One of my students is a substitute teacher in elementary schools, and close to retirement age. At her lesson today, we were working on the beautiful Mozart aria 'S'altro che lagrime' from La Clemenza di Tito. For a moment, I found the sheer beauty of her sound deeply moving. With her permission, I would like to tell her story, to inspire those of you who face a history of near-insurmountable vocal challenge.
Stephanie (not her real name) came to me unable to sing in tune, and in despair about her technique. Having taken lessons for several years, and having read a number of worthy books on the subject of singing, she was tied in knots. One teacher had tried to get her to place the voice forward, another to drink it in, and the books she had read told her not to place the sound at all. She had no self-confidence, and sang almost an entire tone flat as she moved through the passaggio into the upper register. She had been told that she had a faulty ear and that she was no musician.
The most obvious thing to me about Stephanie was that she did not know how to think about singing. I felt I had to review with her the pedagogical principles which she, an intelligent person, was using to guide her, because the results were disastrous. Proceeding like archaeologists, we had to exhume the past in order to retrieve the useful concepts and discard the ideas which were getting in her way. I often tell my students to take great care over what they believe, because sooner or later it will determine what they do. The more cerebral you are, the more likely to follow your beliefs to the detriment of your voice and your intuition. Eventually, if the ideas themselves are faulty enough, you may feel as though you have no intuition about singing at all.
To start with, Stephanie had a faulty breath technique. Her inhalation was high in the thorax, with no response in the abdominal area. Each breath required a heaving motion in the entire chest. As it turned out, she was preoccupied with taking a big breath, and never felt as though she had enough air. We began to focus on how small a really deep breath feels, when you have the right balance of intercostal, diaphragmatic and abdominal function. In addition, the right breath always has a calm, not a vigorous energy; in this respect the energy of the inhalation must be different from the energy of singing. To achieve it, you must be present with your breath in the moment of breathing. You cannot take breath efficiently if you are already thinking about singing. I sometimes say "When you breathe, breathe, when you sing, sing!" . Another way of putting it is "Be in the present moment (a moment of breathing)", or even "Be here now!".