A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The Tao of Singing

If I ever write a book on singing, that's what I'll call it*. And it won't really be about singing. I've never really found books on singing to be all that helpful. Jerome Hynes' 'The Four Voices of Man' gave me a few interesting ideas to explore with my teacher, but the others I've tried reading didn't really fire up my imagination or inspire me all that much. I'm currently working my way through 'We Sang Better' by James Anderson, where I found this line:
'It would seem that some philosophical mastery of self is developed when learning to sing well'

And indeed, the book emphasises the need for ease, patience, adhering to nature, not taking shortcuts, not manufacturing sound, etc. All things which are actually quite hard to achieve in the conservatoire-freelance model of singing 'career', where no one really has time to sit down and think about bringing about any kind of mastery of self. We work hard to achieve incremental goals, like assessment marks or successful auditions, and in order to do so we need to sound like opera singers pretty much from our late teens and early twenties. According to James Anderson, such a singing culture would have given 'the greats' of 1800-1960 cause for deep despair. And indeed, to those who don't quite fit the mould, who fall by the wayside on the conservatoire-YAP-stardom trail, it is all too easy to succumb to bouts of self-doubt and deeply sad frustration. In a world where singers are effectively mass-produced, we have become an expendable commodity, not without some worth, but easily replaceable nonetheless. If you see yourself as one of many, it's hard to find, cultivate and retain that spark which makes you unique. It's much easier to try and imitate those who have gone before, but imitate only that which is on the surface - their education and career choices, or the sound they make. It's harder to get to the core of what set the successful ones apart, be it dumb luck, or a unique brilliance which isn't actually a product of the singer-assembly-line, but something they've held onto despite that one-size-fits-all schooling.

So how does one take a step back from the operatic rat-race and find a zone where along with singing technique comes a philosophical mastery of self? Perhaps we've gone so far the wrong way, that we need to turn that idea on its head and say that to learn to sing well requires some philosophical mastery of self. After all, we are not machines, and even if we were, machines sometimes inexplicably need to be reset - switched off and on again. Our personal philosophy (and everyone has one, though few bother to try and articulate it) is like our Operating System, and as artists we really need a robust and bug-free OS. Something simple that doesn't clutter our minds, but only focusses on thoughts and ideas that actually work. Ideas that bring calm and optimism, even if they seem naive. 

If I were to write 'The Tao of Singing' it would be the singer's 'Little Book of Calm' (I recommend watching the relevant episode of Black Books). Debunking a few myths that have us 21st century singers tied up in knots, offering a more individual look at professional development and self-assessment, counselling patience and a look to the long game (the goal should be to be the last singer standing at 65, not the first one on the big stage at 25), pointing out the joy that can be found in singing at any level (which we so often forget to acknowledge or don't allow ourselves to experience), maybe even offering some reductive ideas about singing technique (I don't think it's as complicated as some of us make it out to be)... In my head it's a good book. 

Unfortunately it doesn't exist yet. It may never come to be. There is however a book out there that can be a balm for anyone who read the above and thought 'I need some of that in my life'. It's a book I came across in my mid teens and which I reread recently, it's short, funny, uplifting and calming. It's called 'The Tao of Pooh' by Benjamin Hoff and it explains the basic principles of Taoism through the characters from 'Winnie the Pooh'. It's a great first step to realigning ones view of the world, of the singing career, or whatever else may be confusing you. And it's a fun read. Give it a go, it may be the best book on singing you'll ever read, even though singing is never mentioned. 

Here are some quotes to support the above statement. Try reading them as though a singing teacher was saying them in a masterclass:
“The surest way to become Tense, Awkward, and Confused is to develop a mind that tries too hard - one that thinks too much.”
“Things just happen in the right way, at the right time. At least when you let them, when you work with circumstances instead of saying, 'This isn't supposed to be happening this way,' and trying harder to make it happen some other way.” 
“It means that Tao doesn't force or interfere with things, but lets them work in their own way, to produce results naturally. Then whatever needs to be done is done.” 
“Things may get a little odd at times, but they work out. You don't have to try very hard to make them work out; you just let them.” 

And my personal favourite:

“Rabbit's clever," said Pooh thoughtfully.
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit's clever."
"And he has Brain."
"Yes," said Piglet, "Rabbit has Brain."
There was a long silence.
"I suppose," said Pooh, "that that's why he never understands anything.” 

* I have fond memories of reading and putting into practice 'The Tao of Kayaking' back when I was learning to white-water kayak. It was all about never fighting the river's current, but using it to get where you wanted to go. You can't win with Nature (though of course being an arrogant species, we often think we can), you can only work with it.

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