Freeing The Natural Singer

John Burdick

I went to Omega to attend Claude Stein’s three-day “The Natural Singer” workshop. Had it been for any reason other than singing, I might have come equipped with some critical detachment, an analytical readiness to “read” this place and its people, its language, its demographics, its style and its values, like some rural smartass who had attended half a lecture on Roland Barthes 25 years ago. I am no hardened skeptic or serial debunker (who has the time or the authority for that?), but I might have gone hunting for a playful and unorthodox “take.” That’s my brand, you see.

But I went there to sing, and singing is my personal dragon: a problem with inflamed resonance in my daily life. When I arrived at Omega, I was there, straight-up, in the role of seeker and supplicant. This was Omega, an institution in the direct line of descent of 20th-century psychology, especially the humanistic and integrative psychology of its second half. I fully expected that my traumas and histories would be invoked. I expected to tell my singing story, which is something I am good at and easy with – unlike, say, singing itself. Perhaps I had not yet begun to grasp that the “depth psychology” of Freud and his followers has fallen into great disfavor lately, with both self-help professionals and neuroscientists preferring a model of growth that is not bound by the clamoring of the occluded past.

A master singing teacher with extensive experience at the highest levels of the music industry, Claude Stein has been developing the Natural Singer workshop method for some 30 years in all kinds of settings, from holistic centers to corporate leadership programs. He makes it known early in the weekend that a) if everyone tells their complicated singing story (and everyone, he says, has one), we’re not going to have time for much else; and b) why not go right for the gold, you know, bring it. Step up and sing right now. This is the moment. Claude builds a profoundly supportive atmosphere with just a few well-tested ground rules, group singing and a bunch of winning charisma. And then everyone goes out on the high wire alone, with witnesses. It’s awesome.

Catered to each individual, each song and each moment, Claude Stein’s teaching method is a marvel to watch and to receive: a study in fluid spontaneity, interpretive sensitivity and methodological depth. Claude spends much of his hands-on instruction time behind a digital piano, engaging in a largely sung call-and-response with students. Even the most self-doubting singers are made to feel comfortable and coaxed to grow their sound. Claude moves effortlessly among technical and physical considerations and the choices of interpretation, intention and expression from which no singer, no matter how inexperienced, is excluded.

I know that I arrived at the Natural Singer workshop ready and even eager to share my troubled life story as a singer, assuming that the past needs to be “worked through” in order to liberate the voice in the present.

CS: Why practice saying or reinforcing a limitation, a limiting historical belief? Why practice that if you’re not doing it in a way that moves you forward? For me, it’s much faster to defy and triumph over the past right away. Do we need to go into the past? Occasionally, yes; but only as a leverage point. If I can get the shy person to stand on a chair and confidently sing, defying the critic, defying the history, you can have a reframed singing experience. My focus is on building a profound human connection amongst participants and helping people to sing better, whether it is an emotional, physical or musical thing. I pass out index cards and say, “What would you like to get from this?” I don’t ask, “Where have you been hurt? What’s your issue?”

The technique you often use of singing to and with students, navigating the expressive challenges and opportunities of a particular song and of the singer in that moment – it’s pretty remarkable to watch and experience.

CS: Songs are vehicles for growth. I begin by offering short call-and-response affirmations with a well chosen evocative piano accompaniment, and simple lyrics that align what’s in the heart and mind of the student. Once they are less self-conscious and focused on message and intention, I can let the songs do a lot of the work for me. The deeper work – the triumph over the past I was talking about – really comes from the songs: getting inside the lyrics and discovering and employing those intentions. That is the key to authenticity. Being in the moment with what the singer could want by singing those words. Not just the ego-driven, search for validation, The method comes from having a good understanding of songs themselves, being an arranger, a keen sense of when a word in the lyric really aligns with the musical content and the arrangement. It’s the essence of good songwriting. Also, I can spot what the singer maybe hasn’t tried before. I can say, “This person’s not painting with the blue paintbrush. Let me give them a little bit of that.” And it’s funny: The thing that you have not practiced much is very, very powerful. The person who is shy and all of a sudden you get her, you know, guns blazing – you can’t take your eyes off it. Songs welcome and elevate the whole range of human emotion, and we’re not limited by our personalities and sense of worthiness, which are shaped by the desire to succeed and the avoidance of embarrassment and failure.

When you lead workshops at places like Omega or in your home studio workshops, I assume your clients are kind of “all-in.” They either know your work already or are seekers/explorers by nature. Is it any different in corporate settings, where some of the clients might be questioning the return on investment?

CS: The big difference is that we’re not there to sing better. The primary agenda is to be better aligned with the mission and values of the organization, and that is always a humanistic goal, no matter how much we think generating dollars is the primary motivator, or perhaps fear of failure. We’ll write leadership goals on cards. Some will say, “I want more authority,” some will say, “I want to be more approachable and empathetic.” I use the same exact coaching. I will work with a leader, let’s say, who has a reputation for standoffishness, and we’ll get him singing “Row, row, row your boat…step inside and row with me, let’s do this together.” And the audience explodes with genuine applause: “George, for the first time, I felt your heart, your caring.” We address gravitas, humor, authenticity and confidence-building alongside the technical skills of projection, eye contact, gesture and so on; but the music puts the sentient quality, the emotion, into it. Invariably, they love it. They genuinely become leaders more aligned with the humanistic and noble value statements that are literally engraved, chiseled into the walls.