Swan Song for the “Ideal Self”
In my most secret fantasies, I’m Melody Gardot, Nina Simone and Madeleine Peyroux.
Maybe I’m their collective diva lovechild.
In these fantasies, not only can I sing, I give the gift of sensuous, sparkling soul-filled energy that spills out of my pores into music so compelling, so honest and raw that performances are experiments in human connection rather than a talent show.
I’m actually the girl who cried in front of her high school French class when the assignment was to sing “Champs Elysees” in front of everyone. I’m the instrumental musician who envied her instrument’s ability to hit a pitch accurately. I’m a liquid courage fiend at a karaoke bar where I surreptitiously hold the microphone just a bit too far to pick up much of anything.
In short, it’s always felt like a bit of a tragedy that I wasn’t born singing. But there it was, a bad, weak, shameful singing voice. So embarrassing.
Something happened a month ago. Something completely unexpected.
I went to Kripalu for a 3-day workshop with Claude Stein, a startlingly talented vocal coach and songwriter. His workshop is called The Natural Singer. It’s for folks who sing or have always wished they could sing; it “fosters deep musical and humanistic breakthroughs by combining basic vocal skills with personalized performance exercises.”
And dudes, yes. Just… yes.
It turns out that Claude also teaches private vocal lessons in NYC, so badabingbadaboom, I’ve got myself a vocal coach. I’m taking voice lessons. (!!!!!!)
Right now I’m working on Van Morrison’s Moondance and Ella Fitzgerald’s Summertime and I’ve even given short performances for select audiences. (Read: the man, the cat, the neighbors and the fried catfish stand outside my apartment, but whatever. They heard me; ergo audience.)
It turns out, actually, that singing is something you can learn.
(Holy crap. I know how to learn!)
And even more importantly, learning to sing naturally runs parallel to developing courage and fullness of self.
Here’s the thing: it’s not really about singing at all. It’s about declaring “here’s my voice,” getting your body, vocal chords, and breath on board, telling your brain to seriously shut the hell up for two minutes, and then going for it. Because, as Claude puts it, your voicebox is so close to your heart that singing is family to speaking your truth.
Here’s a bit of my learning so far, reduced down to thick syrupy goodness:
1. Energizing is the answer, and volume is everything.
Claude will actually tell you that for the beginner “volume is *f&*^ing* everything.”
To expand range into those high and low parts of your voice that even you don’t like listening to, he says you gotta get behind it, make it big, make it loud, make it operatic. Strengthen and stretch those places. Only by moving into the margins and playing at the limits of your range will the natural median and comfort range expand.
This is true in life too, right? To make it real, you kick your ass in gear, get behind it, throw caution to the wind and just go.
Moreover, every songwriter, every lyric and verse wants something from you. When you live and love every word that comes out of your mouth like pieces of chocolate so divine you don’t want to swallow – when you’re that invested in what you’re communicating, real connection follows.
2. For God’s sake, give yourself some breathing room.
What would happen if we put some breathing room around the concept of “failure”? What if we put some room around “success”? Or “mistakes”? Or “experiments”?
What if, instead of fidgeting, or laughing nervously, or excusing ourselves, we said, ok, this moment is awkward. In this moment, I feel silly. I feel exposed. I feel really fucking scared to sing in front of a room of other people. OK; may it be.
What about allowing for the “death of the ideal self”?
What if I still sing off-pitch sometimes, and I’ll never earn money doing it, but I love singing – can I really call myself a singer? Huh. Hmm. Breathing room.
3. Move toward the more rather than the absolute.
Part of what makes my vocal coach so impressive is that he doesn’t read music. For serious.
You say hmmmm, I’d like to sing “Yellow Submarine” or “Rehab” and BOOM he’s on it. Or, I dunno, here’s this little thing I’ve been humming, let’s turn it into a waltz. Or whatever. He plays by ear and by gut, and he figures out the music as he goes along.
I trained as an instrumental musician for a number of years, and I need sheet music like oxygen. Without having something to read, something that will tell me what to do and when and how, I’m a sick sad lost little puppy.
But Claude doesn’t let me do that. I have to learn where to come in by feeling it, experimenting, listening, counting the measures until the bridge. It’s terrifying. It’s expansive.
There’s no absolute answer when you learn to sing this way. The solution: improvise. Trust your gut. Try to sing more in tune rather than perfectly in tune because there is no set standard for “right.”
For anyone who learned to play music in school ensembles and was taught to “play it right,” this is a huge shift. And for those of us who want answers, who research and strategize and plan before taking any sort of action – it’s a fascinating dare.
What if I just said “go” and didn’t give you a road map or a destination? It’s sexy, yes?
That’s a long post.
I know, I know. But seriously, yo – this resonates immensely with my heart of hearts, so thanks for bearing with me. This is so exciting, such a massive, magical, miraculous shift in my concept of possibility.
Thinking about the prospect of actually becoming who you wish you were instead of pining away after your lost self is so powerful it makes me want to throw up and go supernova all at the same time.
Tell me, have you ever in your life experienced something like that? I can’t possibly be alone in this.