You know what I don’t like? People who say, “Can’t complain,” and people who wear those buttons that say “No Whining.” Of course you can complain. And whining helps.
The British say “whinging.” Isn’t that a great word? It’s got the nasal irritation of the word whine, the messy soft g; and in addition, you pronounce the “h” in the “wh” so all that annoyed energy comes through on the breath before you ever phonate.
You know where whining—or whinging– helps a lot? In singing. Many singers and students of singing have a narrow idea of what it means to sing. It’s a montage of what feels easy, what parts of their voices have already been developed and their ideas of singing as garnered from watching performers. To be blunt, the result is often a nice, insipid sound, incrusted with caricatured nuances.
The actual experience of singing with our own voices is nothing like what we think it is when we daydream about being “up there” on stage, having people listening to us, or more to the point, watching and admiring us. That’s fantasy. When we sing we cannot escape our own voices which reflect our entire personalities, both conscious and unconscious. To sound like who we are and to enjoy the experience of singing, we must bring our own sound and fury.
This is where the whining comes in. Almost all of us have been told since we were very young to not whine. Some of us were also not allowed to express anger or sadness or even exuberance. We got so good at not expressing, we finally stopped feeling and as adults we often insist that the full menu of human emotions isn’t even there. Well, guess what? It is. If we can’t bring it into our singing voices, we won’t have a satisfying experience of singing, we won’t sound like ourselves, we won’t be compelling performers, and singing is going to tire us out, not energize us.
When one of my students stops a sound, makes a face, and says, “Ugh, that sounds horrible,” I say, “Make it sound worse.” I learned this from one of earth’s great treasures, a singer named Tommie Eckert. She taught me to explore all the awful sounds, to go digging around in the muck and the dark to see what’s there.
Think about what’s in muck: truffles. In tight, hidden places: pearls. In the dark: gold. We mine the richness in our voices when we stop interacting with images of what it means to sing. We begin wallowing in the experience of our own sound. We try being goofy or angry or seductive when we sing. We push the previously forbidden to extreme in order to find its scope in our voices.
Fearlessly wallowing can be frightening. The prohibition against whining or against being angry or sexual makes a lot of singing students uncomfortable. Singing is supposed to be civilized; they don’t want to walk in off the street and go all regressive and primal, shrieking and wailing and feeling exposed and foolish. But to be compelling singers, we must bring some of our underbelly into the tone. That includes stuff we long ago stopped feeling, but which, not incidentally, is part of what it means to be human. The very effort to avoid our shadows makes our voices small, complacent, uninspiring, and forgettable.
Those wallowing experiences in lessons or in practice open up new places for our voices to resonate; they wash more colors into our sound, and provide more stability for the weak parts of our scales. It’s not that we go out whining in public when people have come to hear us sing any more than we take the rage we located it in a psycho-therapy session into the grocery store to buy milk (although it can be forgiven if it pops out at the pharmacy when we first learn that the generic we’ve used for years has been dropped from our insurance formulary.)
I don’t think of lessons, practices, and rehearsals as places to perfect performance. I think of them as places to play and experiment with the every kind of sound we can possibly make, especially whining; to get comfortable with the experience of being inside ourselves, with noticing the gestalt of the inhalation, the support, and the exhalation; with feeling the resonance in our bodies, and with luxuriating in the exuberance of our own voices let loose in the world.