The Well from which Flows the Spring of Song
By Michael J. Mayer
It is generally accepted that the Human Being consists of three parts, the Mind, Body, and Emotion. Often, Emotion is referred to as the spirit, soul, or heart. For the purpose of this article these terms will be considered interchangeable.
Researchers into peak performance are finding that physical performance is maximized when all three areas of the person are stimulated. For a singer this would entail a clear idea of the vowel and pitch in the Mind combined with an uplifted Emotion of joy of performance, stimulating a skillful use of the Body. The conscious use of all three parts of our being will always elicit better results because this is how the human is designed to operate. The problem is we usually aren’t taught this.
A personal experience can illustrate this point. I participated in many athletic activities growing up, Soccer, Track and Field, Baseball, Football. The one I was probably most skillful at was Basketball, although it was not the sport I was most successful at. I knew very well in my mind what to do, and my skills were comparable or better than others on the team, but I rarely performed at a level up to my potential. Looking back on the experience now, I can see that I was lacking the right emotional attitude. I don’t mean just positive thinking, that is something different. What I mean is approaching the game with the emotion of enjoyment, not fear. I remember one of the assistant coaches always reminding me to have fun. I think that was his way of trying to get me to play with confidence and joy of competition, rather than a feeling of fear of making mistakes and having to be perfect. That fear is a result of being concerned with the result, and not following Nike’s advice to “Just Do It”. What we don’t understand as youngsters, and even as adults sometimes, is that if we are overly concerned with the outcome we will block our natural ability to function freely and we will get the very result we are trying to avoid. This is the basis of “choking” in a high pressure situation. And it is this very situation that impeded me from fulfilling my potential.
Another activity I participated in that we can learn from was High Jumping. I was not as knowledgeable about high jumping as I was about basketball, or as skillful at it. But having done it I have observed some parallels to singing that can be informative. The physical technique of high jumping is fairly involved. It includes building strength and quickness in the muscles of the legs, as well as the back and abdomen to be able to coordinate the laying out and arching necessary. You need to learn the technique of the “Fosbury Flop”, which is the way to lay and roll over the bar backwards. This aspect alone takes a lot of time to develop the required coordination. Another important aspect is the run-up. A jumper has to measure the exact number of steps so they can build up enough speed and momentum to carry them over the bar under control. This process requires repeated corrections through trial and error to find the pattern of steps that feels comfortable and repeatable. It takes weeks and years of practice to perfect something that takes only a couple of seconds in competition.
In order for the athlete to be successful there are two more pieces to the puzzle. The mind and the emotion. As a jumper prepares for an attempt, they must visualize mentally every aspect of the jump. Each step of the run up, which may be anywhere from seven to ten steps, to the plant and take-off, to the lay-out and roll, ending with the landing. Next comes the emotional feeling of joy and enthusiasm. It takes a great deal of explosive energy to propel the body over a bar as high as seven feet. It is this emotional feeling that needs to provide the energy required to spur the body to take action. If the measuring has been figured accurately, the technique well ingrained, and concentration and focus kept along with a strong emotional impulse to provide sufficient energy, the jumper will be successful. But the timing has to be precise, and everything must come together at just the right moment.
Again, as in basketball, it was the emotional aspect that I was not in command of. When I would approach a jump, like many others, I would have a feeling of uncertainty. Occasionally I remember feeling confidant and “Just doing it”, and those were the times I was most successful. The problem was it was not a conscious decision, which affected my consistency, and that is the point I am trying to make. We need to make the use of our emotional personality a conscious decision and practice it to make it stronger.
Now, what does this have to do with singing? Some of you may already see some parallels while reading the description of high jump training. There is a great deal of physical technique to work out as well as mental visualization and preparation. But if it is not all coordinated with a productive emotional state, it will be wasted effort. The emotional state of the performer is the “X” factor. It is the most likely aspect to be left to chance, and end up being variable. This is why some of our performances are good and others not. If we want to develop consistency as a performer we need to call all three parts of our being into action, the mind, body, and emotion. When we accomplish this we get what psychologists call “the total response”.
The total response is the crux of security in singing. Allan Lindquest’s definition of security in singing was when “the impulse to sing is a spontaneous emotional response, free from fear, which expresses in melody and words the moods of man through the simple act of singing.” Many teachers and students never give themselves the opportunity to develop this total response because of being overly concerned with one aspect of the physical technique, like voice placement, breath control, larynx position or any of a dozen others. When the mind is locked onto one physical thing, there is no chance for the total response. Ironically, the cause of becoming fixated on one thing is fear, the very thing we eliminate through the total response.
Fear is a major issue for performers of all types. We have the fear of failure because we desire success. Fear is an element of what I call an ego based process. For example, if we think about ourselves when we sing rather than the music we are giving to others. Or we create a false self that is the embodiment of a “great” singer, i.e. becoming a Diva. Anytime the singing is about the performer instead of being about the music and the audience it is ego based. Now, I don’t want to sound too much like a therapy session, but as human beings this is a very real element of our personalities. And because our voice is so strongly associated with who we are it may be an even bigger issue for singers than for other performers or athletes. Fear is an automatic byproduct of desire. If we desire something we will always have some fear of not receiving it. So if we sing from an ego base, we are certainly going to be dealing with a fear response to some extant. Some ideas to avoid being ego based is to think of WHAT you are doing and not HOW you are doing.
When we judge ourselves during the act of singing we are operating from fear. This is the challenge, to sing from a place free from fear. Another idea is to always allow yourself to be wrong, even if you always intend to be right. This can be especially hard for a student since they are frequently being corrected by their teacher. But it can be done if we learn how to think in that way. In other words be indifferent to success or failure. I heard an interview with the great bass Giorgio Tozzi, and he said he “never set foot on a stage where he didn’t love the audience. It is extremely important that when you walk out onstage you want to communicate with them, give them something. To do that as an artist you need to leave your ego back in the cloakroom on a hook. Because when you are out on the stage there is no room for ego, there is only room for one thing and that is honesty. You’ve got to honestly want to communicate with your audience.” This is a perfect example of an artist who knew exactly where his singing came from.
Emotion is our stimulus to physical action. More specifically, by definition singing is an act of heightened emotional expression. Hearing this many performers immediately think of the emotions of the character they are portraying. We miss the true meaning of this statement. It is not the emotions of the character but our emotions that need to be heightened. If we go back to the earliest existence of humans, we can identify with the vocal outbursts of emotion that accompanied a victory over a wild animal, for instance. Over the course of our history these outbursts have become coordinated with the creation of music, giving us an artistic expression of emotion. Common emotions that are fitting for singing are love, joy, wonder, awe. It is these feelings that stimulate us to say something through song. If we hear a singer who “lacks feeling” then they really aren’t singing. It is merely pretty noise. Because singing is a physical manifestation of our emotional personality.
Now how do we go about learning to use our emotional personality in our singing. This past spring I held a workshop on this topic with some very interesting results. The intention was to proceed with no instruction of physical technique. We only addressed our emotional impulse. First we needed to find some situations that had meaning to the individual. The most common example is to identify someone that is special to you and imagine a situation where you would run into them unexpectedly in the course of your day. In your mind you need to see the situation unfolding as in real life. When you see the person our natural response is a reaction of joyful surprise. This response typically includes an inhalation that opens the throat and lifts the body and face in a buoyant manner. We can complete the exercise with some vocal exclamation of our joyful surprise, “Oh!”. Through this type of exercising of the imagination we can learn to elicit at will positive emotional responses. These positive emotional responses are the perfect preparation for our singing. The voice is primed to function spontaneously and automatically.
Through the experimenting we did in the workshop we found that if we consciously stimulated a positive emotion, there wasn’t any room for a fearful emotion. They are mutually exclusive emotions. So the answer for anyone suffering from performance anxiety is to train their singing to be from a positive emotion. In the subtitle I refer to our emotion as a well. If this well is empty from a blasé feeling, fear and anxiety will pour in. If we can fill this well with positive emotion there will be no room for any negative emotion.
Another interesting item that we addressed was the question of how this works with the emotion of the character we are portraying. As I said earlier, we are not feeling the emotion of the character, but our own emotion as an individual. As the performer, ourselves. This makes sense if the emotion of the character is happy or joyfully in love. But what if the character is supposed to be sad, or suffering. At first glance we would think that it wouldn’t work. But we found that the emotion of the music came through, even if it was different from the emotion we were stimulating in ourselves. In fact the emotional suffering of the character was more intense when we stimulated the joyful emotion in the singer. This may not be believable until you try it out. But each singer felt it for themselves and the listeners heard it. So in other words, we used the joyful surprise to wake up the emotional personality in the singer, and let the mood of the music and words to depict the emotion of the character.
Lamperti said that as a singer we need to have a cool head and a warm heart. This statement seems to be intended to keep the singer from becoming overly emotional in their performance. The voice is a delicate instrument and can’t withstand too much emotional eruption. It is in this manner that our emotional technique works for us in another way. It acts as a safety net, ensuring that we don’t go overboard and do “too much” of anything. In the process of learning the physical technique of playing our instrument, a common pitfall for the student is doing too much. Too much support, too much approximation of the vocal folds, too much breath, too much tone, too much low larynx, too much “in the mask”, etc. If we use our uplifting, buoyant emotional preparation we reduce the possibility of doing “too much” of anything and find that elusive balance that we continually seek.
I want to close with another quote of G.B. Lamperti.
“Your art is the fulfillment of your elemental desire to sing. Your growth is stimulated by what you hear and understand. If you faithfully do your daily practice, without anxiety about the result, you will find yourself competent in the end. You must stop at no stage of progress, anchor to no habit, be satisfied with no result, exult in no success. All the details of singing are finally marshaled under one commander, emotion, the original source of song.”