When you have a "bad voice" day

Every once in a while I get myself painted into a corner, and I realize I have to go back to basics. A practice session gone bad can go something like the following. Caution: this is an attempt to capture stream-of-consciousness!

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Hmm, I’m hearing that pulled-down throaty sound in the recording. Ah, now can feel it happening! /a/ should be brighter, I’ll try to let it stay buoyant and bright. But shit, now I’m breathing high and tight and I’m totally self-conscious and trying to fix things. Here I go again, making it difficult. I know I need to NOT pull my tongue back and do that veiled, woofy thing. But thinking about NOT doing something is really hard. What can I think of to do in its place? All my vowels sound dull and flat, but “brightening” them just adds a new layer of angst to everything? Argghhhh!! I’ve been through all this before, and I do eventually get out of it. Think, Brian, think!

Let me go back to basics. So often, working on very simple, calm onsets gets me out of my pickle. Little starts, shortish notes, so that I can focus on beginnings. /a/ five times, with little refreshes between. There we go, nothing fancy, just a clear “ah” without a big windup, without a huge heaving inhale, just “ah”. Now, what happens if I do a little swell on that clear onset? Oh my, it feels like nothing’s happening, yet it sounds much better. Can I trust “nothing”? Yes, you idiot, when you set up the right conditions, you get the right responses, and the interfering tensions are not even in the picture…..

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One of the things that I have gotten much better at, is giving myself lots of latitude in solving problems. I have messed myself up before, and I will again, but I also know that with every passing year, I learn how to get myself out of my vocal messes more easily. I’ve helped myself and lots of other people solve their vocal self-destruct tendencies many times in the past, and I will again! So now I don’t feel like flinging myself off the balcony every time I sing like a pig. I try to be kind to myself, step back, and look at the big picture. I know my tendencies. I know the conditions I need in which to sing my best. I also know what frame of mind I need to be in to keep myself open to the possibility of improvement, of singing better than before, which is by definition a great unknown. Getting more comfortable with uncertainty is a big lesson of singing for me. There are principles that should produce predictable results, but we humans are constantly growing and changing, therefore there are always unfamiliarities cropping up. Being open to change, to the unknown, is a prerequisite to improvement.

The other thing to remember is that it’s OK to ask for help. Realize when you need it, learn how to state a problem clearly, without ego involvement, without judging yourself, and find yourself the best people you can to consult. Then the big challenge when others are involved – listening! Do you hear completely what your trusted team is telling you? Are you willing to try what they say? How many people have to say the same thing to you before you are willing to face the possibility that it’s true? How many times does each person need to say the same thing? I know that I have had several vocal issues to work on that I have avoided the first one, two, five, or ten times that I noticed them. Then suddenly I decide that it’s time to lick that particular problem. We have to forgive ourselves and keep moving. I go through a brief period of cursing my laziness from time to time, and then I get over it and move on.

Each time I repeat all that stuff above, it gets easier to deal with. That is one of the advantages of “maturity”. You learn that you’re going to make mistakes, progress isn’t always in a straight line, and you really can solve problems. And so you do.

One thought to “When you have a "bad voice" day”

  1. I think that sometimes good singing teachers are people who have the ability to analyze and who are also really sensitive to others. Unfortuneatly, these abilities can get in the way of our own singing. Your solution to start with simple onsets and learning to not judge yourself too harshly are exactily how I started out my warm up before team-teaching a three hour choral workshop this past Sunday.

    Excellent observations!

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