My good friend Justin Petersen recently published a beautiful blog post titled Bells Cannot be Unrung. It reminded me of my study with David Christopher, who was always emphasizing that improving the singer’s concepts, prior to the moment of singing, is the main work of voice lessons.
Another great teacher of mine, George Gibson, spoke often of a physical and emotional attitude of “uplift” that should always be present in singing. Many other teachers over the last 300 years have had some mention of “pleasant expression”, inside and outside “smiling”, and related facial postures with the cheeks and eyes. This was always talked about as both a physical and a mental thing.
The “up” attitude seems to help almost everyone. It is a good canvas on which to paint. Even when the lyrics and melody are somber or angry, they are expressed better from one who generally finds joy in singing. People who are joyless are rarely good performers. That may seem obvious, but if you hang out with enough musicians, you will find too many full of anguish, anxiety, frustration, or sadness trying desperately to advance their performing careers without having first awakened to the attitudinal problems that are holding them back.
If your singing is a habitually serious or aggressive act, you have a greater tendency to have problems with intonation, vibrato, reaching high pitches, and varying dynamics. You are also probably not moving or charming people. Experiment with putting on different attitudes and emotions while singing the same musical passages. In other words, see what singing “as if” feels like. Try singing as if you are holding back laughter, or as if you are holding your new grandchild, or as if you are smelling beautiful flowers. Then try singing after spending a minute thinking about your biggest regrets, your tax bill, or someone who has wronged you. If you record these experiments you will probably hear the power of thoughts and moods influencing your singing.
These attitudinal and affective concepts are as important as the functionalist’s concepts of pitch, vowel, volume, and timbre, but they are harder to define and quantify. Sometimes these positive backdrops to your singing will be there without effort because you are having a great day, or you are singing repertoire you love, or you are getting great vibes from your fellow artists.
Other times you may have to sing when you aren’t feeling well, or your duet partner has vulture breath, or something bad has just happened to you. Learning how to crank up an attitude, to lift yourself up inside, even to fake enthusiasm or other positive emotions, can get you ready to perform. The better results then lead you to feel more consistent and confident, and eventually the preparation to sing can feel easier and more positive with less and less effort. Who doesn’t want that?