Journal: Confessions of a Voice Teacher and/or Finding our Authentic Voice

February 27, 2014

I’m currently trapped on a train. I say trapped because we were supposed to depart two hours ago, but due to engine problems we’ve been sitting. Rather than stewing about not moving in my desired direction I’m going to stop putting off this writing I’ve been meaning to do for the last two weeks.

There’s actually a reason I’ve been putting it off. I needed some of this to simmer a bit… and maybe I still do, but I’d like to share about an experience I had a couple of weeks ago when I headed to my alma mater, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music for a voice symposium. This was only notable because it was the first time I had returned in 10 years and my return wasn’t just to attend the symposium but also participate, performing in a master class and having my vocal folds scoped in front of the group, much of which was documented on a radio broadcast I will include the link to below. 

The return itself was nuts – sights, smells, memories! Ah, such a crazy rush and you know what was even nuttier? When I got up to sing, the nerves were the same, too. I was transported back my 21 year old self - self-conscious and hopeful. I hadn’t felt that way in … well, 10 years! 

I sang “Feelin’ Good,” originally made famous my Nina Simone and more recently by Michael Bublé. Oh, one quick side note – Oberlin’s training is strictly classical. In that, all their students exclusively study opera and art song. If they’re singing anything else… well, it’s on their own time. This symposium was unique for the institution as it investigated the questions that still remain about the function of our voice as it relates to various styles. Most science has been dedicated to the classical vocal tradition – but so many of us are singing in so many different ways.

Anyway, back to “Feelin’ Good.” I did all right.  I mean, I was nervous and the tune was kind of new to me, but I felt like I laid down a fairly solid performance. 

But, as performance goes, what we perceive is sometimed different from our audience. In short, things were about to get real. A well-known pedagogue whom, I’ll refer to as Ms. L (You can look up who she is, but for our purposes I’ll stick to an initial) was the weekend’s featured teacher and coach. She responded to my performance with little to no favor. In fact, the first thing she said to me was “That was a brave choice.” Ouch! Oh, she followed that up by saying “Well, you made some sounds in there we didn’t like very much.”

Your fearless leader got schooled in front of the group and well… it Felt kinda Good.

When you’re working with a teacher of Ms. L’s caliber, whom my teacher, Richard Miller respected very much and who has worked so closely with the Otolaryngologists from the Voice Center at the Cleveland Clinic, getting schooled just means you’re in for some good learning. Some “hurts so good” learning. I’ll let the radio broadcast offer you more nitty gritty detail, but I will share a couple of Ms. L’s most impactful teaching moments. You know, the kind of teaching that raises more questions than it does provide answers?

First of all, Ms. L reminded me that you have to go down different paths to find new paths. She didn’t just mean this in terms of artistic expression or risk taking, but she was referring to the physicality of making a sound. Neurologically, we are wired based on habit. Pathways have been constructed! Some of them are conscious and some subconscious, but the pull is strong to repeat our actions in the exact same way we just did. The only problem is, the same actions will yield the same results. If I want different results I have to do things differently. Seems simple, right?

“Feelin’ Good” ends on some G’s that are pretty challenging (high!) for me. One might say I’d found myself pushing to achieve them. I could make them happen, but they seemed iffy at best. Ms. L asked me if I could sing them differently. Translation: quieter. She asked me three different times, but even though I kind of tried, I consistently found myself singing them in a squeezed, loud place? I made similar the same sounds almost every time, except for one time. I did something different… it was easier. Hmmm. A different path? Now, how to follow it?

Second, Ms. L also reminded me that as a singer, you must serve the song first, not yourself. Whoa. Sit on that for a minute. You mean, as a singer, I’m not the most important component of the song? Look, I know this in theory, but when you’re squeezin’ out them high notes, it’s hard not to have one singular focus: me, squeezin’ out them high notes. My effort becomes paramount and therefore I may at that moment not be able to serve. Despite my willingness emotionally to commit, or artistically to take the risk, physically I was stuck, and unable to submit to what the tune had to offer. It seemed that Ms. L felt my effort was causing an inauthenticity in my singing. Hmmm. How to find more freedom?

That same evening, I attended a recital where Ms. L was in the audience. Afterward, I inched my way over to her to just say a quick “Thanks!” I explained how I understood where she was going with her teaching and I really appreciated it. Rather than acknowledging I was on a good path or any positive feedback about my performance form earlier, Ms. L simply looked at me and said “Davin, you don’t know your voice.”


She went on to say that if I knew my instrument, I wouldn’t be pushing on those high notes.

Remember earlier when I said things got real? Well, now they got really real. 

I was kind of taken aback that my gratitude wasn’t met with the same. I actually was so taken aback that I took myself for a nice little walk to sulk. How could she say I didn’t know my voice? I mean, I’m a voice teacher! I help people get to know their instruments. How could I not know my own?

As I was walking that night, sulking, and thinking, I had a bit of a flash in the dark. 

She’s right. 
I’m pushing. I know that I’m pushing.

Could I in fact sing those high notes without pushing? 
Are there other paths? 
Is there a path that feels completely free?
By pushing, am I coming across as inauthentic?

Would I be serving the song better if I were able to find a path with more physical freedom?

By the next day, I had gotten over feeling sorry for myself and I spent the rest of the weekend beginning to dig into these questions and ideas. Specifically, I started to wonder about the idea of authenticity in singing. Ms. L’s comments stung because they implied I was being disingenuous with my singing and for me, that’s a real zing. Singing is my best expression of myself. An emotional and physical display. The true me. I don’t want to be a faker, I want to be real.

Recently on Facebook and Twitter I asked you all to share with me what you thought authenticity in singing meant. Here’s what you said:

“Singing the way it sounds in your heart.”
“With feeling and abandon!”
“Singing in the shower!”
“Singing without trying to sound like something.”
“Singing to the best of your ability without worry how you compare to others.”
“Transparent. Primal. Singing by what it feels like, not how it sounds.”
“Spirit Filled! Free and without technology.”

First off, thanks to each of you who shared! I think we can find some great insight based on these comments. Specifically, I’d like to call attention to a few words:
“without trying” 
“without worry” 
“feels like” 

Singing at its very best is a marriage between the physical and the emotional, but often we get caught up in one or the other. You see voice coaches on reality shows telling singers “You need to tap into the hurt from your past and just feel that a bit more,” despite the grimace on their face from not freely producing their sound. Conversely, I sometimes meet singers who have read every pedagogy book imaginable, but rarely can tap into the emotional freedom of letting out a risky sound. That’s why the words above are so important, because they capture the symbiosis nature of the two. You can’t give emotionally in an authentic way, if you’re not experiencing the type of physical freedom that won’t inhibit. Or, you can’t go for it physically, if you’re not emotionally willing to be present and commit. 

Oh, but there is one more essential component. You have to believe that this marriage can be true for you.  You may find this daunting, but if you’re like me, you’ll also find it invigorating and a nice justification for the long-term study of the voice.
When all was said and done, I knew the things Ms. L was saying prior to the master class, and although I even preached them to others I’m not sure I always believed them to be true for myself. I had grown accustomed to making some of those notes happen, forgetting there may be a different physical pathway that would allow me to let them happen. Have I found it yet? Not quite, but I took away some good tools (exercises and warm ups) for finding it – many of which I hope to share with you at your lessons. But most of all, I think I finally believe it can be true for me, too.

If you’d like to hear  me sing in the discussed master class and/or know a bit more about the voice symposium, check out this short piece from Cleveland Public Radio, WCLV 104.9: Oberlin Voice Symposium


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