This week’s blog is all about the urge to sing, and how to deal with the nerves that come with public performance. This urge to stand in front of people and open our mouths, despite the sleepless nights, sweaty palms and shaking legs.
As humans we are born with astonishing abilities to vocalise sounds. Our cords can stretch and move and phonate and create resonance. Because we use language-words, see last week-we have abilities to tell stories and create words with our voices and our minds. Why we should be born with such a power to create sound is beyond my knowledge.
I have a small daughter who loves to sing. Not yet two, she sings all day. It seems a real need, and to watch her carefully pick out the notes and words of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is both beautiful and illuminating. Her need to sing seems as great as her need to speak. Also the way she reacts to music is interesting-when she was a few months old I was learning pieces by Bach and Brahms. The Bach she loved, with its amazing symmetry and logic behind the arpeggios and triplets. The Brahms was dark, mysterious and made her cry. We know that our tonal responses are culturally built-our western harmonic system is learnt after birth, but all of us (or most of us, I know there are conditions that make music meaningless to a few unfortunate people) humans respond to music and yearn to create it.
So the easiest way of making music is to sing. Before hours of practice and study to master an instrument we sing. Robin Bowman at my old college, the Guildhall, once irritated a whole year of instrumentalists by pointing out the ineffable truth that all instruments are trying to ape the human voice, and should therefore phrase and mould as a voice would. Students were outraged (nowadays he’d probably need to offer a grovelling apology and go on a course...), but he was correct.
So fast forward to the middle-aged lady standing in my studio, first lesson nerves creating sweat as she stumbles through I Dreamed a Dream. I totally understand how difficult it was for her to make the call in the first place, and then to actually sing to somebody who’s supposed to be an ‘expert’, and who is going to give a critique... Why do they do it? What is this dream of being in the spotlight on a stage before a black space that contains hundreds of listeners?
For me it’s simple. We need to tell stories. And by the telling we share in the stories. A painter paints and walks away. Any thrill of the view can only be experienced at a distance. A story-teller can BE the story. As I’ve written before, our voice is a beautiful tool for this need, not the end of our journey.
I love drama. Films and books and poems that can create emotions, stir the blood. I’ve just seen First Man, the new film about the moon landing, and on my run this morning I looked up at the moon and felt that I myself had been there. It’s what great story telling can do. But when I think about the roles I have sung, and how I’ve lost myself in the character’s situations I can recover the thrills of being as well as telling. I never think about a sung note! My dear and loved old professor Thomas Helmsley used to say one shouldn’t sing a song unless one would die if one DIDN’T sing it. He wasn’t talking about a melody, he was talking about a story the song contains, that the music illuminates.
So that lady, having sung her song and turning nervously for the teacher’s report must be hoping to be part of this great, universal story-telling art form. Otherwise she’d be sitting at a piano, where the nerves can be so much less, because nobody would expect her to be born with piano playing abilities!
Of course there’s more. The sound we make is a reflection of our soul. An ugly voice can be the result of an ugly soul, or the waste product of a beautiful soul that can’t contain a hymn. Our need to bring this sound from our depths is a primal need to wail at the fates, or sing to the muses. If my voice was taken away I’d wither and die. I need to make noise!
But I remain firm to my conviction. We need to tell stories.
This is only my opinion.
But what about those nerves? Is our need so great that it conquers physical stress? Not always. I have pupils with glorious voices that I’m yet to persuade to sing for others. My room and their showers are their theatres. But those who venture into the theatre and put themselves through it all, most of us ‘suffer’ to some extent. There is no cure for this, only balms. I always say that were some mad fool to ask me to walk the Grand Canyon on a tightrope I’d be very, very nervous. But give me a few years of training and my nerves would be tempered with some expectation of success. Then adrenaline kicks in, and the joy of performing trumps all. Also preparation. Learning the music and being physically well. We need to be able to expect to do well. The teacher should give the student confidence. I’ve always felt it’s as important for me to let the student know what they do well, as well as working on any vocal issues they have. Confidence should be earned, for then it’s true and real and can be used when the lights are on...
Thanks again for reading. Apologies for all the awful typos last week-I wrote it on my phone and half of it was auto-corrected, honest! And again, if any of this helped or made sense, I’d love it if you could drop a comment or share.
Have a great week,