fear-of-singing-e1361318916855

Deep Throat #4: On Being and Unbeing a Singer

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It is not a coincidence that among the synonyms for “practice” is “ritual,” and for “ritual,” “practice.” When you do a thing over and over—even if it is only so banal and small as lighting a cigarette—it will assume a shape and a meaning, a weight and a force. Rituals do things. They transform.

Practice transforms whether we seek it out or not. Our terrified training-wheeled wobble with a firm parental hand on the back of the bicycle seat becomes a confident look-ma-no-hands around the block. In the minds of medieval nuns, the repeated daily practice of reciting liturgy conjured a miraculous-seeming gift of literacy. Suddenly, yet without being explicitly taught, they could actually read the texts from the books they’d for so long merely held for form’s sake. You don’t have to mean to. You just have to practice.

When you do mean to, it ups the ante. Like other musicians, singers practice to transform themselves into musicians. Talent is not a substitute. Neither is the physical capacity for making beautiful sounds. They can only make it easier or faster. Singers must be created by practice just the same as skaters or shipwrights, sculptors or soccer players or public speakers. Practice is the only bridge that exists that can get any lump of raw human material to any kind of fluency at all.

But musicians also engage in a different kind of practice, one that seeks to turn fluency to transcendence. Fluency is only fluency, after all. Shakespeare was a fluent speaker of English, but a fluent speaker of English is not necessarily a Shakespeare. To have even a chance at becoming a Shakespeare, or whoever his nearest equivalent is in your field of endeavor (Spielberg, Shaq, Streep, Sills…) you have to level up, become a virtuoso. That means doubling down, practice-wise.  No, tripling. And more. If you are going to get there at all—and you may not, for no matter how hard you practice not everyone is physically capable of virtuosity, let alone the transcendant—you will only get there via ongoing, profoundly self-aware, self-disciplined refinement of your skills.  You must chase transformation, even if you never so much as catch its tail.

Unless, like me, you leave the chase.

There was no single day on which I stopped practicing singing, no date circled on the calendar to which I can now refer. Once I realized I hadn’t sung in a few months, though, I was appalled by how easily the rhythm of practice had slipped away. I had practiced singing daily, or nearly so, for the lion’s share of my life. My singerly system should, I felt, not have allowed it. I should at least have had to pick a day on which to stop by force of will. But I didn’t. I simply started practicing not-singing.

As any recovering alcoholic can tell you, practice works just as well in the realm of not-doing as anywhere else. My not-singing skills grew by leaps and bounds thanks simply to the fact that entropy takes its cut. Musicians are a bit like sharks. If they do not keep swimming, going through the specific physical motions of their music-making, their skills wither and die. I could feel muscle memory getting fuzzy, my instincts growing less reflexive. When it saddened me, as it inevitably did, I told myself I wasn’t a singer any more, and it could not possibly matter.

fear of singing

Practicing not-singing took more effort than you might think, at times. I had to inform people, many of whom had only ever known me as a singer, that I was no longer in the game. Sometimes they would forget. I would remind them. Lest you imagine that this was easy I will simply say that turning down your grandmother’s request that you sing at a family gathering is not for the weak. Nor is telling yourself, on the quiet afternoons when you are standing with tears dripping from your chin because you listened just a bit too hard to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio and a bit of the pleasure and art and magic of making those noises had crept back into your body, that not-singing was better. Simpler. Less painful. Less costly.

Anyway, I didn’t sing any more, so it didn’t matter. It couldn’t. By such well-disciplined practice, I became very, very good at not-singing. I even learned how to not mind it much. Except for one thing.

There is, you see, a quotation that has dogged me as long as I can recall. It turns out to have been written by Rabindranath Tagore, though before I asked Uncle Google just now I suspected it to have been the motto of some Calvinist choirmaster. The line in question has been pinned to the studio bulletin board of almost every voice teacher and coach I’ve ever had: God likes me when I work, but He loves me when I sing.

No pressure. Really.

You don’t have to sing. It’s just that God won’t love you any more.

Disappointing your grandmother is pretty miserable stuff. Disappointing God? Even if you’re not particularly religious and you’re not always sure you believe in Him? Well. Let’s just say that the promise that he’ll still respect you in the morning—if you work hard enough—seems like a crappy consolation prize.

I didn’t grow up religious. I’ve known singers who did, for whom the pressure to “use your God-given gifts” had been not just literal but downright sectarian. But even raised as I was, I was reminded that my gifts were gifts and gifts came from somewhere, a sign of favor. After I stopped working as a musician, and there were no more performances to practice for, my sense of practicing as a professional obligation dried up.  There was no one depending on me to practice, and no one to disappoint by not practicing.

Except in the ways that there was.

When I began to sing again, though, I did not do it out of fear, or because of some imagined whiff of brimstone. I’ve come to believe in God, though not the Angry Sky Daddy sort, and anyway, if there is a Hell more desolate than being forsaken, I’m not sure I know what it is.

I began to practice again because I wanted to. I’d been circling the desire for years and been too fearful, too hidebound, too ashamed to try, until my life shifted under my feet enough that I decided I had nothing to lose. If I had already been forsaken for quitting, then it wasn’t as if I could do any further damage by trying to start over. I just felt like singing. That was enough.

Besides, my housemates were in Paris. In a stocking-feet-and-empty-house episode that otherwise bore no resemblance whatsoever to any portion of Risky Business—I was fully clothed and no alcohol was involved—I decided fuck it, God, you gave me a present. It’s mine now. I get to do what I want with it. I didn’t know what that was. I decided I didn’t care. I was done practicing not-singing. I hoped there was something left for me on the other side.

My first practice sessions were glorious and terrible and, no surprise, frequently interrupted by tears. My technique, of course, was gone to seed, and slow. The part of me that somehow still expected to be driving a Maserati was appalled to discover itself behind the wheel of a school bus.  My voice itself had also changed. I had guessed it would—voices like mine, voice teachers say, don’t reach their full range or color or power until the singer is in her forties—but I had no idea what that would be like, or feel like, or how it would work. For a while practicing was not so much transformation as excavation, figuring out what, if anything, lay buried under a decade and change of rust and cobwebs.

Then, not so long into the excavation project, I sang some downward scales and landed in a pile of velvet, a bucket of caramel. My eyebrows shot up. I tried it again. There, at what had always been the troublesome bottom of my mezzo-soprano midrange was something I’d always wanted, something my teachers and I had always coaxed and bullied but never achieved. A cluster of notes around middle C that used to be unfocused and wan had somehow turned firm and strong entirely of their own accord, as imperturbably at ease as a cat that has just marched into your kitchen and decided it is no longer a stray. Each time I practice now, my newfound bit of plush and purr is a delight and a pleasure, still a wonderful surprise.

Practice is not a transaction, it is only a ritual. Like prayer it is the persistent offering of effort, desire, and hope. We like to think that it is the effort that transforms us. We love to believe in the force of our desires. But there is no technique, no yearning translated into action, that could’ve forced my vocal cords to mature in the subtle precise way that they did in order to blossom into velvet and sweetness just where they did, just as they did. Some transformations will not be chased.  We can only hope, and try, and, once in a while, get lucky.

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Hanne Blank (www.hanneblank.com) is a writer, historian, and educator whose work lies at the intersection of body, self, and culture. Trained as a classical mezzo-soprano at New England Conservatory, Indiana University School of Music, and Tanglewood, she feels that those who cannot figure out what the connections are between her musical career and her literary one probably just need to go to the opera more often. She currently splits her time between north-central Massachusetts and Atlanta, Georgia. More from this author →