I had a long time student with the prescient name of Deborah Singer. When she first started lessons she told me she had always wanted to sing, but she didn’t have a lot of confidence —not at all an unusual occurrence, particularly with singers who have actual ability. She didn’t want to sing classical music and I didn’t particularly want to do pop or country but we met halfway: Deborah learned to sing “Caro Mio Ben” and I came to appreciate the Dixie Chicks.
Deborah came in one day with a song called “Why They Call it Falling.” I liked it right away. I like “list songs” like “The Waters of March.” She sang it several times while I listened. I asked her, “Ok who sings this?” What I wanted to know was, “Who are you imitating?”
This is what we all do in the beginning: we imitate. A lot of us started out in front of the full length mirror in our parents’ bedroom with a flashlight for a microphone. My first voice teacher once said to me, “Stop trying to be Julie Andrews.” I thought, “Why would I want to do that?”
There’s nothing wrong with imitating your favorite singer if that’s what you want to. But that isn’t singing. That’s imitating. Singing begins with your sound. You get inside the sound of your own voice on single tones, then on phrases, finally in songs. You fall in love with your own voice so that you are unashamed and unafraid to light up every inch of it and let every color in it shine. Otherwise, you might just as well get a cellist or oboist or pianist or guitarist who loves his instrument to accompany you while you recite the words.
I once spent nine months singing nothing but sounds. No words, no songs. It was one of the most productive periods of time I’ve ever spent in voice training. Most singers don’t want to do anything that extreme. We all want to get to the songs.
Deborah had learned her song from listening to Lee Ann Womack so that’s who she was imitating. I slowly tried to insert little options and new ideas as we went through it, working on the rough spots, figuring out where to breathe, how to approach the higher notes.
Occasionally Deborah would say, “That’s not how it goes.”
I would say, “It can go anyway you want it to go. There’s no way that it’s supposed to go.”
Sometimes students say, “Do you want me to bring in the CD so you can hear how it goes?”
Actually sometimes I do want to hear what it is they are wanting me to hear but most of the time I want to say, “Hello! I read music. I teach singing. This is what you are paying me for.”
Deborah said, “But I want to sing it the way she does because at least I know that’s a way to sing it.”
That’s like saying, “I want to live someone else’s life because I can see that person is alive.” It’s understandable. It’s human to feel that way. But it can’t be done. You can’t live someone else’s life—without destroying both of you– and you can’t sing a song like someone else sings it. I love the way Jane Monheit sings “Embraceable You” and I love the way Arleen Auger sings “Weichet nur betrübte Schatten,” but when I sing those songs, I need to do my own work of getting inside the sound and the words. What makes the singing of those songs compelling is not the way the singers phrase this bit or the little swoop on that bit or the crescendo here and the fading away there. What makes a singer compelling is not imitable. A singer is compelling when she sings from the inside out, when we hear and feel her vulnerability. She sings from her heart.
Deborah and I worked on “Why They Call It Falling” for months. One day she came in and said she had listened to her recording and thought, “She’s not singing it right.” I can’t tell you exciting it was to hear that. Deborah had gotten the song inside her and she was bringing it out her way.
Being in front of an audience can be un-nerving, even if that audience is the voice teacher. We imitate because it feel safe. But there’s no real vulnerability when we try to sing a song like someone else sings it. Afterwards, even if hoards of people rush to tell us how much they enjoyed our singing, we know deep inside, whether we are fully aware of it or not, that what we did was not genuine. If we don’t want to imitate, we can take a deep breath, sing our own lives and live our own songs.