Why have fine china if you always eat off of paper plates?

Most of my students and I share a common human failing – clinging to old habits because forging new ones is hard. Furthermore, the old habits feel like who we are, and new abilities feel unlike who we are. Yet some people I know are so open and able to become “someone new” in a sense.

In the last few years I have read Anthony Frisell’s book “The Tenor Voice”, Denes Striny’s “Head First”, Stephen Smith’s “The Naked Voice”, Walter Foster’s “Singing Redefined”, Thomas Hemsley’s “Singing and Imagination”, Garcia’s “Hints on Singing”, Cornelius Reid’s “Essays on the Nature of Singing” (and other books by Reid), the complete blogs of Jeannette LoVetri and Jean-Ronald-LaFond, much of Susan Eichhorn-Young’s blog, among many other books, articles, blogs, internet discussions, and the like. I read everything I can get my hands on about singing. Some of the writings above are fantastic and some are bad. All are motivated by some truth, and have something to offer. Oftentimes one author’s ideas only make sense when cross-referenced with experience and/or the writings of another author. Years of study, trial and error, and plain old thinking help me to glean the good and ignore the unhelpful.

In my own voice study and performance in the last decade I went from four years of weekly lessons with one beloved teacher, to monthly lessons with a different teacher who has much to offer, and whose counsel I value very much. For several years I have also had biweekly coachings, have sung in masterclasses, music festivals, voice recitals, musicals, opera, revues, and have tried to put myself “out there” above and beyond what is required to be a typical singing teacher with a home studio in suburbia and several degrees in flute performance and education.

Why do all of this studying and performing? Am I trying to be the best darned teacher ever? No, at the root of it all is a deep personal curiosity about how I can solve my own singing problems. I made a commitment when I came back to singing in 2003 after some time off, that I would “get this figured out”. Well, that is an elusive goal, but I sure have learned a lot!

Recently, I decided to try to bring the baby back in without the bathwater, and have picked up my flute again. There is a sort of musical and spiritual balance trying to take hold, as I am no longer so obsessed with just flute or voice. I really would like to keep both in my professional and personal life. There is room. There was NOT room in the past. My mind and spirit have changed. I have deep relationships with both flute and singing, and I want to honor those.

I have gathered a LOT of knowledge about how the voice works. I have been guided to some lovely singing moments by wonderful coaches and teachers. Yet, a part of me has left some potential excellence in reserve. I am very aware that this is real. It’s like a part of me is frightened to move from novice to professional, even while I am already nominally a “professional”. There are issues about changing my “sound” that are still fascinatingly stubborn. There are some beautiful tenor sounds that I now can make that only one other person has ever heard me make, and they scare the shit out of me, because they are “not how I sing”. I am very aware of this phenomenon in myself and in those I teach.

In my particular case, as a tenor, I have really had an odd vocal adolescence. I have for a long time had a good high C-sharp, and range has never been an issue for me. Hearing me vocalize for the first time, I have often gotten the comment “you might be a baritone” until they hear how the voice gets lighter and brighter, and easily ascends to the high notes. But size and resonance have been elusive, with various dead spots, blandness, and nasality popping up all over the place. Usual diagnosis: “fine musician, so-so voice”.

In the last few months, my teacher has showed me the way to something new, yet I have stubbornly clung to my old ways of singing. In my last lesson I blurted out “I keep losing my religion!”. He and I both know that it’s time to move along, to the next thing that I am able to do, to sing with this new sound – one that works better, sounds better, and sounds unlike “how Brian (usually) sounds”. I have to make the leap, and I am ready. This whole adventure is about to get wild and crazy. It’s time! I will make mistakes. I will occasionally go down a blind alley but it’s time to go to the next phase of what Brian is becoming vocally. If I don’t go there, I should just stop studying and coaching, because I would not be using what I have learned. And not just learned so that I KNOW, but have learned so that I can DO.


7 Replies to “Why have fine china if you always eat off of paper plates?”

  1. Thanks for such an inspiring and heartfelt post, Brian!

    My motivation for teaching has a lot of overlap with yours. Poor early vocal instruction layered on top of some leftover bad habits from years of playing the clarinet set me up for some big issues when I finally started to develop a free singing technique.

    I tell my students that I have yet to have someone show up with a problem I didn't already have to solve for myself. If I can do it, then they can too!

    All the best, Claudia

  2. A very thought-provoking post. I identify with the need to work on one's own vocal problems. I do that by being a volunteer choir member and soloist in a Lutheran church choir. (I am not a member of the congregation, but am there because of the wonderful music program.)

    I also identify with being incorrectly pegged. I am (I finally realize at the age of 60) a dramatic mezzo with a big voice, however because it has a bright timbre, and I've always had a rock solid high G and high A (the latter only if I can sing as loud as my instrument needs to), I'm always put in the soprano section in a choir. This is fine. Second soprano is probably the part that suits me best.

    I studied seriously in my 20s, stopped singing at 30, and started again at 54. I am probably singing better than I ever have in my whole life and am currently on a roll learning Amneris. I mean at my age that and an $89 metrocard will get me a month of subway rides but I'm doing it for me. I am always on the lookout for places to produce concerts where I can sing the repertory I love (and people to sing with) and churches and nursing homes seem to a great venue. Churches always need money so I can get a place to sing in return for which I will gladly give the ticket money to them for capital repairs, or whatever. And there are lots of volunteers to bake and put up flyers.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience, Brian. Change is always challenging, especially when it concerns something as personal as your voice. Here's wishing your courage and strength as you continue to explore!

  4. Although not the primary point of this great blog post, what really resonated with me is your comment about getting a lot of different perspectives and using one to help you understand another. This is not what we are encouraged to do as singers. We are encouraged to become loyal to one teacher and one philosophy. I did this as a youngster to my detriment.

    I too am going through some changes right now and having a small identity crisis. I've always thought of myself as a middle-voice singer, and my teacher wants me to lighten up and take the weight off of the middle voice to improve the high notes. It doesn't feel comfortable with my vocal image just yet.

  5. Beautiful post, Brian! Keep sharing in this very open way. It is so very very encouraging.

    On a related note, I play the recorder quite seriously. I had stopped playing it for a few years because of time factors. It found me back during a trip to Zwickau, Schumman's hometown. Perhaps someday we should play the Quantz trio-sonata for alto recorder and transverse flute.

    Keep searching! The goal of achieving your best singing is far from illusive. It is simply time-consuming. We are patient not because we are hiding behind a process but rather it is that process that yields the very results we want. Keep the faith my fellow pilgrim on the road to vocal bliss. And thank you again for a terrific blog!

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