When I was just a little girl I performed a small solo in my church's annual televised Christmas concert. The organist, who we all greatly respected, stopped to talk with me afterward, and I'll never forget what she said. She said, "You sounded just beautiful - like you weren't even trying. Like Barbara Streisand!" I treasured those words in my heart of hearts for years. Words grow us and words cut us down, don't they?
I grew up, still singing. When I went from college to graduate school I had to make some choices about my major instrument. I'd taken piano for my major instrument in college, but my vocal study had become more serious in the last few years at E&H. So, considering my shift toward education, I thought I'd better ramp up the vocal study. I auditioned and went into grad school with a small opera scholarship and voice lessons for my major instrumental focus (although, as you know, I continued my piano study out of love).
It was a time of enjoyable collaboration, but also a stressful load of challenging repertoire. I learned many things that I chose, many things that were chosen for me, and a few things that were simply necessary because of my scholarship. Some of my repertoire was a comfortable fit and some of it was probably too far a stretch in terms of voice type and maturity.
At the same time I was becoming involved in my songwriting practice and in the contemporary band at my church. I met a lot of people with opinions about what was the only right way to sing. Some of them contradicted things I'd learned in the past. Some of them were louder about their opinions than others. None of them were malicious. All of them were doing the best they could.
Unfortunately, I'm a terribly good listener, and I enjoy the sense of "belonging" someplace. So when I exited graduate school, still in possession of a core of healthy classical technique (but still a rather immature sense of the whole), I listened to everybody who came along and attempted to fit in.
As my songwriting got more serious, I allowed a great many people to tell me that "Classical singers can't sing ____ style" and that "When you use a mic you need to tone ____ down and back _____ off" and furthermore, "If you're going to succeed with your songs you're going to have to sing like ______ to get people to listen to them."
That is the speech of our dominant modern culture, which worships talent in an unhealthy way, and prefers the idea of the "gifted, self educated" musician rather than the idea of healthy singing throughout all life stages - not for the sake of the stage, but for the sake of humanity.
When we break away from that sort of thinking, we are subversive. Yay for us! We should be. Somebody's got to be. Some of my favorite singers and teachers have been subversive thinkers - searching for pathways to health and wholeness through music rather than personal glory. Amazingly, when folks go after that health and wholeness, they usually impress other people with the beauty of their art . . . and subsequently have "success," but they're not so worried about it by then, because they've come into it seeking something more precious than a spotlight.
Sometimes the wild weeds, growing in the most difficult places, are the most beautiful.
For the better part of a year I've been in the process of intentional vocal recovery. After about 4 years of trying to make my voice be something it wasn't, I found that it was getting harder to find that core of healthy production. My high notes were suffering, etc.
God is a good caregiver and sent a friend to help me. I started consistent voice lessons with a friend who is a tenacious teacher, learner, and performer. I knew my voice was going to be safe in her hands, and that she would help me to regain my perspective.
Just yesterday I was in my lesson, and for the first time we broke away from the classical literature I've been working with and I sat down to play through one of my original songs at the piano. My teacher watched me go through it once, as I have always done, with a sort of "folk" sound. Inevitably I struggle to go in and out of the use of my natural vibrato when I back off that core of healthy singing - especially when a phrase is ascending. My teacher told me that for the second time through I ought to "Sing it like a Bernstein piece." In other words, use some classical sounds. She went so far as to suggest that, just for fun, I kind of overdo the style shift. So I did.
It was such comfortable singing! So free. The phrases were longer. The dynamics were easier to change. When I was done she asked me what I thought . . . and then she revealed that she'd been recording me the whole time!
I got to listen back to the whole thing and was pleasantly surprised. My whole voice singing one of my songs actually sounds beautiful. No need to pretend to be who I'm not. No need to cover anything up. I can change the style here and there, sure, but I can always trust that starting from this core technique will serve me well. And I can tell those other, older voice to take a hike!
My teacher has challenged me to record some of my songs for the purpose of experimenting with my healthy technique and how it can access style and color for me. She has also challenged me to begin sharing these recordings, and to fill my mind and heart with a different set of comments than I've been carrying around for the last several years.
If you're struggling to sing in a healthy way and if you feel overwhelmed by the comments of those who can't see anything but talent and who don't care about anything but a stage? Take heart. Talent is a shallow well. Tenacity is a bottomless ocean. Stay teachable and find healthy teachers. Silence the ignorance and fill your life with truth. You can do it!