was even MORE forward than my “e” tongue for it to be right. I knew intellectually that that isn’t the case, but it has made a tremendous difference. Now, when I guide my tongue to this “more forward than ‘e’ position that really isn’t more forward than ‘e’ 😊,” the tongue root grabs much less and my whole kinesthetic vocal “organization” feels different: My breath doesn’t get stuck, which it was because the tongue was grabbing, my breath support doesn’t feel overtaxed, my resonance is ringing like I want it to and my diction is clearer because the tip of the tongue is in a better position to enunciate. One small adjustment freed all the parts.
Does this mean that I am more consistent? Not if I don’t apply this change to everything I sing. My “ah” habit is strong and if I don’t think about it, my tongue will go back to what it knows. So, you determine what needs to change and then apply it until it really sticks. It’s been about a month with my new “ah” and now it’s finally settling in. I still, however, must check in with it occasionally, especially on English diphthongs (two-sound vowels). Adjustments should be done in a “non-doing” way – gently but clearly while allowing the rest of your body to shift into a new relationship to the change.
The path to vocal consistency can be very frustrating because we are trying to fine-tune an organic instrument so that our very smallest emotion is expressed. It takes tremendous patience and perseverance. But that Rubik’s cube does eventually come together and into proper balance for a consistent sound. And, remember that consistency comes in stages. You are probably much more aware of what you are doing than you were when you first started singing. Whether you are an adult or child, keep working at your singing lessons. There’s nothing like singing to make you feel alive.