Why Study Our Magical Instrument?
by Kelly Burgos Harper
We open our mouth and, quite magically, a beautiful sound springs forth like a sonic rainbow delivered from the gods and muses. People are just blessed with the gift, or they're not, right?
I think part of what makes it seem like a mysterious and magical gift is the fact that, as singers, we are the only musicians who never really see our instrument. So, it’s no wonder that the voice can seem like a big mystery or that beautiful sounding voices seem like gifts bestowed upon lucky singers. How can we even consider the skill (versus gift) that's involved without the help of some vocal science understanding?
One of my favorite things to do with students is to demystify their instrument by helping them understand even the basic mechanics of how their body produces sound. It is amazingly empowering when we start to realize that our voice is not a complete mystery and that we have some control of the sound we produce.
This understanding can help keep us grounded so when we fall short of sounding exactly the way we intend, we know it’s not that we’re a “bad singer”; it’s simply that our approach wasn’t effective within the mechanics of our instrument, and we need to make adjustments. It’s helpful to know that when we hit those super sweet notes perfectly, it’s not because something otherworldly happened, rather it is that our approach was effective, and using that correct approach will allow us to recreate that gorgeous sound anytime we want. What a relief to know it’s not just luck, right?
Of course, vocal mechanics expertise is not required for awesome, inspiring performance or success, nor does it guarantee it. And, of course, vocal training and knowledge mean absolutely nothing to an audience. When was the last time you looked for your favorite singer’s training certifications to help you decide whether you should buy their concert ticket or download their song? Never.
So, why study?
My answer is: singing involves art and science. Vocal science and mechanics are at work every time we sing, whether we understand it or not. Understanding it allows us to utilize it to our advantage and deepen our relationship with our voice.
From my own experience as a singer who began studying pretty late, at the age of 30 – after having been an active performer for 13 years – I can honestly and enthusiastically vouch for the freedom I gained upon understanding how my voice works and the controls I have on it.
Before I studied, there were times on stage when I’d come up to a big note, open my mouth and hope that I’d hit it (especially if I was tired or sick). Usually, I did. But I chalked it up to luck because I didn’t know how I made the note aside from sheer adrenaline and fear of humiliation. But running on hope made me feel anxious before and during gigs. And it made for some humble moments when hope proved not to be enough and luck took the night off.
I need vocal coaching? Say, whaaaaat???
Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles from Pittsburgh, I found myself in a studio session singing Portuguese demos (and, no, I do not speak Portuguese, so I can’t tell you how the hell I got through that session, but I did). The producer called me in to book me for another project, but during our chat, he told me about a vocal coach he thought I should see. GULP!! Whoa! Wait! Rewind! What???!!! As my brain replayed the words, “vocal coach,” my inner critic translated it to, “I SUCK.” My internal conversation with my inner critic went something like this:
Me: I must really suck.
Inner Critic: Well, of course!
Me: How did I not know?
Inner Critic: I dunno. I’ve been telling you this for years.
Me: But, if I’m so bad, why did he hire me in the first place?
Inner Critic: Who knows…he was probably desperate.
Me: But there were other singers there, why did he call me back for another session?
Inner Critic: Don’t know. Maybe he’s a loser.
Me: Please, shut up!
I quieted the inner critic, and settled on, “Okay, I know I don’t suck. But clearly, this professional, who continues to hire me, thinks enough of me and my voice to suggest I get some help developing it. And that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”
This was a pivotal moment that brought me to a new level of passion for singing. I found a layer, underneath the ego, where learning to find my best voice was more important than thinking of myself as a good singer. And as I type this, I’m hoping it makes sense outside of my head.
The fears and the fabulousness
I remember feeling hesitant in my first session with the vocal coach who I'll call J.S. I was afraid that training would stifle me, stylistically. I thought she’d try to mold me into someone else’s idea of “good” singing. I feared they’d try to make me throw out all that I learned and developed on my own during the years I spent as a “wild child” singer. And I thought they’d expect me to trade in passion and expression for bland technique.
The first session was equal parts fun and weird. I had never sung in a choir, been part of the chorus, or participated in musical theater, so any formal approach to singing was entirely foreign to me, and even the idea of it made me feel incredibly vulnerable. The sounds I was being asked to make – even a simple lip bubble – were brand new to me. But there was something about the learning experience that I was totally diggin’.
At home, I practiced just about every day. Then I went back for another session. And another. And another. I fell in love with learning about my voice and developing and improving it. My instrument didn't feel like a mystery anymore, and I was able to form a connection with it that I never knew was possible. It was absolutely invigorating. And most importantly, I discovered that rather than feeling stifled, as I had feared, I actually felt liberated.
The confidence, care, and control that come from understanding this awesome, yet unseen, instrument are game changers for those of us who rely on our voices. And through this understanding, I was able to develop technique that would become second nature so that I could stop wasting energy “hoping” to hit notes and really focus in on my real job as a singer: communicating the song.
Now, THAT is vocal freedom! And it IS magical, only in a different, more beautiful way than I had expected.