I asked her how she thought her voice was supposed to feel. Her response was “empowered, grounded and strong”. This raised the question as to whether she was comparing her voice now with her voice in the past, (as in how the techniques we are exploring feel different) or comparing her voice with other singers she admires. It was the latter.
I asked her how she believed those singers feel when they sing, what in her view is their experience? She responded…”effortless”. I smiled. Yes. Experience that years and years of singing along with many hours working on the voice brings, can lead the performer to a place that makes the process look effortless, but that doesn’t mean that it is. But, it can mean that the actual “effort” shifts.This particular topic does not rear its head too often, especially with beginners. I believe at the beginning of any new endeavor it can be hard to see what you’re doing clearly….forest for the trees and all that. In many cases, that can be better as there is an element of faith in the process. Either way, I enjoyed this discussion so thoroughly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I decided to consult with two vocal gurus; Lis Lewis and Joanna Cazden, both of whom I admire and trust implicitly. I figured they would have pondered the same question at some point and if not, it was definitely worth picking their brains about.
After describing the above to both of them, here’s what was shared:Joanna Cazden: I am reminded of the 12-step program adage: “Don’t judge your inside by someone else’s outside.” There’s a notion of expecting instant changes from something that’s a lifelong process of discovery. “Empowered and grounded” are whole-body sensations; not every vocal exercise will go near that, as most emphasize “local” changes. Do you talk about vocal goals from the outset?
ME: Yes…in fact, talking about goals and expectations is a big part of every introductory lesson and subsequent. The reason why this struck me as interesting is that I think it’s a concept that is easy to see from the other side, but harder to see from the beginning. I was surprised that this student was already able to articulate the idea of this sensation. Most students either think it’s me (as in NO magic wand ;-)), think it’s them (they’re not talented enough) or don’t think about it at all and just move forward with blind faith.
However, I am stuck on “empowered” as it can be psychological, physical, or any number of things that can be personal and/or universal. Oh the psychology!
LIS LEWIS: I don’t think I’ve worked with a single singer, no matter how talented or famous, who felt like their voice waseffortless. They may love their voices, love the sound and the way it makes them feel to sing, but they always know the amount of work and maintenance involved. They know the work it takes to move through the various ranges, tones or emotions. Just like an athlete, they work on the skill set until it becomes intuitive. There’s a conscious part and an emotive intuitive part. There’s the part you have to pay attention (to make sure you don’t fall off the stage) and the part that you throw yourself into.
JC: Well said!
ME: I completely concur. I guess the question that I still see is what does “effortless” mean? I mean for me personally, there are things that I know I can do effortlessly that some of my students cannot, yet. It doesn’t mean those things don’t take effort, but the amount of effort I am conscious of is minimal by comparison, because either the effort has already been “put in” or I was always able to do it. However, if I watch Rachelle Ferrell sing I am utterly intimidated by what she can do with her voice. It is doubtful that her process was anything less than hours and hours and hours of practice, study and experimentation.
So, what I see, is that the “effort” shifts. Thoughts?
ME: Absolutely…to all of those points. Sarah and Janis, no…that’s an A vs B question for sure. I guess at the beginner stage, playing to your strengths depends on what you’re bringing to the table to begin with, in addition to your own awareness of what those strengths (and weaknesses) are. There is definitely a talent factor, in varying degrees. Some people can naturally sing in tune for instance and some have to work on it. At the beginner stage, supposing that you have to learn almost everything from scratch but have an idea of pitch that is fairly accurate, everything feels like an effort, probably because it is. And by the way, that video of Rachelle is an early one, here’s one of Rachell with Lalah at Catalina. The sound is not good, but you get the idea. That’s funny that you mentioned Lalah…Rachelle and Lalah sing together all the time! Who knew!
JC: I would just add that there might be two levels of meaning to “effortless.” When discussing laryngeal mechanics and throat sensation, things should feel fairly effortless. This use of the term contrasts to singing or even talking that feels locally like effort, such as when there’s a medical problem and/or really bad technique, and throat muscles are working so hard they get tired andachy. “Effortless” here means that the cords are healthy and they meet smoothly; breath support and resonance placement and all the other technical factors are in place; and the singer says, “wow this suddenly got so much easier, I don’t feel my throat at all.” The vocal cords are riding on exactly the airflow they like, happily vibrating through wide ranges of pitch and intensity, and we don’t really feel them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and how it’s supposed to sound.
ME: I tend to describe this in terms of the mechanism(s) being unconscious, as they are designed to feel. If you’re feeling too much tension, or abrasive friction, something *ain’t* right!JC: Yes, at the same time though, the singer is working very hard everywhere else: in their mind, in their core (ribs/abs/diaphragm), in their mouth and upper throat, in their diction, in their entire body posture, in their emotional connection to the song and the audience, and in their spiritual courage. Plus of course, they are coordinating with band mates, remembering choreography, playing an instrument at the same time, hitting marks for a video, or perhaps (in the case of P!nk) hanging from a trapeze so all the vocal mechanics are upside-down in relation to gravity. At the highest levels of performance, some of this is done “by heart” (from muscle memory and repeated mental habit), but one would be crazy or naive to think that it feels “effortless.”
ME: P!nk is crazy (In a good way)! That’s an extreme example, an outlier I guess, but still a good one. However, I don’t think it’s crazy to think it feels effortless, and this brings me back to the initial question. As you say Joanna, the repetition and musclememory can make it seem effortless and in some cases it feel that one to one person and not to another. For the sake of example, I can belt really easily with zero pain or throat tension. It still takes effort but working with students who are dying to be able to belt easily, it takes tremendous effort and stamina. I remember that feeling myself, many years ago…pushing, pushing, pushing. URGH!
JC: The core challenge, I believe, is to rehearse so diligently―working both hard and smart―that every conscious part of the mind + body + soul + communication does its job, freeing the semi-conscious vocal mechanism to do as little “work” as possible. Because the cords are so sensitive to all other areas of the body-mind, they will pick up the slack if they have to. Too little airflow or too much; too little stamina or too much anxiety, the cords reflexively adapt. We want to spare them that effort.
ME: I love that visual Joanna. It’s important to remember that. The body knows better than we do. Unconsciously. ☺ I’m going to add a link here to one of your articles that embellishes on this – Joanna Cazden The Instrument Inside Of You.
JC: Discipline is the key to freedom in most areas of life. Practicing all the other stuff is what allows the vocal cords to do the “spontaneous magic” that feels like no work at all.ME: Absolutely. One of my favourite quotes from a friend, Claudette Sutherland, (who is a creative writing coach, but also a singer. She was the original “Smitty” in “How To Succeed In Business…” on Broadway) is “the work is more important than how you feel about it”, and that is sooooo true. Showing up, asking questions, but “doing” is paramount to how you may feel about it (of course this is all assuming you’re in good hands, with the right guidance).
So, there’s talent (what you bring to the table), finding the right guidance (look hard and question a lot!), practice (local isolated techniques and songs that tie everything together), awareness (analyzing what is happening, shifting etc) and knowing that there is a tremendous amount of unconscious work going on, stuff you will not be aware of….and if I can add one more thing (which I think I can…it’s my blog!)….LISTEN!!!!! Seriously. Record everything, listen back and keep files. You will hear your voice differently outside your person, especially after the practice. The best singers have a lot of experience listening back to themselves. Time consuming? You bet.
A wonderful discussion that I hope you found interesting. I think we’ll do this again.