Monthly Archives: September 2011

Finding and embracing my “schlanke” voice

My voice lesson today housed one of my bigger technique ah-HAH moments since the semester began.  In the weeks leading up to this, my new teacher (I wonder at what point I’ll think of her as just my teacher and not my new one) has identified my technical hiccups and begun making suggestions for ways to smooth out my registers, strengthen my low and middle voice, release my top voice, and access my extension.  As is almost always the case for singers, I get what she’s saying during the lesson but am not sure if I’m doing things right as I practice during the week.  Most singers are extremists: if you tell us to do something. we grab onto the idea like a new toy and practice so hard with it that it’s almost unrecognizable the following week… then you have to tell us to do the opposite of what you told us last week.  So it’s very possible that we spend a lot of time practicing the wrong thing.   No wonder it takes 15 years to learn how to sing.

Today’s ah-HAH was that I was singing too much from my throat and thereby creating a thicker sound.  I know we’re not supposed to sing from the throat, and I wasn’t doing it intentionally – but I admit I was trying to sing with a full voice.  This throatiness probably grew out of a breakthrough I experienced about six months ago, a breakthrough that I may have taken just a tad too far (we’re all extremists, I tell you!).  Back then, I had a method of cheating up during an ascending interval where I would drop my breath energy and have my voice pop up into my head.  This gave me some cool floating high notes, but it ruined my phrasing and my breath support.  The breakthrough came when I finally sang through the note changes.  I’d always taken that phrase to mean having a legato line, but that day I understood it was also a reference to energy and texture.  This continuation from one note to the next gave a new uniformity to my sound where before my high voice seemed disconnected from my middle.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between the discovery of this sense of continuation with a struggle to get on top of my high notes.  Notes that I’d never had trouble getting up to in the past became more of a struggle, and I would be slightly under pitch.  I didn’t know exactly why, and I actually attributed it to a hole in my technique rather than extra baggage in my technique.  After today’s lesson, I see how I morphed the idea of continuation into vocal weight, which is what has been making those high notes more difficult.

To combat this, my teacher had me bend over at the waist with knees unlocked, neck released, and arms dangling so I could feel the blood rushing to my eyes, nasal passage, and forehead – where I felt the pounding was where my voice should be vibrating.  She had me sing through a few phrases from “Willow Song” in this position: I expected to have more difficulty singing with half my body upside down, but beyond having to take a little more energy to initiate my onset of the phrase, the high notes were easier to sing.  My throat didn’t have to act as a resonator anymore because I was sending my voice to the areas where the blood was pounding.  That throbbing in my head from the upside-down position combined with vocal vibrations is unmistakable.  Usually I worry about being able to access the technique in my practicing without having a teacher to guide and prompt me, but this was so visceral that I don’t think reproducing it will be a problem.

Yes, I used to suffer from a slight complex about having a “small voice,” as if this meant I couldn’t have a successful career as a singer, but this is mostly behind me now.  My technique has filled out enough that I don’t think my voice is small, although it is on the side of “lighter” compared to anything full lyric and bigger.  I’m just happy to know that it’s possible for me to sing with the core of my voice without sacrificing accuracy and ease in my upper register.   I didn’t “lose” my high notes; I just had to accept the nature of my voice in order to access the high notes properly, letting the core ring in my head rather than generating mass in my throat.  As my teacher said to me today, the Germans call it schlanke and it’s a good thing.  I can’t wait to practice tomorrow.

Schlanke [‘ʃlaŋkǝ] – adj, German: slender, slim, neat


Seeing through the haboob

On the first day of school, a dust storm blew through the area.  From inside the school gym (the first, and thus far, only occasion I’ve visited), the colors outside were muted and details were hazy.  At first I thought it was rain, since low clouds and rain have a way of blurring the scenery.  Then I walked outside and felt the hot gusts of wind.  I was still able to see and breathe, but it was painful: my nose and mouth were both lined with dust, and sharp particles kept flying into my eyes as I walked.

Some people call these dust storms by their Arabic name, haboob, which suggests an event of a more exotic nature than the bland colorlessness implied by “dust storm.”  Here’s some haboob footage, although I freely admit my experience was not so dramatic (and my only soundtrack was the conversation I was having with my mom and brother on the phone).  In the midst of the silt and sand, things are fuzzy, gritty, and uncomfortable.  But from a distance, and especially as the winds die down, there are beautiful patterns and colors in the sky.

Next week will be the fourth week of school.  I’m close to finding a rhythm, although I didn’t expect it be such a drawn out process.  During the first two weeks, people would talk about processes or requirements within the department, and I would not know what they were referring to.  A fifth of my brain was thinking about the reading and homework I had to do for my classes and the new repertoire I’d have to learn, another fifth was thinking about the repertoire I already knew but should practice for the auditions for the school’s opera production and a church job (which I did not land) and because some of my classes required me to sing something I already knew as a way of introducing myself to my peers and teachers.  The third fifth of my brain was trying to organize and plan for the classes I had to teach, the fourth fifth was thinking about my apartment and all the boxes that hadn’t been unpacked yet, and the last fifth was missing my family and friends.

Then I had a series of small disappointments.  Nothing too extreme, but in enough of a melodramatic string, one right after another, that I fell into a funk.  There were some financial issues, car issues, and insurance issues that popped up, and a few singing opportunities fell through.  I couldn’t help but feel defeated because no amount of my passion or dedication or whatever positive/motivating drive I generated could overcome these external factors that were beyond my control.  Here I was, working hard and being a good person – but still getting shut down by the powers that be.

My decision two and a half years ago to go back to singing was born out of desperation.  I had practically no concrete evidence that this was a “good” idea (meaning I could actually sing professionally), but I was driven by sheer determination based on the fact that I was miserable not singing and on the belief that that I heard and felt the music in a way that was worth sharing.  There were definitely days when I felt thwarted in my plans (usually days when I did not place in a competition or get past a pre-screening process), but I think each of those instances just made me want to practice more so I could improve and prove to those judging me that they were wrong.  My feelings would be hurt, and I would momentarily doubt my abilities – but once I made the decision to sing again, I never gave up or down-sized my goals.  Once my plans for the summer and fall began falling into place, I knew that every frustration and detour had been leading me in the right direction after all.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been saying to myself and to the people I care about, everything happens for a reason.  Everything turns out just the way it’s supposed to – although it is up to us to keep our eyes and our hearts open.  It’s up to us to learn and live with what we’ve got so we can make the most of what’s offered to us by the universe in her mysterious, convoluted way.  But, a few weeks ago, it was hard to keep this in mind what road block after road block kept dropping in front of me, like those stone cubes that come crashing down from the ceiling in the castle levels of Super Mario.

I came very close to shaking my fist at the sky and asking Why, why, why?!  Then I decided, with the help of my mother’s reminder to stay peaceful and calm during the storm, that extra practicing, sleuthing, and proactive emailing would get me better results.  In the past three days, a few puzzle pieces look like they just might come together after all.  Not all good things happen at the same time, because there are pieces that need to be moved into the right place and pieces that need to be moved out of place to make way for yet other pieces.  We can’t always see 20 steps ahead, and we can’t always filter out the dust and interference as we work our way through a haboob.  But if we stick around and invest our time and effort wisely, we can get to a beautiful place.