Music, Voice

Thoughts on Practice

A recent voice lesson gave me the chance to reflect on my path in music and to notice how a major stumbling block of the past now seems easier to manage.

My teacher asked me to stop thinking about how I was singing and instead “let it come naturally.” We were working on Gute Nacht, the opening piece from Schubert’s Winterreise cycle.

In the many years that I listened to Winterreise as a teenager and then a twenty-something (collecting well over a dozen recordings along the way), I believed I would never be able to sing. I had played guitar since age 15, but my great secret wish was to make music with my own voice. Fear kept me from pursuing it: I thought I’d never be able to hold a steady pitch or make a pleasing tone.  But two years ago I finally signed up for voice lessons. These days it’s startling to realize that I’m singing the music I had once admired from afar, and it’s gratifying to see how a circumstance of self-doubt has turned into an opportunity to improve through practice.

My teacher read me a quote about running: according to research in sports psychology, the best runners don’t think at all while they’re running. They operate on auto-pilot.

Perhaps because my mind is so often abuzz, I sometimes receive this advice from teachers: “Don’t think so hard.” It’s good advice, but one faces a conundrum in applying it. Sure, the best athletes and musicians don’t need to think because they’ve practiced so long that good technique is now automatic, but what do you do before you reach that point? Sometimes you may have progressed further than you realize – all that’s needed to “cash in” on your practice is to step back, relinquish control, and let the good habits you’ve built now work for themselves. But there are other times when you try to “let go” and find that old habits come rushing back: without the oversight of your conscious mind, you regress. You can still benefit from taking a calmer approach, with less mental chatter, but you’re not quite ready for auto-pilot.

Of course, you don’t know what’s going to happen until you try. So, I took my teacher’s suggestion: I resolved to stop thinking about my singing and just enjoy the music. I let myself gesture freely and gave up my concerns about intonation and projection, jaw position and diction – all the things I had been studying in class. I was skeptical at first, but something magical happened within a few bars: I felt I had become a character in the play I had been watching all those years. Now I was that hapless wanderer, shivering as he departs his maiden’s house in that bleak snowy night. The music seemed to pour forth from me, and the dynamics fell into place: softer here, more forceful there – there was no need to consciously “interpret” the piece now that I was experiencing its drama first hand. The German text had become my own.

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
Fremd zieh' ich wieder aus...

(A stranger I came,
and a stranger I depart...)

When the piece came to an end I felt I had said what I needed to say, nothing less, nothing more. The performance had been a transcendent moment for me – the reason I wanted to study music in the first place – and a terrifying moment too, as I had entered the psyche of Schubert and Müller’s frightful character.

There was silence as I came out of the “scene” and finally looked at my teacher. I was still swept up in the storm and cold of the piece and not quite ready to speak. She had been accompanying me on piano, and I thought she too might need a moment to rest after such intense music-making.

“That was nice…” she said. “It was nice… but… it might be time for you to take this piece to the next level… to make some more sensitive dramatic choices… to really start conveying the text. And also… I don’t want to nitpick, because the German was great overall, but there were a few places where the consonants got lost.”

My teacher is wonderfully encouraging, and she’s praised my Schubert before, so coming from her, this lukewarm response amounted to something like a C+.

The best way to vent my inner turmoil in that moment would have been to sing more Winterreise – but no, I thought, apparently my soulless Winterreise doesn’t convey any emotion so there would be no point in doing that!

While I experienced great emotional contrasts (from tenderness to rage) in the performance and thought I was communicating them, what actually came across to my teacher on this particular run-through was a narrow dramatic range, not enough variety between sections. Also, she thought my physicality could be more relaxed (less shifting back and forth and conducting with my hands) and I should take calmer breaths earlier, rather than gasping right before phrases began. And there were places where I could have rolled my German r’s with more vigor.

My teacher’s technical comments did not surprise me – these were precisely the things I had chosen not to worry about during my uninhibited performance, but I expected I’d still have to go back and work on them. The more confusing thing was that all the inner passion which I assumed must necessarily manifest in my singing just hadn’t come through. This was one of the most fervid moments I remembered having in the voice studio, and I felt I had taken a real risk in laying myself bare like that. For someone who’s usually reserved, these times of exposure don’t come often. How could my experience of performing the piece be so at odds with what my teacher perceived?

At one point in my life, a disconnect like this would have been more than confusing, it would have been crippling, sending me into a spiral of questioning and doubt. As an audience member – on the one hand – I’ve always reveled in the mystery of artistic expression. While we can analyze a performance and talk about its features, there’s no way to systematically predict what will move a listener, or how communication between artist and audience will unfold – and that keeps the game interesting. But when it comes to my own performances (whether in singing, playing guitar, speaking, or any other medium) I’ve always wanted there to be a clear causal relation between inner experience and external response. I want to know that what the audience hears will be somehow connected to what I feel, or at least that when I have a great inner moment, something rare and transcendent, when I think I’m at my very best, it won’t all turn out to be a fantasy! When that hope has failed, I’ve often become obsessed with trying to understand why. Where did the communication go wrong? Was I deluded, or was the listener in the wrong, or was something strange happening in the air between us?

In this particular context I began to wonder whether my teacher and I read the Schubert score differently — perhaps our interpretations were simply irreconcilable? Or maybe she was concentrating mainly on technical points as she listened? Or could it just have been that I was “off” without knowing it? But then how could it have felt so right? Endless questions sprung up, but I was able to walk away from them before too long, and that’s a choice that would have been difficult for me to make earlier in my life. It’s frustrating when there’s a disconnect and then… no, you don’t go and brood over it for hours… you go on and sing the next piece.

The way I look at things now is like this: as you perform, you might be moved by the music you’re making, or you might be unmoved, as if you’re executing the mechanics without true participation; likewise, the audience might be moved, or they might be unmoved. Of course, this is an extreme simplification of what’s possible. The important thing to realize is that all combinations of inner experience and external response can happen: you might be moved and the audience might be moved too – that’s great. Or you might be unmoved and the audience might be unmoved as well. That’s unfortunate, but at least it makes some kind of “sense.” In both cases, you and the audience appear to be in sync. But there are two other scenarios that make less intuitive sense and yet they happen all the time: you might be moved but the audience is unmoved, they just don’t “get it.” And on the other hand, you might be unmoved but the audience turns out to be deeply moved by what you’re doing – somehow! There’s really no way to know for certain, or to fully control, which combination will arise — the best you can do is influence it by practicing and trying your best every time.

And what do you know? In this particular class, we talked about a few other things I could work on, I thanked my teacher for the comments, and then went on to sing a couple of other pieces in a different vein, including Cole Porter’s So In Love and Donaudy’s O Del Mio Amato Ben, both of which she thought were spot on.

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