Friday, February 27, 2004


Today, the Queen of Procrastination (that’s me) is taking some time to transpose a couple of songs for her students. Meaning, they don’t/won’t/can’t like the key in which it is written, and have somehow sweet-talked me into moving it into a range more suited to their own voice. I don’t mind doing this on occasion, especially when the student feels a particular “connection” to the song.

Finding your own voice. In the world of singing, this is a difficult thing to achieve, in part because vocal music is at odds with itself. Choral music requires individuals to conform to the whole. This means a different vocal technique (and more often than not a bucket-full of bad habits), and can very extraordinarily frustrating for singers being pulled like a wishbone between the wishes of the choral director and the wishes of the private teacher. Choral music is not about finding your own voice. Choral music is about the homogenization of vocal sound – turning many into one.

It’s critically important that solo singers find their own voice. I’ve been somewhat amazed recently, that while watching American Idol, I find myself agreeing with the notoriously cranky Simon Cowell. A singer may be a dead-on ringer for Celine Dion, or Sinatra, or Whitney, or whomever – but we already have those. We don’t need two, or three or ten. It’s hard for young singers to grasp this concept. A rare few seem to be born with an innate sense of personal vocal style and interpretation, but more often than not, it needs to grow over time and develop through life experiences.

I help my students find their own voice by asking lots and lots of questions. They don’t enjoy this. It makes them think. It makes them come up with their own ideas and feelings about a song. The joke in my studio is that no song may be described by the following sentences:

“It’s about love.” (So are 95% of songs in one manner or another. Too vague.)

“Well, there’s this guy…” (And thus begins the long, drawn-out saga of “this guy”. Too wordy)

I agree, it’s a difficult exercise, but finding your own voice makes all the difference in the world. It’s the last, big step that allows music to jump off the page and turns it into a personal expression. One can always appreciate the intellectual – the method of music composition and the technical execution of notes – but without the emotional we miss out on so much more. I’m not interested in hearing pages 53-57 in a songbook – I want to hear the story and understand the message. I’m not so interested in hearing my voice, or my interpretations when a student sings. I already know what I think. I want to hear what other people bring to the table, and from that I can grow and become a better musician myself.

Choirs may have powerful messages through sheer numbers and volume, but as for me, it’s the person who has found their own voice that makes me stop, listen, and fall in love with singing all over again.

I am dead to the world's tumult,

And I rest in a quiet realm!

I live alone in my heaven,

In my love and in my song!

(--Excerpt in translation from Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen by Friedrich Rückert)

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