The Uncertainty Principle and Singing

by Bruce Schoonmaker

"Sweet is the lore which Nature brings,
Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous
form of things.
We murder to dissect."

In The Meaning of Technique, I spoke of letting go of our self-consciousness in order to sing beyond technique and interpretation, the two combining to form a gestalt greater than the sum of the parts. Now I would like to explore a way of evaluating what we are doing, of listening to ourselves while we perform in order to assess our performance, a way of assessing ourselves without becoming self-conscious and less involved in performing. How do we as singer-actors perceive the quality of our performance while we perform? How do we as teachers evaluate our students' singing while we teach them? How do we teachers assess our teaching while we teach? The need to understand how well we are doing is important in both the art of singing and its pedagogy. We live in a self-conscious society and we need to develop means of assessment that do not impede us as performers or teachers.

The intuitive skills involved in teaching and in singing are difficult to describe, because the outward manifestations of musical intelligence are not easily defined by words. More often we teach musical-intuitive skills by modeling and by pointing out when the student shapes a phrase true to the intent of the composer, the style, and the student's personality.

Because the skills do not readily lend themselves to words, they are difficult to define and analyze, and because the level of energy and focus required for performing and for teaching transcend analysis, we must consciously let go of evaluating, of assessing how we are doing, in order to do what we want. Assessment and criticism can be performed in retrospect, after the activity, in order to look upon what happened and to determine our level of competency and our level of involvement with the moment-to-moment magic of making music. We must be careful not to dissect what we are doing.

Moshe Feldenkrais said,

"Be aware of what you are doing, then do what you want."

We can learn to know in an intuitive, unselfconscious way how well we are doing. We can assign to the part of us that is most creative, most intuitive, and most nurturing, the task of monitoring our skill. In this way we turn assessment into an art, a creative process that brings out the best in us in order to bring out, on another level, the best in us. Otherwise, the question "how well am I doing" can lead to an internal witch hunt, an analytical process searching for "what is wrong" in which assessment becomes a tyrant, and we fall prey to the judge within us.

In the arts we have a rather special relationship with assessment, with analyzing how well we are doing. In the microcosm of warming-up hours before a performance, we work to open the voice, to put the sound on the breath, to create the vocal line, to establish purity of vowels and freedom, and we keep close watch over our progress. In other words, we remain self-conscious of our progress. When we perform, however, we need to move beyond that self-consciousness so that we do not fall into the trap discussed in the first essay (Paul Hogan's "life is not a dress rehearsal"). All of our energy and awareness needs to focus on what we are trying to communicate to the audience.

In the macrocosm of training for years to become the best performer we can become, our voice teacher becomes our assessor, the person who judges how well we are doing and gives us immediate feedback, allowing us to repeat skills over and over and to improve our technique and interpretation. Teachers can be nurturing, supportive, vindictive, egotistical, judgmental, critical, incompetent, uncaring, brilliant, or enlightened. They become the symbols within our psyche by which we interpret how well we perform. The teacher becomes the internal auditor.

Teachers exert tremendous influence on the performing lives of students. By teaching unselfconsciously, with creative, positive energy, we establish within our students the positive assessor that uplifts the student and encourages. In music, we also have professional assessors in the form of critics who listen to performances with the purpose of reporting to the public on the quality of technique, musicianship, interpretive ability, and stage presence that we exhibit. Many critics entertain their readers by their writing style and by the form of criticism that they present in their columns. Critics easily become tyrants, denigrating performers and criticizing without understanding the situation in which the performer finds himself. Many performers dread the presence of critics and suffer during premieres from internal expectations precipitated by bad experiences with critics. The process becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that propagates tyrannical critics and tyrannical internalization. Within our society, this process has proceeded so far that we need at this time to fight it, using positive thoughts and energy to overcome the vicious cycle that permeates our music culture.

For us, then, assessment and evaluation of our singing can be a nurturing, positive process or a tyrannical, negative process. Much depends upon our inner resources and parental introjections. Much depends on the quality of our musical training. Thirty years ago, music pedagogy was much more tyrannical in approach; we are moving away from that model to a more nurturing model.

Wesley Balk, in Performing Power (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, p. 5) states that the fear of judgment is much more difficult for performers to overcome now than it was in previous centuries:

How do we move from limiting, judgmental assessment to intuitive, synthesizing assessment? How do we transcend our need to judge, our need to dissect, in order to create a more living, viable art?

The uncertainty principle in physics states that a particle loses some of its identity merely through the process of being observed; in other words, observation changes the process being observed. So if we apply positive, nurturing energy in observing our assessment--in other words, if we positively observe how we observe our singing or teaching--we can transform the first-level energy of observation, the level closest to the art.

This means that there exists a technique to observation, a means of applying positive energy and spiritual dimension to seeing how we see. By leaping into a second order of observation, in which we then let go of observing and become one with it, we absorb the lower level as well, letting go of it and creating the art in which we are involved. By assessing our second-order technique, we free the first-order technique from the need for conscious assessment.

Dianne Postnieks told me about Laurence Leshan and his challenge in teaching meditation. Yoga meditation is simple to learn and difficult to perform, because it is boring. People practicing it begin daydreaming, then realize their error, and bring themselves back to task, back to focus on their breathing or on a flame. Successful learning depends on the way by which the would-be meditator brings herself back to task. Does she do so tyrannically, with guilt and self-abuse, or does she bring herself back gently, allowing space and kindness in returning to focus? The second-order technique influences directly the first-order technique; observing and refocusing in a nurturing manner causes profound change in her primary task.

Ends are not divorced from means. Means define ends.

We improve, we bring about a higher level of focus and energy, by leaping ahead and adding energy to our system, through focus on a higher object: in singing, we assess the first level, singing and teaching singing, then move to a higher level, how well we are teaching. By leaping ahead, by learning how to increase our positive energy, our ki, we learn to listen and perceive in different ways, to open the space around our perception, and our perception itself becomes a positive, unspoken force in teaching our students. It affects our actions and the feedback that we give our students. We reach beyond ourselves and find more of ourselves. Many people fear going beyond what they know exists within the realm of their experience and fear the ego-death discussed in the fourth essay. Yet all we find is more of our SELF, a deeper level of our beings, a purer energy, freer and more relaxed, lighter and easier to produce.

Jonathan Miller, in his book Subsequent Performances (Viking Penguin Inc., 1986, p. 118) states:

By becoming our own director, by laying a deep structure for ourselves, we become the embedded metaphor for singing, teaching the way we would have our students sing.

Our attitude toward teaching changes and we no longer find ourselves frazzled by less-productive lessons because we realize that the seeds we plant lie within the deeper levels of the student. We create in our studios a safe, positive energy, a nurturing climate that the student trusts. Then the student leaves, more aware of what he is doing, breathing more deeply and creating more positive energy in those people that come within his awareness.

Ironically, by focusing on assessment, we learn to short-circuit the negative part of assessment. We transcend assessment and create ASSESSMENT, the positive power of perception that edifies student and teacher. We make perception and thinking an art, something beautiful in itself. We remake in this way the miracle of life, that every moment may have an intense meaning, full of spectacle and full of compassion. Emily Dickinson said

For each ecstatic instant, we must an anguish pay, in keen and quivering ration to the ecstasy.

Musicians study musical scores before performing them in order to discover what in the piece brings out the performer's creativity, what within the structure of the piece offers the most opportunity for creating beauty, what within the piece reflects most accurately the feelings and attitude of the performer. They try to discern Miller's "deep structure" within the work. We need to study our assessment, our perception, in the same way, making it into a performance. It's the performance within the performance within the performance that counts. The purer any deeper level is, the purer the external levels are.

By exploring more deeply within ourselves what does or does not work in how we relate to ourselves (or others) as students, we become simpler, losing ourselves in our art, like standing between parallel mirrors seeing endless repetitions of ourselves. We lose the sense of WHO IS LOOKING? We become single minded, shifting our paradigm to a higher order, becoming more efficient and more productive in relating to ourselves, our students, and our audiences. We short-circuit the tendency to become too complex and analytical in teaching or performing. We no longer need to confuse ourselves with

"that frost of fact by which our wisdom gives correctly stated death to all that lives."

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