Occasionally, in the middle of adult voice lessons, my student will be singing and then burst into tears. Oh, no! Are they OK? Did somebody die? No, it’s usually a confluence of things, perhaps brought on by a little fatigue. It could be that the words are so moving, they bring the singer to tears. Perhaps they are singing about children and they recall when their own children were small. Or perhaps it’s a song that brings back memories of a long-gone parent. Beautiful melodies particularly move me. This is the power of song – the power to shake lose feelings simmering under the surface. And it’s this, connected with experiencing the moving breath and vibration, that makes us feel alive.
As I have gotten older, I’ve become more particular about the songs I sing. While in the past I might have picked a piece because of its technical challenges or stage potential, now I find that I want to sing music that truly moves me, emotionally and spiritually, or is just plain fun. It might not “fit” my voice type or range, but it gives me joy just to be able to speak certain words or act a certain situation. Here are a few examples: I love “Perhaps Love,” a song I stumbled across that was sung by Placido Domingo and John Denver as a duet. Singing about human as well as divine love connects me to the world. Another song I love is “New Words” from Maury Yeston’s “In the Beginning,” where a parent is pointing out words like “moon” and “spoon” to her child. Although I’m not a parent, this parent’s love for her child is very sweet and I’ve always found Yeston’s musical theater compositions very singable. I also love “Brimstone and Treacle” from “Mary Poppins” because I can let my shadow side out as the mean nanny. I find her much more theatrically interesting than Mary. (Oops! Cat’s out of the bag.) And one of my favorites is “Could I Leave You” from “Follies” because I can relate to a woman of a certain age raging at her husband. (No worries. My marriage is intact!) As a soprano, I find its belty, speech-like vocals and need for acting chops challenging and fun.
We all have long histories with our speaking or singing voices, having gotten positive or negative feedback about them as we grew up. Often these messages get integrated into our sense of self-worth. Of course, many students pick songs they connect to. Or I might introduce them to songs that I think would fit their voice and personality. But it’s not unusual for someone to be singing a specific song or remain in a specific genre because of family history or expectations. This often gets reinforced if singing becomes someone’s vocation or serious avocation. I feel it’s important to loosen those threads if it seems to be stopping a student from exploring his or her truer inclinations. It’s not super hard to see what repertoire works and what doesn’t. If it’s the right song, that person is full of light and joy. Wrong song? Energetically, it feels like rote.
Sometimes picking repertoire for more emotional connection means just a little tweak – like picking a song that’s not so “girl nextdoor-ish” when one feels like being a bit of a scamp. Or a bigger change might be called for, like young girls who go through the whole “Disney Princess” phase. Moving out of those songs to ones that are more appropriate to their early adulthood may be an important psychological move. I remember once singing an aria in a lesson and getting all choked up: “I sound like my mother,” I cried out! (My mother had a wonderful, warm mezzo soprano sound.) I was reacting to hearing my voice grow into a womanlier sound. On the other hand, I must always make sure to stay true to my lighter speaking quality, especially when singing opera, or my voice stops working well. I am a David in a family of Goliath voices.
So, I don’t worry when one of my students in my singing lessons has a meltdown in my Marin studio. It just means that the song is opening his heart. (Yes, guys cry too!) When tears come, we stop, grab a tissue, perhaps share the feelings, then take another stab at it. If it just isn’t happening, we move to another song. Perhaps a more up-tempo song – those will always put a smile on your face.