Singing Without Technique

by Bruce Schoonmaker

The student arrives for his lesson. He has prepared his voice to the best of his ability, and now he desires his teacher to take him beyond what he can do on his own. He starts to sing. "Don't vocalize," says the teacher, and the student responds by making sounds more naturally, more colorfully, less mechanically. "Don't sing," says the teacher, and the student forgets his technique, forgets his tone, forgets himself, and becomes engrossed in the drama of the moment. "More," says the teacher, and the student steps beyond his dearly held limitations, infusing his voice with more feeling, more beauty, and more strength.

The crux of this approach is the ability not to sing while singing. It is a paradigm shift in attitude that allows one to go beyond the limitations of technique-musicality-interpretation in order to create a gestalt of personalized-yet-universal expression. One moves beyond self to the spaciousness of SELF. One moves beyond singing for the sake of art to singing for the sake of TRUTH. Singing becomes a means of expressing the singer's truth. And the singer's truth is singing: it is the beauty of the moment, the sure knowledge that we share levels of beauty and intensity of experience that cannot be described through words. In accomplishing this, the singer forsakes his fears and limitations.

When I work with a student and find that she doubts herself and her abilities, I try not to take her too seriously, because it is the nature of fear and doubt to create energy that is too heavy for singing, for performing, for rejoicing in the moment. By resonating with her fear and doubt, I create energy too heavy for teaching creatively and playfully. I become in teaching exactly what I do not wish her to become in singing.

The kind of energy necessary for singing, for expressing music in a meaningful way, is the energy of a three-year-old, completely engrossed in his endeavor, completely at ease, and completely vulnerable. This is, in fact, the nature of Zen, becoming so engrossed in what you are doing that you no longer focus on doing it, you only do it. The three-year-old is not saying to himself, "Now I am building a house with blocks." He simply does it. He does not think, "What is the best technique for using these blocks?" He relies on a part of himself that makes the proper decisions.

How do we singers find that part of ourselves?

By not focusing on "singing" while we are singing. By not creating energy consumed in intellectual struggle. By not being too smart for our own good while vocalizing. I tell students, "Don't sing," and the most wonderful improvement occurs. It occurs because they know that they are ready to step beyond their technical focus and become an artist, totally engrossed in what they are doing, totally vulnerable.

Singing is really the integration of three expressive systems. As described by H. Wesley Balk in Performing Power, those systems are the vocal/expressive mode, the facial/emotional mode, and the kinesthetic mode. Each mode has its own wisdom and guidance within the psyche, and integration of the three modes brings about successful art. The kinesthetic mode works intimately in the breathing process, the facial/emotional mode in interpretation and color, and the vocal/expressive mode in phonation and resonance. Each mode affects every portion of singing technique. Vulnerability comes from successful interplay of the three modes and intense cooperation among their sources of wisdom and expression.

The first ingredient for success in making oneself vulnerable is safety. I try to create an environment that is emotionally safe for students. I try to clear the air of negative feelings that create heavy energy, energy that prevents playfulness and creativity. (To an artist, playfulness is creativity and creativity is play.) I try to free the three modes of expression in myself, so that the student may observe in my teaching the free interplay that I would have them experience in singing.

The form of teaching has as much impact on the student as the content of what is being taught.

What evolves, unless the student is exhausted or somehow preoccupied in a way that he cannot free himself to focus on playfulness and art, is a sense of sharing with the audience, a sense of intimacy on an artistic level. Successful singing is extremely intimate, and by becoming "not yourself," you most deeply share yourself with your audience. You transcend the persona, the exterior personality that each of us portrays in public, the facade with which we go forth into the world. I tell my students, "pretend that you are not singing, that you are only a vehicle through which someone else does the work. Someone else makes you breathe. Someone else makes you form the vowels and phonate. Someone else moves your jaw and tongue, articulating the words." It is the student, of course, who still controls his singing, but the result oftentimes is a much freer, more beautiful tone, not constricted by too much responsibility, too much control, or too much effort.

After establishing safe, intimate sharing, I try to move from an intellectual focus to an intuitive focus, from striving for good reasons to suggesting truth. In other words, I try to focus within my psyche where I wish my student to focus within his psyche. At this level, it is difficult to express one's desires, because words limit the description of truth in the same way that focusing on trying-to-sing prevents one from singing. When I tell students "Don't Sing," I confront the same intellectual shortsightedness (within me) that I confront in my students. I quite literally teach myself while I teach my students, and, of course, when I practice (teach myself), I prepare to teach my students.

I often ask a student to sing less loudly. This allows the student to let his voice blossom, establishing the morbido, and the voice becomes stronger. But the intellect insinuates its way back into the picture: When I request that the student recreate the sensation, if she focuses on the loudness (which was a result of the process rather than the process itself), she loses the creative energy, and the voice becomes smaller and weaker. My recourse is to tell her that she focused on the loudness rather than focusing on what caused the loudness naturally.

Ultimately, what allows students to sing without technique is teaching without technique. This means transcending technique, viewing it in proper perspective, adding space around thought and around the information in our minds. This spaciousness within the psyche is the breadth of our minds, of which thought is a natural part but not the most important portion or the controlling factor.

Each of us is too great, too creative, too all-encompassing to define ourselves by what can be expressed in thoughts, words, and deeds.

Artistry arises from the greatest depths, the collective unconscious of our psyches. In the same way that I am trying to transcend words in expressing my truth to you, I want students to transcend technique in expressing their truth in singing. Ironically, the way to do it is by not "trying" at all. "Trying" is an ego-centered activity, and the ego contains only a portion of what is true and complete, so trying ultimately becomes its own end. I am a person who tends to feel too responsible in teaching, too intensely connected with the product rather than the process; I try to follow my own advice to students, to feel like a vehicle through which Someone Else does the teaching. I try not to try. In allowing this inner vocal guide to speak through me, I am able to enjoy teaching more intensely and to use my energy more creatively. My ego becomes an auditor of experience rather than the controlling force behind teaching.

Learning to sing moves the singer toward enlightenment, putting the ego in its proper place, not living without it but recognizing its purpose and limitations. Truth defies words, because words are the tools of intellect, and intellect is only a portion of truth. Singing is synthetic, a putting together of technique, musicality, interpretation, and personality to create a gestalt that cannot be separated into components.

I tell students who focus too much on one element not to miss the forest for the trees. I tell students who sing too loud to create strength in softness. I tell students who talk too much to listen for the silence in songs and arias.

Creating silence is as important as creating sounds.

I tell singers crazy things, like "support the silence." I tell them to find energy in unlikely places. Like Barry Stevens, in Don't Push the River, I cannot really explain what I am doing with my students until after I have done it. It's hard to point at the path you're on, and at the same time, to see where it's going. The times when I am most able to describe what I am doing while I am doing it are the times when I am not teaching my best.

In lessons or in working with myself (which is even more confusing), I find myself speaking intuitively, letting the feeling of the moment, rather than any plan, dictate the course of the lesson. Only if the student asks for clarification or if the student sings unsuccessfully do I speak analytically. I find that many of the most successful suggestions I make are verbal ideas that my intellect, in monitoring what is going on, considers outrageous or illogical, ideas that someone reading a transcript of the lesson would find useless. Musical, artistic content is not easily captured in the form of words.

Form must never outweigh content. In singing this means that technique must never be more important than musical/dramatic content. Interpretation supersedes technique. You work and work on technique until you've got it, then you must forget it. So every time you practice a piece or a phrase, make sure that the last time you sing it, you sing it unselfconsciously, forgetting technique, not trying to DO IT RIGHT. Because the singer's focus is the message. It becomes the meaning to the listener. I complain to students, "I hear you trying very hard to do it right, now let me hear you express the drama." Or I say, "That's very beautiful, now make it interesting." Some of the most boring performances I've attended were extremely beautiful. The limitations of technique confront us wherever we go:

It's important not to DO IT RIGHT but to DO IT.

Striving to succeed gets in the way of succeeding. Working too hard at a song creates performing that sounds as if the singer is working too hard. When I work too hard at getting my voice students to sing with flawless technique, they work too hard at singing. They sing with an effulgence of tone that proscribes variety, their voices beautiful and dull.

Don't think about singing while you sing. Think about the import of what you are saying; let your body do the singing. Let the wisdom of the kinesthetic, vocal, and facial modes carry the technique. I tell students that technique and musicality are like driving a car. While learning to drive, you focus on the task intensely, but soon the skill becomes second nature, so that you are free to focus on something else. Remembering the melody and text of a song becomes like remembering the turn signal: second nature, a natural extension of a part of you that operates effortlessly and smoothly, with its own wisdom and its own gracefulness.

I tell students to sing with confidence and courage. People don't believe that they can create emotional states, using the energy available within their emotional beings. I believe that the human race has arrived at an evolutionary stage where we are learning to use emotions as tools rather than to be ruled by them, in the same way that we have learned to focus the intellect on thinking.

Students need encouragement; they need to be en-courage-d quite literally. Confidence is not the lack of fears; it is the willingness to risk repeatedly in lessons, creating successful singing. Successful repetitions build confidence, which is nothing more than the intuitive knowledge that the song/aria will probably succeed.

There are no guarantees in singing. Nothing goes right all the time. Inconsistency is the meat of life. Hope and courage are elements of success in any endeavor. In teaching and singing, believing in the student (or oneself) allows the energy of creativity to express itself through the voice. Many singers wait for their techniques to solidify before they sing with freedom and conviction; what they fail to realize is that their techniques will not solidify until they perform and practice performing with freedom and conviction. The upper levels of technical skill require emotional involvement.

We seem to be a society waiting for permission to be genuine, to express what is deepest within us without fearing rejection.

We wait for the other guy to make himself vulnerable first. Each person exercises choice in this process: Only I can permit me to be who I am. This seems to be the key to opening myself to the fruit of my being. When I permit myself to be vulnerable, to speak intuitively, overcoming the fear of rejection, I focus in a new spot, a deeper part of my being.

The negative side of socialization involves learning how to parry and thrust in conversation, how to maneuver without letting down barriers to what you really think, what you really believe, what you really feel. When we meet a person who by nature expresses his vulnerability, we are so amazed that we customarily either take to him right away or distrust him completely, projecting onto him our motives and feelings of distrust.

This deeper focus, this willingness to become vulnerable, is more important than technique. In fact, it defines technique; it is a technique for proper technique. This shift of focus moves one beyond the place where fears and doubt can overwhelm one during a performance (reducing the energy and focus creating the sound), and allows the singer to use the energy of his feelings for the purpose at hand. It does not deny fear; it transcends fear. The proper attitude toward singing far outweighs the proper technique. Many a fine performer survives on a less-than-adequate technique by maintaining proper focus and attention. It allows the singer to operate on the highest frequency of energy a light-yet-strong energy that suffuses his singing with power and beauty, with fun and excitement, with feeling and meaning.

Energy at its highest frequency is pure awareness. Awareness in its purest form is spirit. When I teach, I listen beyond the personality of the singer. I listen for her spirit, the energy of her greater self. Most personas, even adding the depth of emotional honesty, represent only a portion of who a person really is. People who manifest their greater selves are "enlightened," filled with energy at its highest frequency: light. They accept themselves at all levels, so that they are free to express their many facets to others.

Singing is truly therapeutic because it is a process of realizing who we are.

It requires accepting who we are so that we may grow musically, dramatically, and technically. The voice only reflects the inner person. Because we grow, our voices change and develop. We never sing an aria the same way twice, because we are different beings each time we sing.

In teaching, I listen for the student's spiritual presence in the sound, the energy undergirding her total being, the essence of her beautiful soul. I tell students that their voices differ from day to day because voices reflect the richness and variability of life. The therapeutic nature of singing is a two-way street: Whatever a singer does that enriches her life and strengthens its many facets, in turn strengthens her voice. Whatever brings her closer to her physical self, her intuitive self, her spiritual self, or her emotional self enhances her art. Singers find meditation, yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, Reiki, psychotherapy, acting classes, fencing, and martial arts valuable aids in increasing their strength and artistry. Rites of passage enhance singing as well: marriage, children, travel, and adopting a different culture. All are aspects of growth that help singers transcend technique.

Let me paraphrase a famous eastern proverb:

Great singing is easier than good singing, because great singers forget technique and forget musicality. They forget trying to do it right in favor of doing it. Great singers focus on the drama of the moment, expressing what is beautiful and honest and true within them, while they let the body or peripheral portions of their psyche handle the vocalism. Great singing is simple because great singers are trying to do less than other singers.

They simply sing. They sing simply. They sing.

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