Open letter to my singing students

I just assume you know that I’m scared too. But when I’ve mentioned some of my fears to you, individually or as a group, you’ve expressed surprise. So I thought I should tell you more.

Yes, I know I can sing. Yes, I have always sung — some of my earliest memories include singing and there has never been a period in my life where I quit singing. Yes, people sometimes tell me they like my voice, and sometimes I even believe them.

But even so, I’m scared. Scared of being wrong. Scared of being flat. Scared of the way my ear for pitch is decent, but not perfect. Same for musical memory. I’m scared of the ways I try too hard, and not hard enough. Singing is at the center of my life, my heart, identity. Each little aspect of my voice can become something to fixate on, perseverate over, stress about. Like how a pair of jeans fits, or how clean my house is, or how I handled that awkward conversation, or any other vehicle for my neuroses.

In high school, before a big show, concert or contest, I often felt like I was losing my voice. I don’t know if I did one performance in which I felt my voice was “normal." It always felt off somehow - wounded, constricted, over-tired, slightly broken.

And you know what? It probably was. I probably was. My voice felt wounded and damaged (maybe because I was whipping it like a master whips a slave). It felt tight, constricted (maybe because I was giving it one option and one option only: be amazing, all the time). It felt exhausted, over-tired (maybe because it was unthinkable to me that I could base my singing schedule around what my voice needed rather than what I needed my voice to do). It felt slightly broken (maybe because, well, I am slightly broken. As in, not perfect. Not manufactured to spec. My voice, as part of me, carries all the scars and all the beauty of my organic, complicated, real life).

At some point in college, it started to dawn on me that all these sensations of discomfort and tension were trying to tell me something. I had been interpreting them as signals about how my voice was failing me, or about to. But I started to see it another way. Maybe what my voice was showing me was how I was treating myself. In a word: unkindly. Bit by bit, I started to look at how I was using my voice — one of my best friends — as a receptacle for a whole pile of complicated feelings. And once I could see that, there was some space for the question: is this how I want to treat my voice?

The answer was a resounding no, because I realized that if I kept using my voice as a container for all my toxic junk, I was going to fill it up with so much poison that it would truly quit functioning. Or, perhaps worse, I was going to lose my pure enjoyment of singing. This scared the bejeezus out of me — song and singing were (and are) something I can’t imagine living without.

None of this happened in a simple, linear fashion. I can’t remember the details, or the exact timeline. All I know is that bit by bit, I’ve grown in a different direction, and now, when I’m hard on my voice, I try to think about something natural, something alive. Like a tree. Experiment with me:

Imagine a plastic Christmas tree, totally symmetrical, it’s “trunk" a smooth piece of metal with no bumps, dents or funky notches. 

And now imagine one of our grand old Ponderosas — weather-beaten, bug-chewed, lightning-scarred. Strong and sweet-smelling, giving life to millions of insects, thousands of birds, hundreds of mammals as it grows and eventually falls. It is not predictable. There is no other exactly like it on the planet. Its branches may grow huge on one side and stubby on the other. Half of it may get blown off in a storm. It may become a giant, and dominate a meadow, or it may live as part of a whole community of smaller kindred. Or both, at different times in its life cycle. It constantly sheds needles, cones, bits of bark, and constantly makes more. It may be crooked, bent, twisted, blackened by fire — and all of these idiosyncrasies make it more beautiful, more interesting, more itself. It is not perfect — and that’s what makes it perfectly wonderful.

Our culture of manufactured, packaged, look-alike products can trick us into thinking we want plastic-tree voices. Voices that do exactly what we want, exactly when we want them to, so everything looks lovely in that photo in front of the fireplace. But I think our job as singers — and my job as your teacher — is not to find or assemble the perfect tree-in-a-box, but rather to help us all root down deeper into the unique organisms that we are.

I want to make it clear that I am not in any way “done" with this process. It’s a practice, like meditation. I don’t expect or even want to ever be done. Every day, in every circumstance, when I open my mouth to sing I have a choice to make — am I going to respond to my voice with love and acceptance, or with fear, anger, and a desire to control? When things sound or feel differently than I want them to, am I going to ask questions, or mete out punishments? When I make a true, big, authentic goof, am I going to laugh and keep going, or am I going to paralyze myself with shame?

What I’m asking us to do in class is to become aware of these choices we have, and look for ways to increase our ability to make the ones that keep us singing. You are helping me soften and strengthen in this way, just as I’m (hopefully) also helping you.