February 20, 2012

Hosing Down the Critics

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Last weekend I wrote about my students performing in a love-fest of a Terrified Adults and Spotlight Whores Sunday Afternoon Musicale.  ( I spent the week picking up pieces.  One of my students came to her lesson saying that she wished her best friend had been there because she would tell her The Truth about her singing.

I was almost apoplectic.  I wanted to say, “Give me her name.  I’ll take care of her.”

Contrary to what the prevailing trends suggest, singing is not done in a court of law.  But nowadays people listen to music with a clipboard and a smug attitude.  Audiences are pock-marked with critics and judges who wouldn’t dream of ridiculing a child who is learning to walk or undermining an adult preparing for a job interview, but who think nothing of ripping a singer to shreds and dispassionately examining the tatters while the performer bleeds out.

If I can borrow an expression from my painting buddy, Susan, this about sets my hair on fire.  Attempts to explain have me vomiting ashes that are trying to be words strung in a sentence. So I have been pondering this topic all week.  Yes, pondering.  Well, OK, fuming.  And dousing my head with the kitchen sink nozzle.  If this seems reactive, all I can say is that you aren’t the one having to resuscitate the victims.

So much of life is about passing exams, winning contests, and having letters after our names. It’s about how our accomplishments appear to other people.  The Experts and the Friends with The Truth have the advice we need to look and sound good.   I secretly wish that my students would not watch shows like American Idol.  They might think they are picking up useful information.  All I see is the damage it does.

I sing and I teach singing but I can’t describe how much I don’t want the pressure of being seen as The Expert.  I’m a human being.  If I attempted to play the Expert, I couldn’t sustain it.  I don’t fancy being as delusional as Popes and politicians.

A person doesn’t become a singer by having the so-called experts– or teachers– pick away at her voice until she despairs of herself and runs off the stage in tears. She would do better to embark on a course of something she already hates.  It’d be quicker.

I want to help my student build a house she actually wants to inhabit.  I view teaching as collaboration. A student wants to learn to sing, I want to learn how to help her learn to sing.  We need a dialogue.  I might have ten thoughts about a student’s technique.  I want to work with the one that is ripest.  I need a hint.  A student is sometimes reluctant to voice an opinion for fear being Wrong in front of The Expert.  There’s no Wrong.  Everything a student says gives me an idea of how we might proceed.

There are no blueprints for the house.  It’s a voice.  Maybe it’s your voice.  It’s you.  It’s your entire personality, every nook and cranny of it, in vocal sound.    I can tell you which rooms are filling up with sound.  And I can help you explore the rooms are still waiting for your breath to blow through them.  But you actually teach yourself to sing.

My biggest job, as I see it, is to foster a sense of curiosity, wonder, and pleasure at the sound of your voice filling your house. This pleasure is what will sustain you as you acquire technical skills.  It will make performance safe enough to give you a rush but also be a learning experience.  It’s what will help you mediate the ignorant pronouncements of the clipboard wienies.

The voice is a mysterious instrument. It’s like our unconscious mind: it does what it wants when it wants. The better your friendship with your voice and with all its sound colors, the less it matters what the critics say, and the more freely it will sing for you.

I’m not fuming quite so steadily. Even so, I am getting a longer hose for that kitchen sink nozzle.  When the experts and critics come around, I’ll be ready for them.


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