My Biggest Vocal Mistake
Recently I subbed for my church choir. I had been the Tenor section leader/soloist for a few years but resigned two and a half years ago. I had a similar position in Greenwich, Connecticut when I lived in New York. Classical Singers will be familiar with these “Church Jobs”.
The catch-22 with these positions is often a voice that is well suited to being a soloist is not well suited to singing in a choir. That’s not to say they can’t do it. It is just not as comfortable.
I know there are plenty of singers that have shared my experience. I never felt comfortable singing in the choir. Especially in the choirs I have sung in, which have been small and I have been either the only tenor or one of two.
Which magnifies the catch-22, if you sing at a comfortable level, because of the tessitura you will stick out and not blend. If you sing lighter the part doesn’t have enough presence because of the small number of singers.
What I always fell into was the bad habit of holding back, or muting, my voice. This creates some serious imbalances in the instrument because there is too much resistance to the air pressure. It follows that the act of singing becomes much more work than it should be.
The reason I tell this story is because this particular recent Sunday I felt totally comfortable through the whole service. I sat there between hymns thinking, “I can finally truly sing. I can do what I want with my voice. I don’t have to resort to singing either full or disconnected.”
Those were basically my choices for years. Now, this is not to say that I couldn’t sing. I’m talking about a level of coordination that is beyond what the listener can distinguish. You can sound good to others a long time before you reach a level that is satisfying to your sensation.
But the key for me has been what I have learned and committed to over the past nine months or so. And that is accepting that I naturally have a lower tenor voice. This makes it harder to sustain the tessitura of most choral music.
As a result of that change of mindset I am able to approach the challenges of the choral repertoire in a more successful way. This is an example of learning to see the reality of my situation like I discussed in a blog post last year. http://vocalwisdom.com/facing-reality/ (as I said, we all need to do it)
So by understanding what the true nature of my voice actually is I can now know what will be necessary to deal with the challenges I will face in various repertoire. This may very well be the ultimate reason we must understand the nature of our unique voice. So we have an accurate expectation of what is needed to meet the challenge of the repertoire.
I’ve heard it before from others, they believe their voice is a soprano but they have difficulty with higher notes. Or any variation of this. I thought I was a lyric, then a lyric-spinto tenor. But I could never deal with the tessitura of the repertoire. I always thought that I just needed to improve some more and then I’d be able to do it. But it never happened, even as I improved quite a bit.
At some point we have to realize that it is not a problem with the coordination. It is a problem with the conceptualization. Because I believed my voice to be lighter than it naturally is I unconsciously altered my voice to fit that concept.
Once I changed my concept my function became more complete and everything became much easier to sing. I guess it basically comes down to we absolutely must use our voice. Our true voice. Not what we believe our voice to be or worse, what we want our voice to be. Unfortunately we can’t get the voice we want. We can only have the voice we are born with.
Of course we can want to use the voice to its greatest potential. But that must be based on what it actually is.
And that is my biggest vocal mistake. Allowing myself to avoid my true nature.
Even with the knowledge and understanding of the voice I have gained over all of these years it was still possible for me to fall into the trap.
The frustrating part for me is my gut has been telling me this for a long time. Even as far back as College. But because “everybody is a lyric something” in College I had that mindset ingrained. So I modeled the great lyric tenors of Fritz Wunderlich, Luciano Pavarotti and Jussi Björling.
As a result most of the teachers I worked with never really considered the possibility that I wasn’t a lyric tenor. Even in my 30s when I would experiment with Otello in my lessons it was hard to feel permission to really go that direction. Especially since it felt right. It felt like where my voice wanted to be. Although mine was more like a child Otello at that time than a Big Boy.
It is interesting that a teacher I consulted with for a while a few years ago compared my voice to Jon Vickers. Who was a Dramatic/Helden tenor. So I wonder why he didn’t suggest I explore that repertoire. Because the Dramatic/Helden repertoire is quite different than lyric and Lyric-Spinto. It is written with a lower center and more emphasis on the middle and low voice. And coincidentally is exactly where I am now. The repertoire I am learning just happens to be what Jon Vickers sang.
Considering the fact that my voice always felt more comfortable in the low and middle range, and had strength there, now it makes complete sense that my voice fits that category. But it is hard to make that move.
Which is why I want to talk about it so others that might be dealing with similar issues can find some help.
An odd byproduct of this situation is when you sing lighter it is difficult or even impossible to sing high. But when the voice is connected as it is meant to be and more completely active high notes that seemed unreachable become a natural part of the range.
On the surface it seems backwards because we think we should be able to sing higher if we lighten up. But the reality is by “lightening up” we are really disconnecting so the instrument doesn’t have the stability it needs to adjust for the complete range.
It just doesn’t seem like the completely active voice would be easier to negotiate the high range, especially with a more intense voice. But that is exactly how it is. And why every voice needs to be used completely.
Another aspect of this mistake of mine has to do with a unique characteristic of my voice. I have always had an intense ring/metallic quality in my tone. This is just there naturally and easily. It is not a result of pinching or forcing the voice. And it increases as the scale is ascended. But it has always made it feel like I am singing louder than everyone else if I sing in a healthy, complete manner.
This is a major trap for singers with an intense voice. Because what I mistakenly did was disconnect to diminish that natural “ping”. Which when discussing it sounds idiotic because that is the quality that many people are trying to achieve. But with inaccurate expectations and trying to fit in it is easy to make this mistake.
The result is things never really coordinate and the voice sounds difficult and just not right. One thing that needs to be understood for anyone dealing with this is that it isn’t completely a self-inflicted problem. All voices tend to be more difficult to coordinate the bigger or more intense they are. So they do require a deeper understanding because they tend to be less naturally automatic.
I am thankful that I am finally singing to my full potential. I am working on repertoire that is challenging but that I can comfortably sing through without difficulty. Which happens to have the reputation of being the most difficult repertoire in the tenor category. But that is another lesson in itself. Because supposedly easier repertoire is impossible for me.
Please leave comments or questions below, especially if you have had experience dealing with these types of issues. Thanks.