The Age of the Individual: Where do we as Singers go from here?
What does learning to sing actually MEAN? What is the purpose of dedicating our lives, our sweat, our tears, literally our hearts and souls, to singing? Why do it? To earn more money? To stand on the biggest stages? To be on the big screen and to own the fanciest dresses? Perhaps. Are these reasons enough to justify our struggle?
I don't think so.
I am convinced that there is a deeper meaning to the desire to sing, beyond simply wanting success and fame. It has to do with who we truly are. And therein lies the key to the survival of our art form and the reason for opera's existence.
For the last year and a half I have been lucky enough to study with a voice teacher who understands and teaches just that. For him, singing is not just singing. Singing is prayer: it comes from the deepest depths of who we are as humans.
He is the teacher my heart brought me to, and I thank God that he exists and that he has dedicated his life to understanding vocal technique to the point that he can now mine for the gold which exists as the True Voice of each and every singer. This is, in my opinion, the very purpose for applying oneself to the Classical School of Singing: to become so well versed in what it means to be practicing our discipline that our bodies, these instruments of Spirit, are so subconsciously, efficiently trained that we may be active, empty, vessels for the music we are called to express.
It is incredibly exciting to be alive and to be a singer at this time in the Evolution of Singing.
Roughly explained, if I am correct, opera singing itself existed before the advent of the Classical School of Singing. Singing and how to teach it clearly evolved together, but singing came first. In its most raw form, the technique of singing opera was demonstrated with the first baby's primal cry...the foundation of singing itself is older than we can imagine. But I digress.
The Classical School of Singing has served as a way of mapping out the process one must go through toward obtaining what humans have loved to hear for hundreds if not thousands (think back to the ampitheaters...) of years: a free, exciting, complete, efficient vocal production, whether in speech or in song.
Learning this freedom, this dedication to music and true self-expression, to something much bigger than our mortal selves, is a spiritual path.
Finding Jean-Ronald, my teacher, was the culmination of a long fifteen plus years of self-discovery and soul searching. Probably every singer would recognize and sympathize with my path to this teacher who has real information to share, and a clear plan toward releasing my voice in all of its completeness, and in freedom. It was a series of 'wrong' turns, looking for truth from the world's perspective, from the viewpoint of academia and concrete goals, from the standpoint of achieving fame and winning people over or beating the 'competition', that whittled me down to the point where I knew that ultimately I was seeking something much much more than the "big win" or the "big break". I was looking for myself.
I am lucky to have been just barely accepted at Oberlin Conservatory (I was originally on the waiting list), so when I arrived, I began immediately the painful process of realizing that for me, the paradigm of "singing as a competitive endeavor" had to, somehow, be broken down in order for me to survive. I could not hope to ever 'compete' with the plethora of incredibly talented, and in many ways almost finished voices and personalities of my colleagues. Unfortunately (though I see it now as fortune, no singer should go through this, thus the writing of this blog, in which I hope perhaps a hurting singer may find peace) for the fledgling singer fresh out of Oregon, what inevitably happened is that this paradigm had to break me, or more accurately, the Ego, before I could learn to be free of it. But this is the stuff of a later post...
The true singer knows she must follow the path to her True Voice, no matter what. If we listen closely, there is no real reason to why we study, why we seek out the teachers who will help us become who we truly are...until we realize that "who we really are" IS the point of study. It's not the dresses. It's not the fame. It's not the HD telecasts and the public broadcasting specials. It's not the getting it "right". It's not the "winning". It's the constant being and becoming that the Classical School helps us embody which is the point of our every endeavor as opera singers.
What we see in today's world is a break between spirituality and performing arts that does not and should not exist.
Who do we see when we go to hear a great singer? The greatest performers we have ever experienced don't give us merely a vision of who they are. They send us into ecstasy because they show us, in their inspired performance, who we are. And so my burning question is:
If this quality, this "IT", this ability to transcend the individual and reach the heavenly heights of collective human experience is to be found in great performance, why is "It" so sorely lacking in music education?
Perhaps we performers would rather have this inspiration remain a secret, the very path to it obscured so that it is easier to sell. This is a most cynical explanation, which I am not ready to admit is true. But it is tempting to sell our art this way. We say perhaps to the public: come and experience something that you cannot experience on your own. You need years and years of practice to do this, to be this way. I am unt0uchable, I am the star and you the stargazer.
We see the results of this striving for individual "Diva-hood" in opera. As a public we are fed the names of singers we are supposed to think of as great. We go to performances in search of spiritual experiences and amazing music, to be taken away to that place that only music can take us. Often this happens, and even more often it does not. The undisciplined listener will, for the sake of honoring her investment in the tickets and to have something to write home about, attempt to invent some meaning or to express some sort of appreciation. But has the real goal for music making been met?
What is the real goal for making music?
It is, merely, and most importantly, an expression of the Love that makes up each and every human being, and everything in the universe.
Any performer who excites the listener, who brings people to tears and to their feet through sharing great music, must acknowledge that the "It" which does this is much much, in fact infinitely more, than the singer is themselves. This is the challenge I am sending out to myself and to my fellow singers, many of whom already understand and embrace what I am trying to express. And many of whom sing, but do not yet realize perhaps the depth of meaning which lies hidden in their profession and their studies.
The experience we have when we visit a truly great performance is not unavailable to the every day person. Anyone who has delved in even a little bit to who they truly are knows that there is a heavenly well of beauty within each of us which can be expressed even in simple things like walking down the street.
So if the experience that we are seeking as performers is available to us at every moment, why perform? why make music?
I can only use an example from my development as a singer to help answer this question myself:
In my first years of study in Vienna, my vocal cords were not approximating. This is, I know now, a common occurrence in the development of a singer, but back then, for my tender student's soul, it was the end of the world as I knew it. I "could not sing".
I did not see a way out of this fear-filled predicament, this "voiceless" existence. I knew that the deepest part of me had to be expressed through singing, and it could not be! I was living in a state of deep depression and hopelessness, though no one but my voice teacher at the time could have guessed.
What was it that brought hope to my soul? A recording of Maria Callas singing the famous aria "La mamma morta" from Andrea Chenier. I listened to this recording over and over. It brought me a feeling of freedom, of flight, of hope...there is no mistaking why this aria was chosen to be featured in the movie "Philadelphia", where the main character also finds ultimate freedom from death and pain in listening to it. The piece has the power to transform, and Maria Callas had the vision, the power, and the absolute dedication as a singer, to allow the music to be as transformative as it could possibly be.
I was carried away. I danced. I meditated to it on repeat. I experienced the vulnerability of what it means to surrender to absolute beauty and love in the privacy of my sacred, personal space, so I could begin the gradual journey of allowing that expression of beauty to inform every moment of my everyday life, even, and especially in the presence of other people.
Maria Callas started me on the journey to freedom. Love itself (and her singing is Love incarnate) continued the job.
So what does this, in the end, mean to us singers, truly? To me, it means having the courage to say that what is most important to me has nothing to do with singing itself, per se. It has to do, only, with Love. We follow the path of singing to experience Love, whether we are aware of it or not.
Can we embrace the possibility of this truth? Can opera become more than a spectacle and a vehicle for the next "Diva" or "Divo"? Can it be more than a money generating machine? Can all of opera realize what is truly driving the music and every singer who sings its, at their core? If we could, we would never have to worry about the fate of the art form. There would never be another "undiscovered" voice or singer in pain. We would all realize what truly matters, and making music, singing opera, would become as natural, as essential, as breathing and thinking, and as every-day beautiful as life itself.
What is the next step, then, in the Evolution of Singing? I hope that it lies in singers who realize this truth coming together and seeking perfectly true and free vocal production to such an extent that anything that is not the "real thing", or 100+% Love, would be overshadowed and pale in comparison. I think that the next step involves finding ways to bring everyone who feels moved to be a singer to that point of complete and true Love. I believe that it means not accepting the idea that it is "impossible" to train a voice that is lost in fear and hopelessness. I believe that the key to the freedom of thousands, if not millions of voices, is Love itself. I am excited, because I see the many ways in which Love is already, if not always necessarily by name, being expressed in voice studios like that of my teacher.
I want to proclaim it from every rooftop! I want to dare skeptics to try to prove Love wrong! Along my long path to these first inklings of my own True Voice, I have been pointed to nothing but this Truth.
As always my most humble thanks to the Source of All Things, and in complete dedication and devotion to my teacher Jean-Ronald LaFond,