As a child, I was incapable of accepting that anything existed that I wasn’t born great at. I detested being wrong so much that I steered away from any hobby that might include me getting corrected. Lots of reading ensued.
My mother is a trained singer, meaning that while she was born with natural talent, she had to put a significant amount of work into improving her skills. Her voice is the result of years of crafting. When I was little and first realized that I didn’t sound anything like Christina Aguilera when I opened my mouth, I translated that to mean that I was tone deaf and should never pollute the air with my hopelessly off-key screeching. I dismissed singing as a possible hobby and refuse to even hum in the shower for years.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I finally embraced how enjoyable singing along to acoustic versions of pop songs can be for the first time. Since then I have been abashedly experimenting with singing, mostly in private. While contemplating what interesting activity my broken foot and I could get into, I thought a voice lesson would be a fun new challenge. I’m significantly better at taking criticism than I used to be, and the time seemed right to put some concerted effort into my secret hobby.
So I called upon my friend, singer-songwriter and Boyer student majoring in Music Therapy, Carolyn Thorn, to give me a beginner’s vocal lesson.
I know using a buddy as a source is base treachery for journalists, but I was nervous enough about singing and conscious enough of how busy Boyer kids are to want to choose someone who a) I wouldn’t feel like a fool belting bad notes in front of and b) someone whose schedule I didn’t feel guilty imposing myself upon. Though I could have played the “journalist card” to get a free lesson from a professional coach, none of you, my fellow broke-college-student-readers, could have.
Besides, The sheer fact that I could phone a friend for this kind of instruction was kind of magical. It’s easy to forget that my college friends are all getting degrees signifying specialization in something, and that this makes them invaluable resources. Inviting pals from different majors to share their knowledge about whatever they’re cultivating expertise in that I know nothing about is incredibly powerful, and much less intimidating than approaching a stranger who might be judging you. I kind of can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner.
I met Carolyn in a practice room in Presser Hall on a Friday afternoon. I decided against bringing a specific song to work on, figuring that I’m enough of a novice that we could productively fill the lesson with exercises. As a shallow mouth-breather, I correctly anticipated that fixing my breathing would become our focus.
I learned that I usually breathe from my chest and throat, meaning that singing often required a lot of unnecessary pushing. Not only did this sound worse, it also caused my notes to wander in unpredictable directions. Carolyn did several exercises aimed at bringing my breath down into my diaphragm.
Once I anchored in my core, I was surprised to see that I was breathing much more deeply and was able to exert significantly more control over my voice. It felt like the notes were riding each exhale, rather than being forced out. At the start of the lesson, my shoulders bounced with each breath and I used my jaw to form the “Ah’s” and “Ooh’s.” By the end, they were both still and my tongue and circling breath were doing all the work. The practices I thought were giving me more control had actually been getting in the way of my ability to produce the tone I wanted.
The idea of micro-managing the notes had also contributed to my inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to project. Previously, I had the feeling that my voice was stuck inside a glass box three feet away from my mouth. Carolyn instructed me to let go of my preoccupation with letting an ugly noise come out and to allow my breath to carry whatever notes arose. When I managed to release my fear of “doing it wrong,” my range opened up and I was able to produce a much fuller, more beautiful sound overall.
On the way home from my lesson, I noticed that I felt calm, clear-headed and centered the same way that I do after a meditation or a really good workout. In addition to improving my singing, the breathing exercises had grounded my energy and focus in the center of my body, instead of head and chest.
My voice lesson was awesome and reinforced a few key “life things” that I already know and consistently forget to acknowledge.
- Use your friends’ expertise to your advantage.
- Try new things.
- Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Enjoy learning.
- Breathing deeply instantly makes the world look at least 5% better.
- Holding back isn’t helpful.
- Even though it can feel productive, forcing is never better than allowing.
To my surprise, the fun part of the voice lesson wasn’t just the hour I spent practicing vocal exercises – it was remembering basic tricks that have the power to make every activity more fun. The singing was pretty entertaining too, though.
Victoria Marchiony can be reached at email@example.com