"Fight with your head, not your heart," admonished the renowned fencing intructor to the revenge-seeking lead character in the movie Scaramouche, which I watched on the old movie channel last night.
My ears pricked up from my half-sleepy state on the family room couch when I heard this. Is there some lesson in this that I should apply to singing? It seems the opposite of what is encouraged. We do not want singing to boil down to mere mechanical technical excellence. We want to animate it, bring it to life, imbue it with the warmth of feeling. That is what we are striving for as the nirvana of classical singing.
Yet, here I am considering the notion of turning it around and using the head to get there and not the heart.
In that book I keep mentioning, On Writing Well, William Zinsser talks about writing the literary form of memoir. "Memoir," he says, "isnt' the summary of a life: it's a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It's not; it's a deliberate construction ... Memoir is the art of inventing the truth."
He mentions that Thoreau's memoir was painstakingly pieced together over eight years.
This is the kind of careful construction that is needed to create just the right kind of experience for the hearer of a song.
The more I work towards mastering little technical details of singing, the more I realize how consciously the choices are made. As I acquires more and more vocal control, my choices for shaping and coloring phrases increase. I begin to possess the tools to carefully construct a performing truth. I am increasingly able to take more and more control of what will be seen and heard.
When Mr. Zinsser speaks of planning a piece of writing, he tells you to ask yourself some basic questions before you start. A singer might approach this by picturing exactly what they want their audience to see and to hear and to feel, and craft their presentation according to the answers to the questions. A singer must form a plan.
Yet, the author at the same time tells you not to be a prisoner of that preconceived plan. He says "... it often happens that you'll make ... prior decisions and then discover they weren't ... right. The material begins to lead you in an unexpected direction, where you are more comfortable writing [singing] in a different tone." He says not to fight such a current if it feels right. "Trust your material if it's taking you into terrain you didn't intend to enter but where the vibrations are good."
So in the end it seems as if the head and the heart must work together. They are a team. They must form a partnership. The emotions are the horses, and the head is the driver.
I heard a little show recently where some of the singers appeared definitely to be feeling their singing very deeply, but they were manhandling their voices in a way that hurt as I listened. They would lean into the emotions so strongly that it would lead them to a sticky vocal spot from which they were unable to disentangle themselves once they got there. They didn't look to see where they were going and ended up in trouble and had to remain strangled there in certain moments. While we are infusing the emotions into our singing, we must, like the master swordsman, keep our heads!
I have made a little video demonstration of what I'm talking about in this post in Frescamari's Practice Room.
Click here to watch "Sing With Your Head, Not Your Heart"