Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Want to Improve Your Singing? -- Get a Dog!

When we impulsively bid on a cute little Havanese puppy at an auction to benefit my son's school earlier this year, the last thing I suspected was that this little dog was going have any impact on my singing.  I'd like to share with you some of the specific ways raising and training this little dog has been helping me become a better singer.

Warming up
A singer needs to start the blood pumping more vigorously through the veins, enliven and activate the breath, and wake up and knead all  the muscles of the body before starting to sing each day. Everything goes better with my singing when I do these things first.

If I do not take my puppy outside for some energetic playtime before I start doing anything, her energy level will be too high to leave me alone when I am trying to practice. So, although I would love to sit and relax on my computer with a cup of coffee in hand after dropping my daughter off at school in the morning, I know things will go better if I get that pup outside first.  This is against my sluggish nature, but I have been forcing myself.  As we play fetch or soccer together, my body is getting warmed up and ready for singing.  Now the warmup has been integrated into my life and instead of being focused just on the activity of singing, the warmup is "multitasking," serving the multiple purposes of bonding me with my dog, getting me warmed up for my day, giving me some fresh outside air, clearing my head, setting the scene for uninterrupted practice.

I'm learning a lot about relaxation while taking the puppy out for a walk or run on the leash.  Walking a dog on a leash properly is a skill that takes a lot of practice.  The ultimate goal is to not feel the leash at all.  The dog will walk beside you as if not on a leash at all, getting into a kind of harmony with you as the leader and adjusting pace according to your lead.  The leading is not really with the leash, but again, with the dog owner's energy and intention.  Yanking and pulling on the leash to get the dog to do this will not achieve the desired results.  It will merely result in controlling the dog through force.  Also, the dog is able to feel your emotions through the leash.  If your arm is not relaxed, the dog will respond to the tension in your arm, just like your voice will be effected by inappropriate tension.

You want the dog, and your voice,  to cooperate.  The dog should be free, yet using that freedom to willingly do what you ask of it.  Just like a voice that wants to be free, not forced, but a voice that responds to your intention without hassle and struggle.

The pup comes into Frescamari's Practice Room with me every day. Perhaps you have heard her in the background while listening to some of the files there.  While I'm singing she may need some supervision.  Continuing to sing while wrestling a small object she has found out of her mouth, or singing while following her around the room, or singing while playing a little bit of fetch with her and her favorite toy, has served to free me up, and get me out of frozen body practice mode.

Developing Authority
There is no faking it with a dog.  You have to be a "pack leader" as the famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan tells us.  This authority is so essential for singing.   Especially opera singing.  All the more for dramatic opera singing..

There are many different styles of being a leader, as well as many different mistakes about how to be a leader.  When dealing with a dog, if you see being a leader as a ego trip, that dog will not see you as a leader, but as someone trying to win a competition of power.  If you see being a leader as being merely a tough guy, the dog will only see you as being aggressive and respond accordingly.  What Cesar the Dog Whisperer tells people is that a pack leader leads with calm assertiveness.  Dogs respect this kind of authority.

Well, I've been struggling to find that kind of real authority, which has not come easy to me in my life.  At first, I imagined some big tough military-style leader.  I puffed myself up, and spoke with this giant scary sounding voice.  Well, my pup wasn't fooled by that one bit!

Yet, as I've so often done with things that don't work that well in my life, I just concluded I wasn't doing it enough.  So, over the weeks I continued to get more puffed up, using an even stronger and louder a voice. When this didn't work, I got frustrated and felt powerless.  This deteriorarated until I just began yelling at the poor little pup

Now, don't we do that when we try to learn to sing opera?  Well, I won't speak for you.  But I have done that over the years as I've tried to develop my operatic voice.  Big and puffed up and loud and in a voice that's not really mine.  Getting frustrated to the point where eventually I was just yelling.

Finally, I got in touch with a more real authority.   I realized that I am a person who prefers to be kind. Could I find a kind way to have authority? I had read in the Havanese book that this breed doesn't respond well to yelling anyway.  I stood in my full stature of my capacity as Mother, and looked very kindly down at a pup who needed to know what the boundaries were, and said in a warm and gentle, yet firm, voice that expected to be heeded:

"Daffodil, come!"

It worked!  It was a matter of communicating with just the right energy, which is part of singing as well.  This is the place I must come from when I sing too!

I've given you a few examples of how my relationship with my pet is helping me discover things about myself and as a singer.  Has anyone else ever had a pet help them in this way?
Click here to see a video of me playing with my dog:  "Playing is Good For Singing"
See related post: in Frescamari's Practice Room:  "Kung Fu Drills That Can Be Used While Playing With Dog"


  1. Can't resist commenting on a dog-related post!

    I really wish I'd known about dogs back when I stood swaying in front of my first roomful of students at the age of 26 (way too close to their ages for my comfort). The assumption of authentic authority is a skill I've had to learn very slowly over the years, but nothing has refined and clarified it for me like dog training. I feel it has helped me *tremendously* in the scarier roles of power-slash-responsibility I've had to take on at work over the past two years. "Calm-assertive" is a SO the way to go, with all kinds of mammals.

    Then there's the exercise, and getting outdoors! I *thought* I was consistent about getting outdoors every day until we got Dr. Watson. In the few weeks after adopting him I totally enjoyed buying enough rain, snow, and wind-proof clothing and gear that I would have NO excuse for not taking him out (even though we do have a fenced-in yard, which does come in really handy in the rare event Terry and I are both sick -- like now).

    All companion animals are amazing, but dogs are SO co-adapted, co-evolved, whatever, with humans . . . we serve each others' needs so well.

  2. If it spurs you to post great comments like that, Lynn, I'll write about dogs more often here!!