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Your Voice is A Beautiful Voice: On Balancing Contentment and Improvement

My non-practicing Jewish grandparents used to come to synagogue on Friday nights just to hear me sing in the youth choir. “You were the littlest one up there, but you had the biggest voice,” my grandma tells me. That might be true, or it might be something grandmas say, but I remember feeling confident and having FUN singing, unconcerned with whether I was talented.

My mother (who is a voice teacher) and other voice teachers I’ve had over the years have told me that I have a vocal quality called a “mix.” I’m not really an alto, and I’m not really a soprano. I have a limited, middle range. Low notes evade me, as do high notes. But I’m able to produce a sound quality that is sort of a blending of chest voice and head voice. Where other people’s voices break, mine soars. But where other people’s voices soar, mine croaks. Chest voice, head voice, and mix voice can all be taught with technique — which takes time, concentration, practicing, listening, and hard work.

For most of my adolescence, I didn’t feel compelled to work that hard on singing. I never minded that my range was limited, because I liked my middle notes. It felt good to sing them. My natural voice resonated in my chest, in my nose, in my head. It made me feel beautiful. Quite simply put, in terms of my vocal training, I was happy with myself.

Until ninth grade.

In ninth grade, I had the opportunity to audition for the elite chorus in my high school, the Chamber Singers. But the problem was, Chamber didn’t need any more mezzos (the lower Soprano part, or Soprano II.) Chamber needed the highest of the high note reachers, Soprano I. So I asked my mom to coach me on an audition piece. She picked a Vivaldi piece called Domine Deus — it wasn’t incredibly high, but it was in the Soprano I range and had these long runs where you couldn’t take a breath. My mom thought it would be impressive if I could pull it off. So I started practicing. It was weird. I had to move my jaw and open my throat and breathe in ways that felt totally unnatural.

But all of that was fine. Improvement of a skill is not a problematic intention.

Here’s where it got problematic: Because I was struggling so much, I started wondering what was wrong with me — other people are able to sing this song without this much difficulty, I thought. I never believed I would be able to sing this godawful slog of a piece, and I felt angry and frustrated that it was so difficult. I was incredibly demanding and critical of myself.

Also problematic — the inflexible meaning I had assigned to this audition: I had decided that if I didn’t get into Chamber Singers, I would drop out of chorus the following year. It was getting close to college application time, and I didn’t want to “waste my time” in the second tier of anything — not when I was applying to Ivy League schools that wanted only the best of the best of everything.

Then the audition: I stood inside the tiny, dimly lit practice room in the music wing, with the Chamber Singers director just a few feet away from me. The room was too small, and she was too close. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly — like if I filled my diaphragm with air it would invade her personal space and then she’d kill me. My stomach muscles tensed with nervousness. Unable to relax and remember the techniques that could get me those high notes and breath control (how could I with my anxiety ricocheting all over the place?) I bombed the audition. And because of the pressure I put on the audition, singing became infused with shame. I dropped out of chorus and signed up for art class, where I could shrink silently into my drawings.

When people ask me if still sing, I tell them, yes — in the shower, or when friends drag me to karaoke, but I'd like to sing more. I wonder if my answer would be different if I had stayed in the second tier chorus and just enjoyed singing as a fun thing I got to do a few hours a week, that I didn’t need to be the best at, that didn’t have anything to do with whether I was valuable to others (colleges, the chorus teacher, even my mom.)

Or, even if I’d just had a different, less demanding attitude towards myself and the audition — I didn’t have to expect myself to master head voice in a matter of months. I could have continued practicing and auditioned the following year if I really cared about developing technique.

And more importantly, that regardless of the outcome of those three minutes inside the practice room, I still had my natural voice, and I could use it whenever I wanted.

I wonder, if I had remembered that fact the day of the audition, or even the day after, if the last ten years since that audition would have had more music in them.

 

(Image sources 1 and 2)

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Comments

I relate

Oh boy, I relate to this in so many ways. I had similar experiences in formal training in art. So many teachers were careless in their critiques, and I took anything negative as a sign that my art was bad...and therefore I was not meant to make art, or at least not as a living. I retreated to a place where art was completely personal. It's actually what got me into working with children; the pure impulse of expression, the reveling in materials....kids are fun to make art with. It took years of gradual crawling back into artmaking (and writing) to grow a more mature appreciation of what it means to own my creative efforts.
I too have become an avid gardner, and I too I am completely uninterested in precision gardening. It's more about an intuitive process. I'm so grateful for being a little older and wiser.

Coming out of the closet (well, shower in this case)

I know all about self-effacing singers who really enjoy singing but are afraid to own up to that, being one myself :) The voice is probably the scariest instrument to own, because the instrument is you. Any judgement on your voice can feel like a judgement on the fiber that makes you up.
Still, probably the aspect that makes a voice the most convincing is when you hear someone loving what they are doing. Tom Waits is my eternal example there. I imagine he didn't have a wealth of positive reinforcement growing up, but when you listen to how he relishes what he sings, you can't argue with him.
Way to own your voice, Emily! It's not an easy thing.. I hope your 'singing practice' revitalizes your love of your music.

Yes! Exactly!

"The voice is probably the scariest instrument to own, because the instrument is you." That is pitch-perfect. (Haha.)

And no, I would never argue with Tom Waits.

word

Emily, what a good story. I had sort of a similar experience with gardening. Before I moved to NY, I had a plot in a community garden for years where I grew most of my vegetables. I loved it. Being out there with the bees, and the squash and the mulch and the mulberry tree and the groundhog that ate all my vegetables one year. Then I moved here and dated a professional urban farmer, who measured everything precisely. He knew the proper spacing of plants and what direction they needed to face and what paired well with them, and how much nitrogen needed to be in the soil for this other thing. All the science and my lack of knowledge really took the joy out of it.

It's taken me a few years to realize that I have knowledge too. I know the poetry of getting my knees soggy while a butterfly lands a foot away from where I'm working the dirt.

"I know the poetry of getting

"I know the poetry of getting my knees soggy while a butterfly lands a foot away from where I'm working the dirt." LOVE THIS :)

I also really want to garden. Can we make an IDP community garden somewhere?

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