Last night I had one of the best coachings I’ve had in a long time. There are some technical issues that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months while my teacher has been away in Berlin, and last night’s coach gave me some really useful strategies for approaching these bugs.
But the most meaningful moment was when he proposed that these physical quirks could just be manifestations of some mental hangups. I think he was right. I have a dark secret that I have worked zealously to keep under wraps.
I’m intimidated of this career, I’m afraid I’m not good enough, I’m scared to sing, I’m scared not to sing…sometimes I feel stuck.
Maybe you have the same secret. Maybe you already know you need to let go and go for it. As my insightful coach put it, “Let go, and surrender.” These are some of the most unsettling words you can hear as a singer. And some of the most powerful.
It’s so interesting…as I’m sitting here listening to the recording of my coaching session, I hear that what I need to tweak with my breath and my sostenuto are actually about embracing uncertainty; I don’t need to make any huge change to my technique, I have to acknowledge that release can bring me peace or panic…serenity or turbulence…sweetness or sadness.
One element of bel canto is the “appoggia” or lean. That’s the muscular antagonism between the inspiratory and expiratory breathing muscles while singing. It’s also a reference to the role of the larynx in providing resistance to the upward pressure of the breath. So in its fullest sense, “appoggia” is the complex balancing act between two sets of muscles at the respiratory and laryngeal levels. The image of leaning on the voice is a great metaphor for breath support. I like to think of the breath as water and the body as earth, combining to make a divine blend of mud, silky and delicate like a mud mask, and sometimes a little thicker, like a mineral mud bath where you can immerse your entire body.
But water and earth also combine to form mud that is too thick, dried out, and solid as adobe brick…which is also an ideal metaphor for being stuck. That’s where I am.
When we overfill our emotional body with unused elements of artistry and technique, we become stuck. We become procrastinators, we become attached to things that no longer serve us. Ultimately, we can get pretty clingy. And needy. Hanging on to something that no longer serves us.
You know what would happen if you were to take one of those great breaths at the beginning of a beautifully composed phrase, then you clench down and hold it. At that point you’ve already absorbed all the oxygen you need from this breath, but you’re still holding on. Just try spinning out a beautiful phrase now.
This is what it’s like to hold on to something that no longer serves you. What do other things in your life feel like when you hold onto them past their value point? Is there a fach, a teacher, a relationship, a point of view that you are still holding onto that no longer serves you?
Is there a box that you’ve meant to open that is still taped shut?
This could be a real box from a move or another metaphor that speaks to some congested aspect of your singing life; something you want to open, but for some reason it has remained closed. Acknowledge that there is another world other than the world you are locked into.
The reason we have fear and trepidation about taking the plunge is that we think that taking the plunge is diving off a thousand-foot cliff into the water below. There are so many factors to concern ourselves with: the depth of the water…the splash from the crash…the timing of your breath…our form as we dive…will my parents be watching? Will there be any sharks in the water to nibble on me? How far from shore is it? Do I need a life vest to hold onto?
Taking that plunge is horrifying and humiliating.
Instead, imagine that taking the plunge is like so gently sliding into a warm, lavender-scented bathtub: bubbles and salts caressing your body. The water temperature is soothing…the aroma is nourishing…and calming. The depth of the water is just perfect, cradling your neck, supporting your back. This plunge feels pretty good. Expansive. Nurturing. Awakening. Supportive. Generous. Loving. In line with what you want.
It doesn’t need to be challenging or painful, taking the plunge can be exhilarating! It’s finally getting yourself off the space you’ve been occupying: the chair, the couch, the bed, the practice room, the hedge fund day job, the young artist programs, the chewed consonant, the disconnected breath…wherever you’ve been stuck out of fear or overwhelm, at some point you have to break free from the past and the reinforcement that has kept you in check.
“I understand that fear is my friend, but not always. Never turn your back on Fear. It should always be in front of you, like a thing that might have to be killed. My father taught me that, along with a few other things that have kept my life interesting.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century
Think of the unknown as a gift, so that you can grow in any direction. Think of uncertainty as the driver of possibility and potential.
I’ve been stuck long enough. I’m ready to step outside my comfort zone of “this is what my voice does and this is what my voice doesn’t do” to a place where new things, GREAT things, unexpected things, unplanned things can occur. I want to actually have the life I dream of. As my delightfully unmusical Mann says, I now need to add some “swagger” to my audition package.
I think singers in this city and in this economy have conditioned ourselves to think that we have a looooong way to go before we quit our day job. Can it be that I am so embarrassed that I am not yet singing in A houses that I hang on to my vocal bugs as a way of saying “see, this is why I’m not at La Scala, because I’ll never be good enough!”? Is there such a thing as fear of success?
I think I’m entitled to the same when-I grow-up-I-want-to-be-a-singer dream I had as a high-schooler. I desperately want to connect with that un-constricted, unbounded self. That self is a conduit for real art to flow through. I know I need to give myself permission to feel powerful when I sing. I need to lean into the present moment and give up “then”.
I invite you to jump in with me.
P.S. Thank you sooo much, Dear Coach. I look forward to our next session!
Leap, and the net will appear. -John Burroughs