Nov 25, 2023
Welcome, and thank you for listening.
I used to think of my approach in the studio as using mindfulness techniques to teach singing. Lately, I have come to realize that what I am actually doing is using singing technique to teach mindfulness.
For me, singing has always been, first and foremost, a practice.
The practice of singing raises my awareness of how my body functions, enabling me to move with increased grace and intention. It puts me in contact with the real-time flow of my feelings, allowing me to explore and express them with intensity and nuance. It gives my imagination free rein, investing me with the power to create unique interpretations of the music and texts I perform. It helps me to experience more of myself, connect with others more deeply, and better understand the world around me.
However, this is not the way that I have generally described my relationship with singing.
My foundational experiences as a singer and voice teacher took place within classical conservatory culture. This culture exemplifies what I would call a master/disciple teaching paradigm: I relied upon my instructors to tell me how I was supposed to sound, and whether I was getting everything “right”: what the right repertoire was for me, whether I was performing the music and delivering my texts accurately, even whether I looked and comported myself in a way befitting an aspiring opera singer.
There was comparatively little attention paid to my physical function and comfort, other than to point out when I appeared stiff or tense. There was little encouragement to explore and express my thoughts and feelings—these took a distant second place to studying the interpretations of admired divas, and making sure my performances remained within the bounds of tradition.
While these conditions may still reflect the priorities of the opera industry, they do not provide for an effective and enjoyable pursuit of a singing practice—not for classical music, or for any other musical style. Yet for a long time, I felt that my teaching needed to honor these priorities. While my students may be relying on my feedback regarding whether they are producing a consistent sound, or on the accuracy of their performances, it is much more important that they be able to rely on me to help them promote the flow of their physical, emotional, and creative expression. They need to be able to rely on me to support their growth as artists, not their pursuit of external validation.
In my experience, meaningful growth and learning require a strong collaborative relationship. Teaching is also a practice. It is a practice, for me, to be keenly attentive to the way you describe your internal experience of singing, to the things you desire to express, to the way you engage your voice and your body in the service of their expression. Continually showing up for my students in this way may be significantly more demanding than just telling singers whether or not they are producing a consistent sound, or delivering accurate performances, but it is also infinitely more rewarding. As well as infinitely more effective and satisfying for them, assuming that what they desire is my help developing their skills and artistry, rather than my nod of approval.
Your individual artistry and the unique perspective you bring to your interpretations is inevitably what attracts the appreciation of your listeners—audience members, industry gatekeepers, and everyone in between. It is important to me that the truth of this inform everything I do as a teacher. Including, or especially, the way I work with classical singers.
I still love classical singing, and I love teaching it, but classical singing style feels uniquely challenging to decouple from the culture that surrounds it.
In my teaching, I emphasize and encourage present moment awareness, the elimination of internalized judgmental voices, embracing current conditions, and the primacy of individual creativity and expression. If you are a singer who loves classical style as much as I do, I invite you to imagine what it would be like to pursue your practice as though you had all the time in the world to cultivate things like resonant high notes, effortless coloratura, well-modulated registration, and so on. To imagine what it would be like, if all of your repertoire choices were guided by what you most desire to express, with the expectation that you get to bring your unique perspective and voice to its interpretation, rather than meeting someone else's idea of what rep is right for your voice and how you compare with everyone else who is singing it. What it would be like, if your value as an artist had everything to do with what you bring to the music, rather than your readiness to be plugged into other people's visions and projects.
Attachment to outcomes is what makes us rigid, and reduces the flow of our creativity and moment-to-moment engagement. When you feel strong attachment, as I once did, to being able to hit that high note, sing that scale accurately, stop clunking into chest voice, ideally right now, it is not only impossible to enjoy the learning process but also very difficult to make the swift and meaningful progress that you desire. When you feel that the very art form you adore requires you to be subservient to someone else's tastes and interpretations, it is impossible to give your performances everything you've got. And while opera is necessarily an art form that demands collaboration on a massive scale, how much more wonderful would it be if we built productions around individual voices and imaginations, rather than seeking singers to plug into a predetermined vision.
If you had said something like that to me twenty years ago, I would probably have replied that that is all very poetic and a nice fantasy, but right now I have to nail this audition. Talk to me about the creativity and joy of the process after I land this role, after I build some career momentum, after my life stabilizes. But after all of that happens, there will still be the next audition that you have to nail.
I want to talk to you about it now, those of you who are classical singers, and contemporary artists, and musical theatre performers, and anyone who is enamored of any musical style that has a long, rich tradition, exemplified by iconic artists whose legacies inspire and humble you. I want to encourage you to cultivate patience, and to seek satisfaction in your own process.
Because think about it: Impatience is literally a recipe for suffering!
Impatience is, by definition, the condition of wanting to be somewhere that you are not, and that you cannot be, right now. Garden-variety dissatisfaction is a motivating tension. But when it rises to the level of impatience, it becomes a refusal to accept your current conditions, to become focused on how unpleasant and unacceptable they are. Impatience drains the joy from your practice, and makes it very difficult to focus your attention and curiosity on the skills you are working on. Impatience makes it difficult to create the positive feedback loop that promotes learning and retention, because when the moment arrives that you do become capable of singing a radiant high note, or a virtuosic cadenza, that moment may pass uncelebrated because your impatience will prod you to shift your focus to the next source of dissatisfaction related to your singing.
If this makes sense to you, that impatience is a recipe for suffering, it is also important to recognize that understanding this probably does not mean that you will instantly cease to be impatient. Just notice the impatience when it arises. Notice and experience the feelings, body sensations, and thoughts that arise along with it. This is how you wrap experiences of impatience into your practice, and diminish the suffering it can cause.
When this suffering is sufficiently diminished, you will be able to return to pursuing your practice as though you had all the time in the world, and all that will matter is enabling your source of creativity to flow effortlessly through your voice. I believe so deeply in the power of our voices to heal ourselves and others. When expression flows unimpeded through our voices, we communicate not only whatever we are singing about—we also communicate the possibility of experiencing unimpeded flow to our listeners, and show them what is possible. When you experience that possibility and allow it to motivate you, impatience gradually become less and less interesting as a source of motivation.
Thank you for your attention. Please subscribe to this podcast, join my email list, and see the episode description for additional resources for your singing practice.
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