Carol McAmis

Professor Emerita, Music Performance

Learning How To Sing

Learning To Sing
By Carol McAmis
© Copyright Carol McAmis 2005

    Singing is a complicated art form. How can we bring order to the many different skills that must be identified and mastered so that we can sing and perform beautifully? First, it’s important to understand as young singers studying voice seriously, there are two distinct experiences that are happening at the same time. You are literally building your instrument at the same time that you are learning how to play it and to make music with it. This is one of the things that makes singers unique. All other musicians are playing a physically completed instrument when they start taking lessons. Your instrument is always growing and changing throughout your life. On one hand, this requires immense patience and self-acceptance, especially at the beginning of serious study. On the other hand, you can always anticipate new discoveries as long as you keep singing. I heard Benita Valente sing a glorious recital near the end of her professional career. She actually sounded even better than when I had last heard her ten years before. I had the opportunity to ask her what her secret was. She replied that “every day I learn something new about singing that I never thought of before.” This comment from a woman with a major 35-year career behind her. May all of us find that fascination!
    My working definition of singing for the past several years has been “exhale and vibrate with feeling”. A more poetic description comes from flower essence practitioner Patricia Kaminski who says “to ensoul sound with thought and feeling is one of the greatest of human gifts.” Physician Larry Dossey points out that the Latin roots of the word “person” are “per sonare” which translates “through sound”. On a very deep level, the exhaling and vibrating with feeling that is the act of singing expresses our deepest self, heals us, balances us, and connects us with our world. Our ultimate goal as singers is to coordinate all levels of our being – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – to produce beautiful, heartfelt singing.
    So just what is this instrument that you are building and learning to play? The body itself of course. But equally important are the thoughts and feelings that create the response of movements in the body that produce that beautiful sound. I often think of the voice as an imaginary instrument because it is the coordination of the thoughts and feelings that we have about singing that dictate how the body will respond to create sound. To me, this is the first level of technical work on the voice. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t change it. This leads to stage fright and artistic disempowerment. If your thoughts are anxious or negatively phrased (“Uh oh, here comes that high note. I hope I don’t crack!!!!”), what do you think will happen? Of course the body responds to your fear by tightening up and the cracking you feared becomes reality as the throat muscles attempt to regain enough flexibility to produce the note. So thought-control is an important part of learning to sing. Another part of the vocal instrument is physical sensation. Learning to recognize tensions that interfere with tone, clear diction, and musical performance is a large part of the early years of voice study. Differences in sound that are huge to your audience are often minute when you’re listening inside. If you listen to the sound you just made instead of sensing and hearing internally the one that is coming up, you’ll never sing fast notes well or make a musical phrase. A simple-seeming thing like producing an accurate vowel sound can take years. What sounds like “ah” to you, sounds like “uh” to your audience. Oy veh! As you become more advanced technically, the distinctions become finer and finer, requiring ever more intense concentration to master them. At the same time, the body becomes more and more responsive to your least thoughts so that the performances of a song more closely match what you hear and feel in your heart. That’s what all the work is for!
    How can we work effectively to build this instrument and to create an artistic performance? Actually, the messiest way is the most efficient as you begin to master a new skill. Good old trial and error is the most effective way to work. But…learning to learn from your mistakes, to treat the mistakes as information about too much or too little effort rather than as a judgment of your ability as a singer or whether you chose the right major or whether people will love you. Ah, there’s the magic that makes all the difference! Understanding the timing of the creative process is another important aspect of learning to sing. The exciting moment when what was difficult becomes easy cannot be forced. Working with open-ended curiosity, taking guilt-free breaks from the work, and trying many different approaches without settling on the “right” way the very first time you sing a song. All of these combine to create the conditions for that seemingly spontaneous moment of “Ah ha!” Even that nasty customer, FRUSTRATION, has its place in the creative process. That moment when the old way just won’t do anymore, the moment when you can’t stand it that the “ah” isn’t right is actually the moment when the old pattern is breaking down to create space for the “ah ha” of a new understanding or a new coordination pattern to emerge. Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Learning is like the dawn. It grows until it dawns on you.” So we work in the dark, doing a little of this and a little of that until, one day, the kaleidoscope of our understanding of what it means to sing turns and a beautiful new pattern emerges. How exciting and what fun when that time arrives! At the moment of “Ah ha!”, you will not need a teacher to tell you what is right. You will simply know. At that moment, you have taken another step toward mastering your art. Over time, you will learn to trust this process to lead you to an excellent and beautiful performance. Here’s to the journey!
    We can separate the various aspects of singing into three broad categories that we need to master. First, there is understanding the mechanism. Voice science, anatomy, physiology, aerodynamics, physics, and acoustics all contribute to this understanding. Another aspect of mechanical understanding is the study of historical context of the music in order to understand not only performance practice at various times but also the world view expressed by the music. Next, there is execution. Here we learn how to use the various mechanical concepts to study breathing, agility, articulation, dynamics, and many other aspects of producing a wide variety of tonal qualities and colors with the voice. This is the technique, the “how-to” of singing. Here we study, the coordination of mind and body that create a fine tone which can be used elegantly and artistically. Execution also includes work with musicianship as we learn the notes and rhythms of the song and begin to collaborate with a pianist on the creation of the performance. Finally, there is artistry. Here we find the emotional structures of the song that underlie the musical and poetic structures and make them come to life. Considerations of character development come into play in this aspect of song-making. Putting the technical work of breathing and all the rest at the service of the emotional and dramatic situations of the song or the scene. Finding specific vocal/emotional colors and meanings is part of artistry, too. Here we rehearse all aspects of presentation from how to bow and acknowledge the pianist to how we want to be perceived as an artist – warm and friendly, glamorous, scholarly, funky. While these divisions are arbitrary, we can use them to begin to make sense of the process of building a performance or to make sure that the various aspects of preparation are being considered thoroughly. The most beautiful, confident performing comes from a deep and rich experience with the many facets of this imaginary instrument as the song sings through the singer and into the heart of the listener.