Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Finding My Voice ...

Some people are born with an uber-thoughtful streak.

Doreen is one of them. She's that friend who diligently compiles envelopes full of things she thinks I'll like to read - Doreen-O-Grams, I call them - and every so often, one pops up in my mailbox. Given that my mailbox is usually full of bills and junk, Doreen-O-Grams are a welcome arrival.

Yesterday's was especially poignant. In the May issue of O, Patricia Volk writes about taking a voice lesson with Barbara Cook. The title of the article is "Finding Your Voice."

I saw Barbara on TV one day, PBS I'm sure. Students performed and she'd say things like, "Yes, yes, that's nice. You can sing the notes beautifully. Now sing the emotion behind the song."

That's Barbara's mission: To get singers to present songs authentically. To not merely sing the notes on the staffs but to really think about what the song is saying and convey that emotion to the audience. As she says to Patricia, who's worried about sounding hammy, "The only way it could get hammy is if you're on the outside doing it. But if it's really coming from a real place in you, there's no way it can be hammy. we all have these feelings. You're saying, I'm human, too. I'm like you. We're not alone. Hmm? And it heals. It's important. It not a little thing."

No, it is far from a little thing. I pick my material in a very primal way: I have a visceral reaction to a song. I literally feel something deep inside my chest that connects me to the music and the lyrics. And I know that it's a song I'm meant to sing, because I can feel it.

But one of the key things I learned when I took voice classes with Gwen Pippin at The Old Town School of Folk Music is that until I started taking with her, I wasn't really sure what my voice sounded like.

(I highly recommend taking classes with Gwen at OTS. You can register for classes online. The next round begins April 30, but don't dawdle. Gwen's classes always fill up first.)

When I sing along with prerecorded tunes, I try very hard to sound exactly like the artist whose song I'm singing. Which makes sense for what I'm doing these days, covering a collection of tunes. Brian, my sound god, minimizes the existing vocal and lays my track over the bed, so it behooves me to sing as closely to the artist as possible, to recreate the song in my voice.

But I get messed up in my head and very critical of myself when I don't sound just like k.d. lang or Dianne Reeves or whomever, which is ridiculous, because, duh, I'm not supposed to sound like them because I'm not them. If I sounded just like them, nobody would know it was me singing.

All very logical. And yet, singing is hardly logical. It's a very emotional pursuit, as Barbara Cook strives to impress upon her students.

It's startling for me to hear my own singing voice recorded, covering songs. I suspect it will be even more startling to hear my singing voice recorded someday when I'm singing something original. Not an original song, necessarily, but a tune that's been arranged for my voice. Like I've said recently, it would be a joy to develop songs around my voice instead of finding songs to fit. Like having clothes custom tailored versus buying off the rack. To let my style happen, as Dave says.

I'm drawn to singing standards. They just seem to suit my voice. Though I wonder if the world can withstand the release of one more collection of standards. Not that I have labels beating down my door.

But it's a fascinating process, finding my voice, singing the longing in a song and not just the notes. If I'm doing it right, others will feel it, too.

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