Vocal Performance: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Mostly what I do as a teacher of voice technique, is to help singers train their voices to be able to emit tones that are full, rich and beautiful. We work on building what is commonly called the mix, in order that students can learn to sing over the different passages in their voices in a smooth and blended fashion. Yet, technique is not the entire picture. A singer doesn’t go on stage and sing scales to an audience.
I remember once, after I had been studying with Seth Riggs for only a couple years, I was just beginning to understand how to sing in a mix. I had a fairly big performance, and I was singing a rather difficult piece of music. After the program had ended, someone came up to me and told me, “You have a very lovely voice.” A few minutes later, someone else came up to me and said, “Your voice is so beautiful.” I probably had about 5 or 6 comments in quick succession that said something to the effect of, “Your voice is so lovely.”
At first I was thrilled. I thought, “Great! I must have nailed it!” But then, after considering things a bit, I came to realize that the comments were only about my “lovely voice,” and not at all about whether the listener had been affected by my performance in any way. I asked myself, “Well, where was my mind during my vocal performance?” The answer was clear. I was thinking only about my “lovely voice” and how to mix well. I rarely remembered to be present in the song at all. During my performance, I was completely focussed on my technique, and that’s exactly what the audience took away from me that evening: Guy has a lovely voice, and he gave a very forgettable performance.
You will find a lot of articles on my blog that discuss singing technique, and that is, more than anything, what I’m trained to teach. Mastering technique, however, is only the starting place for a singer. It is essential to remember that technique is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Technique will protect our voices from abuse, and give us access to things like color, shading, agility, textures, dynamics, range, and stamina. Yet, the singer must use technique, not be enslaved by it.
By all means, please do build a “lovely voice” for yourself; but don’t stop there. Your technical expertise is the palette, not the painting. You want your voice to be an instrument that is capable of transporting an audience from the darkened theater into unseen realms of their imagination. You want to be able to take a listener by the scruff of the neck and lead them on emotional journeys to places within themselves they never knew existed. You want to be a singer, not merely a vocalizer. This can never be accomplished if your end goal as a singer is only to be able to sing a scale through your passages smoothly.
Singing is one of the most challenging and important art forms there is. You must be constantly growing as an artist. In addition to your daily technical training, I encourage you to study things like music, dance, acting, art, stage craft and languages. Study other musical instruments so that you can understand the concept of melody and line from several musical perspectives. Push yourself to learn how to analyze texts, and song structures. Read the classics, as well as contemporary literature. Study history, classical mythology and poetry. Go to museums. Learn to draw and paint. As you expand your own artistic and intellectual horizons, you will then have more tools which can give you access to deeper layers of understanding of the human condition; this in turn will enhance your own understanding of the music you are singing.
As singers we are always training our voices, but we must also train our minds, our emotions and our bodies, so that we have at our disposal every possible key to unlock deeper and deeper layers of our performances.
Your training will never be finished. You will be growing as an artist until you take your very last breath on this earth. This is a very good thing.