SINGING IS EASY – EVEN FOR SINGERS
A CHANCE TO HEAL
by Petra Schulze
I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Jane Henschel and Valborg Werbeck-Svärdström,
without whom, this book would never have been written.
Through listening to Jane Henschel’s voice and reading Valborg Werbeck-Svärdström’s book I learned the true meaning of singing.
Greetings from a student
Just a short introduction
Only sing if you are able?
I. The Source of the Voice
II. The Areas of Resonance
III. The ‘Support’
V. Diction versus Singing?
Singing can Heal
I sing, therefore I am
Singing is Easy
Greetings from a student
I often arrive for my singing lesson feeling tired and down after a gruelling day at work – and am then so amazed at the change in my mood after my lesson. I can almost feel the cells in my body dancing in delight at the gift of energy they’ve been given – I feel alive!
Singing not only makes me more aware of my body, it also boosts my self-confidence. I learn to face my fears, to loosen my control and I dare to enter unknown territory – I begin to get an idea of my true strength. I think that one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is, that no amount of effort on my part will enable me to sing nicely or properly – instead, I have to let go and allow my higher self to take over. Only then, is singing easy – the sounds can go through me; my body needs no interference from me – it already knows what it has to do.
Just a short introduction……
Singing is easy?
If you had said that to me during my training as a singer, it would have made me really angry. Singing for me was an extremely complicated and exhausting matter and those listening to me in those days must also have had the impression, that singers have more difficulties singing than other people.
And yet I could remember a time when singing was easy. Unfortunately that ease disappeared on the occasion of my first singing lesson at the age of eighteen. The agility of my mind was my downfall! I was fed with so many mechanical ideas and exercises concerning the process of singing, that I ended up feeling like a centipede, forced to be aware of each movement of his many legs.
Because my contralto voice seemed to falter each time, I became scared of singing high notes. This fear made me angry, and, typical of my temperament, I tried to force my voice to do what I wanted.
It took me many years before I understood that neither my life nor my voice could be forced into being or doing what I wanted. The answer lies simply in being committed to singing, in being committed to life and experiencing devotion on a higher spiritual plane.
And that is what this book is all about.
Only sing if you are able?
Looking at the problems
How do the problems of the so-called untalented amateur and the professional singer, whose voice has been damaged or unbalanced due to inadequate vocal training, differ?
For both of them, singing is something they associate with fear. The untalented person won’t even attempt to sing, and the owner of the damaged voice will probably plan a foolhardy attack – namely exerting pressure!
But, supposing the untalented person is a school or kindergarten teacher and therefore has to sing - the voice will often sound monotonous and undeveloped, possibly even monotonously dull and dreary (please forgive my use of this expression, but I will be giving you an idea of how to get rid of the ‘dull and dreary’).
The damaged voice of the professional however, will sound extremely unbalanced: here we have a selection of sonorous, powerful tones, intermingled with others that are squeezed, forced, practically bawled or thoroughly over-breathy. Hidden behind all this, enormous vitality and expressiveness are to be found.
If we compare both these types with the ‘natural-born’ singer, we become aware of the following: The natural singer sounds ‘natural’ because
he doesn’t think about singing
therefore he has no fear (he sings out of pleasure)
and hence needs neither to be defensive nor aggressive
(exerting pressure) in an attempt to overcome a non-existent
Not only emotional balance, but also a good constitution are needed to produce ideal conditions for the muscles. Only then will they work willingly and in harmony – emotional stability is the key to physical stability.
As a result, the natural singer sings wonderfully, because singing is natural for human beings.
As can be seen, we need to help our first two types to accept singing as their second nature. How that is possible will be described in the following pages.
I was one of these ‘natural-born’ singers. There is a recording of a church concert that I gave at the age of eighteen, having had no previous vocal tuition whatsoever: the whole range available to an alto sounded powerful and balanced, the text was clearly comprehensible and the aria sung with great expression.
Shortly after this, I began taking singing lessons and my voice suffered enormously as a result. It took nearly ten years for singing to establish itself as my second nature.
PS: During the church concert, the harpsichord player lost his way and stopped playing, followed shortly afterwards by the oboist, so that I was accompanied solely by the cellist. After it was all over, members of the audience congratulated me, not only on the quality of my voice, but also for not having been deterred by the desertion of the musicians.
... I hadn’t even noticed!
“My New World reflects my Way of Thinking”
I. The Source of the Voice
We decide our way of seeing the world; we choose our answer to the celebrated question „is the glass half full or half empty?“
Singers only have to think that they can’t reach a certain high note, and lo and behold, they either don’t reach it, or it sounds disappointing.
It has been proven, that our thoughts effect our muscle tonus, i.e. negative thoughts produce a weak muscle tonus with positive thoughts producing taut and energy-filled muscles. Lack of tautness in our muscles results in insufficiently supported or weak- sounding tones.
Clearly, our thoughts have a major influence upon our achievements as singers.
‘Born-singers’ have no need to think about singing, they simply sing and don’t even consider that difficulties could arise. The untalented singer or the ‘overworked’ voice is however permanently forced to consider this possibility.
But all singers can learn to discipline their way of thinking. To begin with, the student needs to be made aware of the source of the tones or the ‘seat’ of the voice in his body. Listening to an untrained singer with a pleasant soprano voice, it often sounds as though we are hearing three separate voices; the high notes sound fairly good and seem to come from an area at the back of the head, the middle voice range sounds fairly flat and seems to come from the front of the mouth, and the lower range in the chest is more or less just a bad imitation of a tenor.
We can hear the disjointedness between one area (register) and the next.
In order to overcome these breaks in the voice and achieve one register, the singer must practise ‘thinking’ the source of every single note, whatever the register or volume.
In vocal literature reference is often made to differing points of source, i.e. so-called charkas, the energy centres in the body. They are to be found above the head – the crown charka, directly above the nose on the forehead (‘third eye’), in the areas of the throat, heart and stomach, in the lower abdomen and at the coccyx, which is often called the root charka, as it is the centre in which we are energetically rooted.
The individual energy centres are in direct contact with one another and by concentrating on one of these points, the singer is in a position to activate all the others.
As the third eye or forehead charka is in the position of our ‘thought centre’, it is clearly easier to imagine sending our tones to this centre than elsewhere in the body.
So the first lesson in tonal work involves getting the tones we sing to seemingly form themselves at the position of the third eye, or better still, we ‘think’ the notes coming from outside of us and arriving there.
The ‘ng’ sound as in ‘ming’ can help us to focus on this point. This exercise – especially if carried out quietly and with the idea of absorbing tone – can be the first step to awareness of objective tone.
The singer experiences tone as though it were a totally independent entity – often I am asked the question “was that really me?”.
The amateur singer often has the urge to “sing his heart out”, whereas the original Italian school of song talks of “inalare la voce” - inhaling the voice.
This intake of breath is obviously not meant physically in the sense of holding one’s breath. Whilst singing we should allow the air to flow out freely. But on a spiritual level we can talk here of inhaling.
With this “inalare la voce”, the singer has the sense of becoming a musical instrument; tones which were inaudible gain substance and become audible.
Tones are no longer ‘manufactured’ – the singer acts as a medium for the sounds of the cosmos!
It demands enormous concentration at first, to imagine or ‘think’ all the tones arriving at the third eye. As soon as the singer’s thoughts stray from the task in question, the tones start wandering around. But, once the voice has understood and accepted this process, we can relax our vigilance – the voice has found its seat.
The energy centre at the third eye is now activated and at the same time, the singer has disciplined his thinking.
The singer is no longer at the mercy of his thoughts - he is now in a position to control them.
The more emotional a singer is, the harder this part of the training, which deals with disciplining the mind, is for him. This is especially true for dramatic voices, which reflect the personality of their owners.
After my natural singing voice became so confused that it lost its orientation in my body, both I and my voice had the greatest difficulties regaining that original clarity. It took me rather a long time to understand that imaginativeness cannot be replaced by physical strength.
“NEVER dry, never dry,
Tears that eternal love sheddeth!“
II. The Areas of Resonance
Having won control over the mind, the singer can now work at breaking free of the tyranny of imagined failure– this will lead to less fear being produced, but does not mean that old anxieties automatically disappear.
But help is at hand - the second step in tonal training is as follows:
If the voice is in its ‘seat’ it will then want to spread out, starting at the source, and to reach all areas of resonance in the body. This spreading out however, does not mean that the voice exits from the mouth as we would assume, but travels via the eustachian tubes up through the ears.
This is easy to comprehend; if we hum ‘m’, the mouth is closed and the sound unfolds into the resonance areas in the head. If we then try to hum ‘m’ with a grin or an ironic expression on our face, we are immediately aware that the sound changes. Perhaps we can now experience the sound in our ears. We are certainly aware of a widening of the pharynx, which is the precondition for the sound to flow out of the ears, quite possibly with enormous outward-going vibrations.
When we grin, the muscles in the upper soft palate automatically move in an upward direction; deep in the pharynx we also find a small ‘lever’ which opens the throat. This ‘lever’ can be manipulated (the warble works this way), without having to grin each time.
We are now in the right frame of mind to employ the mimicry which is needed, in order to reach the muscles in the throat.
Being able to evoke differing moods is a basic necessity for singers and actors. And any mood we self-induce, can be shed whenever we wish.
This ability to enter into and exit from a feeling when required, means that we have sway over our emotional life. We can experience emotions without letting them get the better of us, as would be the case when anxieties, rage, sadness and even bliss completely take us over. It is not intended that we ‘pull ourselves together’ by disallowing or ignoring our feelings – not only artists, but indeed the whole of humanity has dire need of a rich selection of emotions.
More importantly, we have to learn to play with these emotional riches, “for a human can only be truly human when in play” (Schiller).
Only when the singer is capable of ‘playing’ with his feelings, is he in a position to produce the mood he needs – despite butterflies in the stomach, anxieties and cares.
And only a feeling of joy can produce the state of relaxed awareness in the body muscles that is necessary for singing.
With this joyfulness as the basis, feelings of sadness, rage or even wickedness have the freedom to develop as required. But these artistically produced feelings must never be allowed to reach the depths of the singer’s soul. They must only go skin-deep; if a singer starts crying, he can no longer sing.
In this second step of tonal work, the singer develops the power to influence not only his own feelings, but also those of his audience and all his fellow men. And it is, of course, a question of integrity, what he does with this power.
In my case, as with all dramatic voices, finding the areas of resonance in the body was not at all difficult. My voice had a great span and emotional intensity from the very beginning. The hardest lesson for me was not to get carried away by my own emotions, and to anchor my voice in my body in order to retain its sonority.
Singing: The Language of the Heavens.
III. The ‘Support’
Once the voice has found its source and has fanned out into the areas of resonance within and surrounding the head, it is time for the voice to be anchored inside the body – it is time for the ‘Support’ as we singers would say.
Our perception of the word ‘Support’ is often that of a static energy which operates from bottom to top, as for example with the branch of a tree laden with fruit, that needs supporting from beneath.
There are many singers who, unfortunately, have this concept of ‘Support’; using enormous physical effort and (air)pressure (from bottom to top).
But neither air nor air-pressure effectuate a support of the notes we sing. It is more a powerful, independent interaction of all the muscles in the body that is needed. The breath we draw plays no role here.
The human body was created to sing! But quite possibly we have forgotten the necessary instructions.
The ‘Support’ of the voice or the anchor is influenced by the singer’s inner attitude. The singer must disengage from self-will and put himself in a position of devotion in order to greet the notes that come to him from an external source. He must be centred, in contact with himself.
We often mistake ‘being in contact with ourselves’ as a cognitive process. The head is of course the thinking centre, but we are only in a position really to communicate with the body when we are centred in the area of the diaphragm and the solar plexus.
From here, we can balance and rule over our body. It is from here, that the athlete sets his body in motion (a fact he is not always aware of), and from here that the born singer will sing intuitively, often aided by the fact that he is probably less a cognitive type of person than an emotional and strong-willed one. And the centre of our will can be placed in the area of the stomach and diaphragm, which is also the source of power in our body. From here the singer gives expression either to his self-will or to his higher-self.
So much depends upon whether the singer is able to detach himself from his everyday personality (self-will) and to enter into contact with his higher-self.
If the singer remains in a state of self-will, the notes will be forced out, pressed, coloured and ‘produced’. But if he is in touch with his higher-self, in a state of active devotion, he becomes the musical instrument through which the notes can express themselves. The notes are not foremost aesthetic, but they hold truth. The voice unfolds its true colouring and form; the singer presents his true self.
Once the singer is centred and has made the adjustment from self-will to the higher-self, the notes support themselves and will then instinctively find their way to the solar plexus, which functions as a mirror and allows the notes to reflect back into the room.
This creates the impression that the notes are not produced by the singer, but that the space around him is full of sound. “The singer offers himself up with mind, body and soul to enable the inaudible vibration of the cosmos to become sound” (Joachim Behrendt – The World is Sound).
We still, of course, have to acquire basic singing tools, but again and again, we experience that the practical side of singing is easy compared with the hard work that is necessary to change ourselves.
I can compare my odyssey in search of the ‘Support’ to falling off a horse; first I fell to the left and then to the right. The first training I received demanded a mechanical support that was created by producing a damn of air. My second teacher recommended a method that had absolutely nothing to do with any form of anchor in the body; the result was a sort of seasick tremolo, especially when singing high notes.
I only reached dry land once I had mastered the true ‘Support’, as described above.
l “Im Atemholen
sind zweierlei Gnaden
Die Luft einziehen,
Sich ihrer entladen;
Jenes bedrängt, dieses erfrischt;
ist das Leben gemischt.
Du danke Gott, wenn er dich presst,
Und dank ihm, wenn er dich
The drawing of breath involves two acts of grace.
The intake of air and its release;
The one badgers, the other refreshes;
So wonderfully interwoven is life.
Give thanks to God when he urges
And thank him, when again he relieves.
Breathing is not an art form! Breathing is a completely natural thing for humans to do, both physically and spiritually: when we take a breath, we inhale the essence of the world and when we exhale, we breathe out our own essence into the world.
The emphasis on breathing in or out is a very individual one. Some people tend to let themselves go too much, whereas others internalise all that happens in life.
Both forms of breathing can become pathological; a good example of this is the asthma sufferer. Here we find a tendency to over-inhale, both physically and emotionally; this results in the subjective feeling of having too little air. The asthma sufferer isn’t capable of allowing the air to flow through him and then to let it go. Singing can be of great assistance here; in the intensive process of breathing out, the singer can really ‘let things flow’.
There are many superb singers and wind instrumentalists with an asthmatic predisposition who have managed to heal themselves in this way.
We can therefore say that the key to healing can be found in the creation of balance or the intensifying of rhythm. Breathing is rhythm; difficulties in breathing are a reflection of the loss of rhythm in the life of contemporary man!
This loss of rhythm, which of course is at the root of many other illnesses (heart, circulatory problems etc.), can be righted by singing, not by doing breathing exercises, in which we fix our attention on a purely physical process. The fixation on the amount of air we breathe when we do ‘silent’ breathing exercises can easily cause illness by reducing a highly cosmic process to one that is controllable and influenced by intellect.
It is therefore important that a singer practises all the necessary breathing exercises whilst singing out loud.
When the singer breathes out, he is mostly unaware of the physical process. He needs only to listen to his voice. And then, instead of actively breathing, he needs only to bring himself into a state of wonder during the pause that exists between breathing in and out. The mechanics of breathing become less important and at the same time the act of breathing can return to being a natural, unconscious process.
From now on, breathing is no longer a problem for the singer. He can almost afford to forget that he needs to breathe in order to sing; his musical sensitivity ensures that he breathes in the right place.
Being able to take deep breaths is something that will occur with practice, especially when the air is no longer wasted on building up pressure and of course when the singer is centred. The amount of air we need when singing is minimal.
It has been scientifically proven that the amount of air our lungs can hold is proportionally opposite to the tonus of our diaphragm, i.e. when we take a large breath, the diaphragm is pushed down and fixed, the tautness is minimal.
Singing, however, demands maximal tautness and flexibility in the diaphragm, which then guarantees – on a physical level – the ‘Support’.
A good singer therefore requires very little air. The maestri of former days demanded of their students that they sing a high ‘c” whilst holding a lighted candle in front of the mouth - the flame was not allowed even to flicker.
Not the amount of air involved, but the movement of the air is of importance when singing. If the underlying air is in motion, then the tones will be nimble and light upon it. Too great an intake of breath however, can cause a dam of air which then produces a thick-sounding and unwieldy voice.
In former days, the maestri would recommend only breathing in as much air as was necessary to inhale the scent of a rose.
I can well remember my first singing lessons and being told to take deep breaths, to use the air economically and then, with enormous will-power, to sing long passages.
Will-power was never a problem for me, but unfortunately the air still didn’t do what I wanted it to. The more I concentrated on breathing, the less air I seemed to have.
After a while I became really short of breath and friends of mine who were only amateur singers could often sing longer phrases than I could!
It was with genuine relief that I discovered the words of Ms Werbeck-Svardström, namely that the physical act of drawing breath in singing should be as unconscious an act as in all other activities.
„You can get the score at the box-office!“
V. Diction versus Singing?
Do you recognise any of the following:
You sing a folksong that has a lot of verses. The first verse sounds good and after that, the vowel sounds get the better of you.
You’re visiting a song recital. The singing is pleasant enough and you can read the text of the songs in the programme.
The church choir is performing Bach’s Mathew Passion. There are two solo tenors: one of them sings wonderful arias, after a while you have even managed to understand the words – they’ve been repeated often enough. The Evangelist has a lot of text to sing; the words are comprehensible, but the quality of the singing leaves a lot to be desired.
There are of course great singers who sing both parts.
Obviously, sound and diction don’t always see eye to eye! The audience has almost got used to not understanding the text, or hearing it with strange-sounding vowels.
Vowel balance: this is the terminology often used for attempting to solve diction problems in singing. What it implies is as follows: the vowel sounds are made to adapt to the specific sound of the voice, in order not to clash with it. The alto loves to sing dark vowels, the tenor has difficulties with a narrow throat when singing ‘i’ or ‘e’, the bass colours his vowels so that we permanently hear a thundering “oe” and the soprano sings nothing but “a” in the higher range.
These are examples of vowel balance at its worst. Not all singers falsify the words to that extent, but the clash between sound and diction is an audible problem for many.
This problem can however be entirely solved purely by keeping diction and sound separate from one another. The singer has no need to practise vowel balance, but to practise the separation of diction and sound.
A properly-sung note bears no relation to the width of the mouth-opening. If it were true that in singing, sound exits from the body by way of the mouth, then the mouth would need to be open as wide as possible and we would have to put up with falsified vowel sounds. When we hum however, it is with closed lips; the sound unfolding its way to the ears.
Yet it is not possible to say ‘a’ or ‘i’ with the lips pressed together, because speech exits from the mouth and we have the feeling that it finds its centre in front of the mouth.
Great singers prove to us again and again, that there is no need for speech and sound to get in each other’s way. They intuitively understand this separation of diction and sound; the rest of us must practise until we have mastered it.
I do not mean mechanical practising however, but rather a schooling of our hearing and awareness. If we hear the notes we sing coming from their true centre, totally independent of the seat of the individual vowel sounds, then the separation of diction and sound has been achieved. For example, the vowel ‘a’ causes sound to be pulled to the back of the throat, thus giving up its seat above the nose (at the 3rd eye) and also in the solar plexus.
If the singer consciously follows the course of the notes or melody that he sings, then the sound will be free from the bonds of speech. And speech is freed from the bonds of sound.
There are in fact no speech problems that arise in singing, that aren’t already there beforehand e.g. a lisp or bad diction.
The seemingly typical articulation problems that singers have only arise when the notes sung are forced to leave their centre and to enter into the domain of the vowel sounds; this can be avoided purely by listening and being aware.
Training this listening, and knowing what to listen for, will eventually lead to the vocalist being in a position to experience a wonderful sense of creative freedom; he will become a true artist of the sung word!
I would now like to give you the chance to sit in on my singing classes – metaphorically speaking - so that I can show you, based on examples, how and on what levels this training can bring success. First and foremost it focuses on the healing of body and soul. The chapter headed “Developing Singers” deals with the typical problems that can occur on the road of voice development. I would like to point out that the examples I give mark important milestones, but that these milestones can only be reached by practising with dedication the steps I have already mentioned, and that for the outside world these achievements are fairly unspectacular.