Sunday, December 27, 2009

Challenging Vocal Comfort Levels

As I am going about studying the 24 Italian Songs and Arias, I am using the book for medium high voice.  For many years I avoided singing in this range. I found it way too difficult and I didn't like the way I sounded.  I didn't understand the value of singing something challenging, and it was hard for me to imagine improvement.  But I was very wrong about this.

I was like a kid who thinks it would be fun to try something and then just drops it when he experiences that it is not easy.  I was not willing to sacrifice the experience of being gratified by the sounds of my own singing. But now, as I discover greater and greater ease singing in this range, I realize how stupid I was, and that all those years I was frustrated and sitting around wondering why I wasn't developing as a singer, the means of that development was sitting in my music cabinet all along, but I didn't know how to use it.

The medium-high-voice book is the one that my first voice teacher began with when I started voice lessons over 20 years ago.  She most likely knew that this was the area of my voice that was inexperienced and needed to be developed and strengthened.  However, I did not feel comfortable singing the songs in those keys. And so, after struggling painfully for several months, I asked my teacher if I could learn them in the lower key.  She simply said, "yes," and granted me "permission" to go out and purchased the songbook in the lower key.

I don't know if this is accurate or not, but my memory of this is that, originally, she had provided me with the medium-high-voice Italian song book, but when I wanted to sing in the lower key,  I was on my own as far as obtaining the book. My teacher pointed me toward where the book could be purchased -- Patelson's Music House, behind Carnegie Hall (it looks like they have closed their business now) --  and I undertook an expedition to this new location in New York City, beyond my usual trails, something that was scary for me.

Even scarier for me, once I was in the store, I had to ask the clerk where to find the book, since I was faced with row upon row of music books and had no idea how everything was organized.  This is a place where real singers shop, I thought.  He will be able to tell that I am not a real singer.  I remember the clerk being kind and helpful and showing me an edition that came with an accompaniment cassette. I happily thought, "that might be useful to practice with," and chose that edition.

I remember, at the time, wondering why -- if the answer was as simple as just switching books -- and why -- if it seemed not to matter that much -- just why had she not just started me out in the lower key to begin with, and why -- if she was a voice teacher who worked with all kinds of voices -- didn't she recognize that this is the key I sing well in?  But I never asked about these wonderings and whys.  Partly because I didn't realize I could, and partly because these wonderings were not at the top of my consciousness.  They were kind of little naggings below the surface that I didn't recognize in their fullness.

This would happen again and again.  My voice teacher started me learning songs in one key, and I would feel very uncomfortable and ask for lower and lower keys.

What was happening? Why was I uncomfortable? Why did I ask for a lower key? Why did she say "yes."

Something I wrote today in Frescamari's Practice Room gave me a clue.  I observed that these lower keys where I was comfortable and familiar were in the area of my speaking voice.  This place in the range of my speaking voice is my vocal "home."  When she asked me to sing a little higher, my voice teacher was bringing me to a new and unfamiliar vocal place, and I resisted.

But the reason the "home" place was so navigable for me was because it was the place where I had practiced the most, and memorized and drilled, and dug grooves.  It was where I felt safe and where I had invested my vocal time.  If I would try to build a second home in this new higher place, say a new summer home, after some time I would have become familiar with the pathways in this second home too.  But I did not know that.  I had never experienced this.

The need to cling to what is familiar -- to stay safe by sticking to known paths -- is very strong in me.  I am not comfortable being an adult and being out in the world.  The world seemed like such a scary place, so as soon as I could, I develop little patterns and routines that made me feel secure and like I could handle everything.  When I drive somewhere on a highway, I use a certain lane, travel a certain speed, and pass cars a certain way.  I have my rules.  When it is time to change lanes and exit the highway, I change lanes in the same spot every time, or at least one of several spots.  My car practically knows the way itself, and barely needs me to drive it because of how I cling to this safety of predictability and familiarity.

This desire for safety has become more encrusted as I have aged.  The more years that pass, the less adventurous I have become, and the harder it is for me to stray away from comfort and routine.

I believe that this overall personality trait has kept me in home territory with my singing for many years, without my quite realizing it.

It doesn't have to be either/or about going into new territory.  There are other options for stretching one's horizons.  For example, instead of facing new territory alone, a friendly and experienced mentor or guide can be of great assistance.  I don't know why that first voice teacher gave in so easily when I expressed resistance to the new territory.  It may be the reluctance of a kind-hearted person to push another into a place of discomfort.  Sometimes we respect the comfort of another so much, and so much believe that we should wait until they are ready to challenge themselves, that we don't communicate well all the reasons why that person should forge ahead.  We don't insist.  We say, "okay, I'm not going to force you."

In the voice teacher/voice student relationship, there can be many assumptions made about the why the other is behaving as she does.  Good communication, like in marriage, is needed so badly.  Maybe that first teacher could have prodded more to find out why I wanted to switch to the lower key.  Maybe I could have asked her why she ever thought the medium high key would be right for me.  We should have talked.

Had I stuck with the medium high key, I would have learned about a territory of my voice that scared me and seemed unnavigable.  With her as a guide, reassuring me, and "showing me the ropes," maybe I could have set up a good camp there, from whence to spring to even further adventures.

Since it is never too late to grow, I shall have to do this now.
In Frescamari's Practice Room:  Exploring unfamiliar territory -- Onsetting on D5


  1. you keep singing, keep talking and keep asking questions! It is this journey that is self-discovery !!!!

  2. I've dug out my copy of the Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias (which I hadn't looked at for 20 years or so!) and am now revisiting them in tandem with you. I'm not surprised you found them uncomfortable originally. So did I, which is probably why my volume was relegated to a back shelf. I shall be interested to hear what you make of "Pieta, Signore!", with its challenging tessitura and sostenuto requirements, or "Le violette", with its difficult corners. The compiler doesn't tell us whether the songs in the original keys, but if so, the written pitch would have been one half tone lower in those days. Good luck, and well done for your second version of "Per la gloria". I've ordered a copy of "Head voice" on the strength of your results in that song!

  3. Thanks, Arachne, for your comments. It's fun to have company looking at the songs.

    "Pieta Signore" IS a big (scary) sing and I'm saving it for the end of the 24 weeks. My teacher thinks I'll be able to do it.

    Based on your comment, looks like I should get a head-start on "Le violette" too.

    I am further along in the book "Head First" and I must say that except for the concept of emphasizing how much this quality is essential for classical singing, I didn't get as much out of the book as I had hoped to. I thought there might be more technical explanations about how this action of the voice works, or greater insight and enlightenment about how to develop it. Let me know what you think of it.