Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between a musician’s inner “artist” and inner “technician”. The Artist is the passionate, excited part of you that can’t stop singing. The Technician is the serious scholar that wants to master the skill of singing. It took me a full decade of musical training to finally balance the two.
I bet there are people who are nervous about taking voice lessons because they believe that training might suck the raw joy out of singing. For a long time and even as I studied at university level, I stubbornly prioritised my inner Artist over my precise Technician but, after a lot of disappointment and frustration, I learned that balancing the two is the only way forward. After all, there is nothing quite as fun as sounding exactly the way you want to sound.
I have been an avid singer for as long as I can remember and was endowed with a fair amount of talent. I was lucky enough to have been ‘programmed’ with a unique voice, a wide vocal range, a good musical ear and a strong emotional connection to music but, when I got to the University of Southern California (USC) to start my undergraduate degree, I was suddenly surrounded by more musical talent than I had ever imagined. I was, at best, average.
Despite this, rather than focusing on learning solid technique, my Artist fought back; I sulked when my teacher interrupted my joyful singing to point out a vocal flaw. I warmed up and practised because I loved to, but without really concentrating on the boring details. I got better, but not fast enough.
By the time I graduated, reality had hit. Like many of my fellow undergrads at USC, I never got a decent role in a mainstage production. Even worse, I hadn’t been accepted into any of the graduate schools to which I had applied. I was crushed and beginning to realise that I didn’t have enough of ‘it’ to make a career in classical music easy.
My buried disdain for technique finally subsided during graduate school. My voice teacher at the University of Michigan was extremely technical, focusing on the minutiae of vocal production and using diagrams and illustrations to back up her ideas. I realised something about my fellow students at this prestigious music school; most of them were at about my level, but a lucky few just seemed to have “it”. Their natural level of talent far exceeded mine. Not only did they have stunning voices, they also intuitively understood how to use those voices almost perfectly. They were only in school for a little tune-up before embarking upon highly successful professional careers. They were the one per cent of the one per cent, the rare few for whom a career in opera would be relatively easy to achieve.
Right before my penultimate semester came to a close, I had an epiphany: if I didn’t do something to drastically overhaul my technique, I would never make it as an opera singer. Maybe I wasn’t programmed as well as the ‘chosen ones’, but I could try to close the gap with technique. So, I stuffed my Artist into my locker and got to work. I practised in a completely new way, focusing on and retraining the tiniest parts of the vocal apparatus. I concentrated my attention not on the high notes that were so much fun, but on the weaker, low notes that I had been avoiding for years. I found a new joy – the joy of truly taking ownership of my voice. By the time my final recital came, my singing was transformed. The faculty noticed a difference and so did I. All of my hard work paid off and I landed a fulltime singing job right after graduation.
The Perfect Match
It was only recently that I realised that valuing technique over artistry is not the answer. Certainly, I needed to do it for a while but, in doing so, I invited my disgruntled artist to come back out to play again. In the end, the real reason we sing is that we love it, not because we want to be perfect. To sing as well as I can, I need the precision of my Technician and the passion and emotion of my Artist. One is nothing without the other.
You may not want to become a professional singer but, if you have a passionate and excitable Artist inside you, there is no reason to fear voice training. Awakening your Technician will only make singing more fun, as long as you learn to balance it out with your joyous Artist. I can’t even begin to explain how gratifying it is to sing at your absolute best. It is an experience beyond anything the Artist can achieve alone. So, go ahead and schedule those voice lessons and get ready for a thrilling and rewarding journey.