One lesson, two lessons

Most singers admit that voice lessons have the potential to be equal parts therapy and education, and that voice teachers should probably have degrees in psychology as well as in music.

As I drove to my voice lesson earlier this week I was in a mood that my mother describes as “cranked”. I’d received a frustrating email just before getting in the car, and I was feeling like everyone’s last priority.  I spent most of the drive ruminating on certain ways in which I feel aggrieved, a habit which I am mature enough to know is unproductive but not mature enough to stop.

Walking to my voice lesson I tried to shake it off. I knew I would have an unproductive lesson if I didn’t clear my head. When my teacher and pianist asked me “How are you?” I didn’t launch into my list of complaints, I just said I was good and got ready to work.

We started warming up, repeating figures that weren’t quite right and tweaking things as we went. In the back of my mind I was still preparing for a melt-down, but instead something completely new happened: I took refuge in focusing. For the first time in my life I really left my problems at the door and found peace in knowing that all I had to work on during those 60 minutes was the calibration of my movements to facilitate the best possible singing.

Leaving certain problems behind doesn’t mean no problems are going to take their place, which is exactly what happened later in the lesson, when my teacher suggested I release a small bit of jaw tension on a handful of words and phrases.

When someone says “this note is not right” what most singers hear is “you are a terrible singer and a disgrace”. As I struggled to eliminate the tension that was making a few spots in my singing less-than-ideal, that old wave of doubt washed over me. The tape in my head started going: you have terrible technique. You will never be good. All of your singing is awful. You have unfixable habits. You will never be able to do this.

I thought about all the singers in the world who don’t have jaw tension. I don’t know any personally, but I imagined some group of “they” out there who are highly sought-after and tension-free and perfect and whom I would never be like. Of course I want to be like them because of course they have it all figured out and have perfect lives!

Once again, an epiphany: People who have figured out their technical issues with singing are not inherently better than I am. My technique (which overall is quite good, if I’m being objective) is not a comment on my character. I am free to be frustrated with a peccadillo in that it keeps me from a particular goal, but it doesn’t make me a bad person.

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure this out. But how many of us spend much time affirming that we’re really not so bad after all?

An old concert photo. Because why would I have a photo of myself in a lesson?

An old concert photo. Because why would I have a photo of myself in a lesson? by J. Justin Bates

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3 Responses to One lesson, two lessons

  1. I’m very grateful for having encountered such a kindred spirit. Thanks for revealing yourself through the inter-webs.

    I had the blessing of an amazing percussion instructor for a good 4 or 5 years while in school band all those years ago. We bonded in a mentor relationship and while I didn’t apply myself technically I owe a significant debt to him for his contribution to my personal development. We would have hour long lessons and spend a third to half of it in conversation. Part of me laments my laziness. Had I dedicated myself to the craft and really practised I could probably be playing music for a living but my lack of progress may have made more room for the relationship. A larger part of me is glad I live a diverse vocation. The technique, rusty as it is, I still apply to my musical hobby but those conversations, and the fruit of that bond I apply everywhere and always.

    I’ve been without a musical mentor for too long and should really seek one out again. You mentioned tension and I find that it is the real enemy in life. I’ve experienced transcendent moments (in music, prayer, and life) when the tension eases and the barriers to expression, experience and divine union all but evaporate. The greatest contributions of great mentors are the environment of trust they create where external stress can be abandoned and then in this environment they help us discover and release the tension within ourselves. I don’t think I could sustain weekly lessons at this point but a monthly meeting with such a person would be a boon. Well maybe quarterly as I’d love to find a Greenland kayaking mentor and a regular spiritual director should be a priority as well.

    I couldn’t help but be reminded of this interview with the incomparable Shara Worden. http://mybrightestdiamond.com She is an amazing artist and a source of tremendous inspiration.

    “Be brave, dear one.
    Be changed or be undone.”

    My Brightest Diamond – “Be Brave” from stereogum on Vimeo.

  2. Filicemifa lessons

    I’m very grateful for having encountered such a kindred spirit. Thanks for revealing yourself through the inter-webs.
    http://kerilatimer.bandcamp.com/track/kindred-spirit

    I had the blessing of an amazing percussion instructor for a good 4 or 5 years while in school band all those years ago. We bonded in a mentor relationship and while I didn’t apply myself technically I owe a significant debt to him for his contribution to my personal development. We would have hour long lessons and spend a third to half of it in conversation. Part of me laments my laziness. Had I dedicated myself to the craft and really practised I could probably be playing music for a living but my lack of progress may have made more room for the relationship. A larger part of me is glad I live a diverse vocation. The technique, rusty as it is, I still apply to my musical hobby but those conversations, and the fruit of that bond I apply everywhere and always.

    I’ve been without a musical mentor for too long and should really seek one out again. You mentioned tension and I find that it is the real enemy in life. I’ve experienced transcendent moments (in music, prayer, and life) when the tension eases and the barriers to expression, experience and divine union all but evaporate. The greatest contributions of great mentors are the environment of trust they create where external stress can be abandoned and then in this environment they help us discover and release the tension within ourselves. I don’t think I could sustain weekly lessons at this point but a monthly meeting with such a person would be a boon. Well maybe quarterly as I’d love to find a Greenland kayaking mentor and a regular spiritual director should be a priority as well.

    I couldn’t help but be reminded of this interview with the incomparable Shara Worden. http://mybrightestdiamond.com She is an amazing artist and a source of tremendous inspiration.

    “Be brave, dear one.
    Be changed or be undone.”

    • felicemifa says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad to hear you are still putting your skills to use! It is difficult not to use the teacher/student relationship as therapy – it takes great discipline for me not to waste any time chatting. I haven’t had a chance to look at the video yet but I look forward to it.

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