Singing for Real

After a recent studio class, a talented colleague and I had an interesting little conversation via Gchat which began with her question, “Were you always sooo expressive?”

My answer: “Yeah, I think so, but I was also sometimes clumsy. I try to approach every piece asking myself how I can be as honest as possible in my interpretation. On the technical side, that trickles down to intending to make honest vowels and being true to the composer. On the dramatic side, I hope that my personal experience and being true to myself within the piece will translate to an eminently relatable moment for the audience.”

And her reply: “What you said about expressiveness is sooo beautiful!! Being true to yourself and who you are is SO important, it totally makes sense to bring that to anything we do in life. Thanks for the inspiration! ….It’s actually very interesting that you answer included being truthful to self, cause I just realized that I’ve been in a way untrue to myself since I could remember. Oh the human mind!!! what a cluster f**k that is sometimes.”

She’s right. When you aren’t true to yourself, your life is chaotic.  And when you don’t sing with your real voice or perform with honesty, you can’t communicate fully what the composer/librettist/playwright intends. But when you become real, you’re finally singing “for real”…you are the “real deal”…a “real professional”…

A lot of attention is given to improving opera singers’ acting chops. That’s super. But, in brutal honesty, I see more of an increase in  “acting out” and posturing than an abundance of moving performances. Young, earnest opera singers buzz around NYC from teacher to coach to acting workshop: my problem with this is that most operatic performances still don’t feel REAL at all. We rarely sit down to do the intense meditative “table work” required to get any kind of context for the pieces we work so hard to polish. At the end of the day, we have an over-processed show tune that still somehow falls flat before it reaches the front row. We have a party trick. The answer to a meaningful performance is so simple: be honest, be real.

In addressing vocal pathologies, we should talk about disowning the pretty little impostors of vowels, which I have started calling “fake vowels”. These are well-intended harmless alterations or modifications, but they wreak all kinds of havoc on the vocal line (more on this later). Again, the answer is simple: be honest, be real with your language.

“What is REAL?”

English: pg 18 and 19 of The Velveteen Rabbit.
Side by side in the nursery

One of my all-time favorite moments in literature takes place in the little book I read over and over and over as a child, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. My parents kept the audiobook performance by Meryl Streep and George in our family van, and played it when they wanted to get all four of us kids quiet. Winston Here, the Skin Horse and the Velveteen Rabbit talk in the nursery:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to make string bead necklaces. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it. 

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

This passage expresses so perfectly the wonder and angst most singers experience on their journey to becoming a singer…a real singer.  We wonder how long it will take to become really viable…hirable, we long to know what it feels like for our technique to be sparkling, exact, and second-nature, we do wish that “we could become it without these uncomfortable things happening” to us.

In this “Singing for Real” series let’s talk about what it means to be a real professional, an honest singer, a singer whose art actually MEANS something.

Stay tuned!

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