Last night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.
It is a funny thing, this.
Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”
This strikes me as so impossibly strange.
How can I explain why?
It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.
I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.
In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.
Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.
This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.
If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.
On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.
Not so with singing.
I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.
And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.
My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.
What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.
What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.
So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.
But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.
I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.
The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:
- Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
- Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
- Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital
So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.
I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.
I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.
So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?
I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.
The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.
Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.
With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.
I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.
And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.