Something to hang on to

A tiny baby will grab your finger if you put it in the palm of her hand. This is the “grasp reflex”. The body has many such reflexes to stimuli. The grasp reflex, however, is a special one in terms of its metaphorical meaning. The English language is full of references to the need to grasp something. “Holding on by a thread”, “needing something to hold on to”, “can’t let it go”, “seize the opportunity” – all refer metaphorically to the primal idea of grasping.

When we are perplexed, we want an answer. We are more likely to accept a horrible answer than to have no answer at all. We hate the void. We want a thing to hold on to. We see this in religion, where some people need to have literal, “fundamental” truths, while others can tolerate the concept of eternal mystery. Being able to forge ahead “on faith” rather than “hard evidence” is another way to phrase this subject.

Many singers, me included, have concepts that they hang on to, as “the way”. The way to sing high notes, the way to breathe, the way to articulate fast scales. When we decide that we want to improve one of those things, however, we must do something different. We must let go of the thing we have held. For some people, this is unthinkable unless there is something new to hold on to immediately. Others have a higher tolerance for letting go of the old before something new is available.

If you can possibly stomach it, I encourage you to revisit the the things you hold on to, and let them go for a time. You learn fascinating things. For example, a voice with too much loose air in the phonation can often benefit from practicing glottal onsets for a while. But after the voice becomes efficient with the air, are glottal onsets needed all the time? Are other onsets now possible? Can the voice gain even further efficiencies by letting go of glottal and starting the sound “out of thin air” or encourage “spontaneous combustion of sound” or some other way that you haven’t looked at for a while/ever?

Another example: You were always taught to take a breath “as low as possible” – fill your body with air right down to the babymaker. But you have a section of a song in which you seem to “run out” of air, or there isn’t time to breathe. What if you let go of the “low as possible” breath and quickly inflated your chest in the microseconds in which a breath can be taken in a fast tempo? Would it hurt to try that?

There are “meta” ideas that voice teachers hang on to as well. One is “it would be great if we could all agree on a common terminology”. I’ve heard this dozens of times. But is that true? How can we really know that it’s true? What are some ways that the opposite is just as true? What are some ways that a wide variety of talking about the voice might be helpful to learners?

I’m not saying “anything goes” or “everything can work”, and I loathe the sentiment “we all want the same thing”, because we clearly don’t and probably shouldn’t. Instead, wouldn’t it be groovy if we could freely discuss our different approaches and react to each with “hmm, that’s different, tell me more about how you use that”. I’ll try to follow my own advice.


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