Just Give it a Go

Tom Vanderbilt, a popular writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among other publications, has written a book entitled “Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning.” Mr. Vanderbilt’s premise is that taking on any new endeavor, mental or physical, is good for your soul even if you never achieve mastery. Being okay is good enough. He explains that the now-pejorative term “dilettante,” used to describe a hopelessly superficial dabbler, is derived from the Italian word “dilettare” which means “to delight.” For those of us who have spent our lives really mastering nothing, it’s so fulfilling to know that creating delight for ourselves and maybe a few others is really a good enough epitaph.

Group of musicians playing classical instruments. Concept persons, men playing the piano, trumpet and cello. Vector illustration.

Quoting one of his sources, Vanderbilt notes “Eighty percent of singing is how you sell the song rather than the brilliance of the instrument.” For musical theatre performing, I say it’s closer to ninety percent. I don’t claim to be much more than a dilettante when it comes to directing a musical but I did discover and stumble into a few important elements that allow anyone from a young student to aging amateur the ability to “act/sing”: creating a story and selling the song through good acting on pitch. Much of what I learned came through working with a far more skilled musical team, Brian and Christel Houston. I think the three of us combined to create some really “delightful” musical theatre productions with high school age artists.

The focus of act/sing is to first understand and tell the story of the song in a way that communicates the emotion. With musical theatre, the story can unfold in a single song; for example, in West Side Story (Sondheim and Bernstein), Tony and Maria fall in love during the course of one song, Tonight.” The emotional swing this huge they uncover would never be believable in a straight (non-musical) show but this is the disbelief an audience suspends when watching a musical. We expect emotional spikes and compression of time and space. There is a traditional rhythm to musical theatre too. Actors speak until the emotion becomes too great and then they sing (and when singing isn’t enough, they dance). I would encourage the actors who were struggling finding the story in a song to first speak the lyrics as regular dialogue to find the action and through line. Then return to singing the words with the same intention. Musical theatre, at its core, is good acting on pitch.

Every once in a while, a student would emerge who was so confident and free with their singing that the lyrics would explode from their being. A little 13-year-old freshman would have a voice that would fill the auditorium, no amplification required. But even in high school aged performers, most had “lost” their natural voices. The natural voice is what infants use when filling the supermarket or airplane from one end to the other with shrieks or cries that can go on endlessly without producing any pain or discomfort (except for everyone else). These tiny bodies have incredible range and power that – over the course of their lives – is habituated out. “Don’t use that tone of voice with me!” “Children should be seen and not heard!” “Stop that howling or I’ll give you something to cry about!” “Remember, we must use our inside voices!” Children, as they grow, are conditioned to lose the uninhibited breathing and vocalizing with which they are born and develop more “mature” means of communication. And nearly all of us mature adults think we have “bad” voices and certainly not ones that should be singing in public. As Vanderbilt explains, “we find ourselves in a vicious cycle: the reason we’re not so good at singing is that we don’t do it so much. We don’t do it so much because we think we’re not so good.”

Kristin Linklater (Freeing the Natural Voice) and Patsy Rodenburg (The Right to Speak) – both distinguished vocal coaches who have worked directly or indirectly with any actor of note you can name – emphasize that “everyone possesses a voice capable of expressing, through a two-to-four octave range, whatever gamut of emotion, complexity of mood, and subtlety of thought he or she experiences.” “I believe”, says Rodenburg, “that everybody retains some memory of a free, natural voice.” It’s simply a matter of removing the blocks; which is far easier said than done. However, as Vanderbilt discovered during his exploration of learning to sing, that practice and development of good vocal habits can reveal our natural voice.

The first step is disabusing ourselves of the notion that we must be vocally perfect, “the myth of the beautiful voice.” There is no beautiful voice any more than there is a bad voice; there is only our voice. Rodenburg recalls the story of a meeting she had with a gospel singer eighty years of age. She asked how often the singer practiced and the response was three or four times a day, seven days a week, for over seventy years, with no strain or vocal problems. Through practicing good vocal habits and avoiding the trap of reaching for the perfect note every time, she was able to sing freely and openly without thinking. “God doesn’t mind a bum note,” the singer explained so why should we? Acting on pitch doesn’t mean perfect pitch.

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