Recently one of my Marin County singing students was working on a song in her voice lessons that was very emotional for her. She loves the song and its message. And she sings it technically very well. However, something was missing in the delivery and the discussion that ensued opened up an interesting point about singing: If the vocal instrument is free, the voice will reflect our every emotion or thought. This is a good thing. But it also means we must be clear about how we are feeling or what we are thinking if we want our intentions to be perceived correctly.
When I trained as an Alexander Technique teacher, our master teacher Frank Ottiwell, who taught at the theater conservatory in San Francisco, would tell us not to mix up “emoting” with pressing on our bodies. He would mimic how his student actors would press on themselves physically, perhaps pulling down their shoulders and arms and crunching their upper chests when using their hands, to show despair or despondency. It was fascinating to watch him speak the text without doing that. It was so much more powerful and entrancing.
It’s the same with the voice. Pressing on it, especially when you are belting in a Broadway style or singing dramatic opera, does not necessarily make us feel the emotions more. If anything, it can make a listening audience member uncomfortable. I do have a bit of a bias against constant belt. I went to a recent performance of “Rent” and much of the singing was just loud but without a lot of nuance. As an audience member I want to be drawn in by a performer. That said, I believe singing in a nuanced way takes not only a good vocal technique but also emotional intelligence or awareness.
Back to my student’s lesson. I sensed that the first half of the song, which was delivered sweetly, didn’t quite work. Then the second half, when the character gets angrier, there was a sudden shift and it did. As we talked about the text, we discovered that my student was fearful about the first part of the song. Not technically but emotionally fearful. As we discussed the fear, we discovered that there were other feelings underlying it. I encouraged her to let those feelings through. Each phrase needs a “back story.” Why is the character saying this? How does she feel about what she is saying? And, how would that character’s personality sing it? Different personalities address emotions differently. One person could be sad and lean toward hopelessness while another gets sad and is motivated to act. If you aren’t singing a song as a character, how would you sing it from your own history and experiences? Do you know who in you is speaking?
The point is that emotional disconnect “reads” on stage. We sense when the singer is not sure what the feeling is behind the lyric. We sense this just like we sense when someone is being inauthentic (or authentic, for that matter). Even in warmups, I can tell when someone “checks out” and starts thinking about lunch. It’s reflected in the voice and in the whole-body energy. We are no longer present or invested in what we are saying. That’s why it’s important to pick songs that you like or that you can relate to. I can perhaps relate to a Disney princess from my youth, but it’s much more interesting to sing a song that I can put my whole self into from where I am in life.
Of course, there are exceptions regarding the balance between technique and emotion. The famous soprano Maria Callas was criticized in her later years for pushing her voice for dramatic purposes, but her technique was so awesome it could handle it. But in many less skilled singers, there is a tipping point: It may be exciting to push our voices to be expressively big or whispery. We may even get away with it for a while. But vocal harm can be awaiting us.
It can be very frustrating when you have all these feelings and energy that you want to send through the voice, but your instrument isn’t free yet. My advice to my students taking up singing lessons for kids and adults is to err on the side of good vocal technique. Clarify your feelings and let the voice do the work for you. It also can start you on a journey of psychological self-awareness that may not have anything to do with singing. And in my book, that’s exciting in and of itself.