My singing voice is an embarrassment. It is undisciplined, narrow, pitchy, with a number of breaks that make carrying a tune something like driving a car with no second gear. It can be done, but to the obvious detriment of the mechanism and any bystanders. People look, but for the wrong reasons.
Still, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to sing. In a band, in the car, in front of people, into a microphone, wherever. As a kid, I would sing and ask my mother how I sounded, and even she could not muster the fortitude to lie and describe the sound as pleasing. I got good at air guitar and real cello, but oh, how I always have wanted to sing, and sing well.
Sometime around 2003, I decided to take vocal lessons with a high profile “instructor to the stars”. Jeff was incredibly supportive and technical with me, giving specific advice that was scary as hell to follow. The breaks in my voice were not fixed points to get around, but rather like scar tissue in my habits- to be massaged away with uncomfortable corrective techniques. Some of these techniques were simply embarrassing, like singing through my nose to get used to moving the air in a more concentrated way without resorting to the fakery of head voice. Others were blessed relief, like his instruction to take sips of air instead of awkward gulps that would put pressure on all the wrong parts of my physiology and distort the pitch.
I dreaded every lesson, because he would always go right to where the problems were. I left each one feeling invincible, because he would always have answers for the problems. Perhaps the most meaningful lesson, one that I have reflected upon nearly every day since, revolved around the silent chorus of hateful people I like to bring to every situation where I have a real chance of failing at something that matters. The song I was working on has a series of large leaps that absolutely beg the voice to go to a place of weakness. Jeff kept pushing on me, correcting, encouraging, trying to make me laugh, and then I just stopped. I tried for another run through, but the tears were welling, and no sound came out. My voice is such shit. It’s bad. I’m bad, this is yet another symptom of my inherent badness, I deserve this bad voice because bad. Jeff said it sounded like I wasn’t really practicing much, and I told him I had no place to go where I couldn’t be heard. He said, “Practice in the car!” and I told him I was afraid people would laugh at me, even through windows.
“Bah. Don’t let the Soul Killers get you down. They don’t matter. And while you’re at it, be nice to Her.”
“Who?” I asked.
“That girl, the one who is trying to learn how to sing.” He paused. “The things you’re saying in your head right now, all that nasty stuff…would you ever think those of another person? Would you ever say them?”
I blanched. “No, of course not.”
“Then don’t let the Soul Killers say them to you. They’re only in your mind. Next time you’re in traffic, I want you to sing to someone in the car next to you. Sing with your whole heart, risking everything, holding nothing back. This is the only way to confront them, and to win. ”
I can’t tell you how many times since then I’ve encouraged my students this way, although I’ll admit that my own voice is harder to accept because its a part of me. Do not think I don’t see the magnitude of that caveat. Cello as proxy for self is a dangerous bargain. But the idea of confronting these voices is important, and worth practicing. Even if I don’t always triumph over the Soul Killers, they will never be as loud as they were that day in Jeff Allen’s studio. They may even win, but it will not be uncontested.