I've been on a vacation for the past several days and I have been reconnecting with my sisters. It's not often that we get a chance to all four of us be together, so this has been a special time. One sister, who is a PGA golf professional started talking about teaching golf and I rapidly began taking notes, because everything she was saying to me was teaching me more about singing.
The first thing she told me about was how she tells new students that they should be pleased with just making contact with the ball. This is the fundamental muscular task of golf -- to just hit the ball -- and it is where everyone must first place their focus.
She says that the "just hit it" muscles get confused by the "hit it far and high" muscles so she likes to take everyone back to the beginning and get them reviewing the basic fundamentals.
I recognized that this is what happened with my singing over the years. I did not understand how important it was to achieve good phonation ("just make contact with the ball") and the muscles of basic good old phonation got confused with the "I want to sing resonantly and powerfully" muscles (the "I want to hit it far and high muscles"). So, even though it seemed like I was developing the ability to sing more challenging music, I actually had lost my ability to just sing "Happy Birthday" along with everyone in just a basic everyday way.
My golfing sister then began to talk about how she'll give her students drills to make solid contact. They keep their feet together and they don't take a full powerful swing. She would like them to make 10 solid shots in a row, but she knows they will not have the patience for that, so she settles for them making solid contact with the ball this way 5 out of 10 times.
"You're not ready to separate your feet and make the full motion," she will say to them. "But I want to take a full swing," the student will protest. But my sister explains that the muscle memory is not there for the fundamentals and they will not be able to maintain the full swing for a full round of golf.
The student will complain, "This is boring. I know how to do this. I did this when I first picked up a golf club." But in reality, sometimes the golfer has lost the ability to do this fundamental drill because he/she tried for too much and tried to maintain too much and that golfer lost the basic fundamentals and must go back and drill them.
I wonder how many singers have got into this predicament. They do not return to the fundamentals because they think they are beyond this and they go on to sing impressively and powerfully and make resonant sounds, but in actuality they have lost their ability to merely phonate well, or they never really got it down right to begin with before they "advanced." The ability to sing a simple line in a small voice well has become lost in the desires to be more advanced? I know this happened to me, and it is a humbling experience to take one's self back to the beginning and review and drill the fundamentals.
I had a teacher who recognized an imbalance in my phonation and took me back to this fundamental task. I had to spend a couple of months at least just opening my mouth and making a small sound that was horribly unimpressive. It was boring to a person who thought her new teacher was going to show her how to sing arias and opera, and it was painful for me to face that kind of work on my voice after years of studying voice and believing I had been making progress. I wanted to cry each time I walked in to the practice room. It was difficult and frustrating and I barely could make myself do the exercises. Yet, I trusted in this teacher's expertise and believed that this is what I indeed needed to be doing, so I proceeded with it.
So, where am I now, at 48 years of age, and having taken singing lessons more than 25 years? Why, I'm singing in the middle voice, learning the 24 Italian Songs and Arias. How can this be? Shouldn't I finally, at long last, be singing arias? Not without the fundamentals in place! If I move on before they are in place, then I will only have to come back to them again later. This takes time and patience. Each person will learn at his/her own rate.
My sister will guarantee her students that those really good golfers are spending lots of time working on these "boring" drills. They are making sure their basic skills are in tip top shape and they have the humility to work on these tasks and never take them for granted. They know their sport and their bodies well enough to realize that these fundamentals can get lost and confused and must be revisited and drilled and trained.
My sister says that when she gets a new student, sometimes there are so many flaws in their golf swing and technique that, rather than fix each flaw one-by-one, it is often easier to start at the beginning. People don't like this. They want to get to the fancy stuff.
But in the end it's the big question that my sister asks her students when they have their first golf lesson with her that must be answered:
"Why are you here? Do you really want to be a good golfer?"
This is the question that must be faced by the singer too. If the answer is that I really want to be a good singer, then if the way to do that is to give up impressive sounds and power and fancy arias, and accept that I don't have something basic quite right yet, then that is what I must do, and that is what I will do.