Thursday, November 18, 2010

I've Been Wholly Insincere

Yesterday at a power lunch with an incredibly talented and attractive (he's available, gentleman) publicist friend of mine, we overheard a singer at a nearby table talking to his date about His Voice. (Eyeroll. The brass player comes out in me. Blasted vocalists with their scarves and their hot herbal tea and matching mittens and perfect posture and make-up on their faces. Gag me. )

. . .

So let's talk about My Voice!

Prior to my first lesson with Mark Baxter (has it already been 5 months?!), I sent him a few tracks from a piano-vocal demo I made back when I was living in Miami in 2002, along with one single solitary track of my own music, just to give him a sense of my voice. I told him that, for reasons I couldn't quite articulate, I L-O-V-E to sing but have never liked the sound of my singing voice. I told him that I find it boring, uninteresting. Kind of lame. How to fix this? A gal who loves singing more than just about anything but cayen't stayend the sound of it?

And this is how this dude shot me right between the eyes before I had so much as walked in the studio and unwrapped my scarf (kidding! remember, it was June). He said he had listened to the tracks I sent and wanted to tell me something. (Yes, I think. Fix it. Make it sound Right.) And he spent about 10 minutes talking to me about honesty.

WHAM. OK. Well, that was not what I was expecting. I shall now paraphrase (though I could transcribe the whole thing from that cruel, cruel, disc he makes me bring to each session):

Here's the thing, he said. We are all animals. We have a finely tuned sense of whether or not somebody is being straight with us. The moment a stranger walks into a room we have made an almost instantaneous judgment of them: safe or unsafe, trust or don't trust, real or hiding something? And we do that very same thing when we hear someone sing. Singing is primal. We can all tell (or at least we think we can tell) when somebody means it. If they let down their guard, we let down ours. If they let us in, we let them in. Trust. 

 And here's the blow that won the match before it had started:

When I listen to you sing, what speaks loudest to me is not what you are saying, but how careful you are being. How you are hiding behind all of your training. How all of your defenses are up, ensuring that no vulnerability shows through. You are heavily guarded, shielded. I hear someone who is going through acrobatics to sound correct. If that's what people hear, they won't even bother to pay attention to the words because they won't be interested, they'll be bored, they won't believe you because they won't trust you. Is that what you want people to hear when they listen to you?

Jesus. Well . . . no.

For someone who has, on more than one occasion, been referred to as "honest to a fault," this is pretty much the last lecture I was expecting to receive. I mean, for better or for worse, I can't stand talking to someone whose guard is up and who's only presenting veneer. I consider making conversation to be part of my job and I can definitely do it when I'm "on duty" but I find myself counting the minutes and wishing for the moment when the crap is up and the conversation can finally start. And I'm pretty awful at sustaining any friendship that stalls out in facade territory. Boring. Get real. I surround myself with friends who dig deep. To a large extent I don't think I can help it.

BUT - he's completely, totally, 100% right! I mean, he nailed it. And I felt this huge sense of relief! I didn't realize it, but that is precisely why I haven't liked listening to myself sing. I don't even believe myself! How can I expect anyone else to??

I was always frustrated in voice lessons because every teacher I ever had was training me to be a mezzo soprano with 26 Italian Songs and Arias, coaching me on "Sure on This Shining Night" (OK, I actually really loved that one but wished it was about a fourth lower). Those weren't the kinds of sounds I wanted to be making. I didn't want to wiggle my hand to remind myself to use vibrato. I never wanted a big fat lacquered voice. I just wanted to sing what I was feeling, seeing. I wanted to tell the story as I see it. That's all I still want to do. I have all of these words and melodies and harmonies and stories inside that I want to tell. I want to make songs that people can hear and say "Yes! It's just like that! I see it too!" I want to write a song that somebody can crawl inside and call home the same way Sufjan Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Emily Saliers have done for me.

And so, the past few months have been warbly. Unstable. Edgy. I'm making some of the uhg-liest croaking sounds imaginable. I'm flat. I'm sharp. I'm weird. I'm resisting the almost-consuming compulsion to sing like "somebody who knows better." I'm singing "too high" in my chest voice. He assures me the cracking and squawking is no sign of injury, just a sign of a control freak who's refusing to let go of all of her safety nets. Sounds like a hot mess.

But I see signs of progress. There is no correct way to pronounce, to inflect, to phrase. I am discovering the myriad effects a person can get with a single tone. It's endless. It's overwhelming. And each one means something different, totally, slightly. There is no Right. And maybe, so what if my voice cracks?

I don't know. As of now, it doesn't feel like I have any...control...over the sound. As in, how can I convey the feelings behind the words if my voice is bucking around Brooklyn like some freaking startled bronco? I suppose I could only sing songs that are intended to sound haphazard and reckless? Mmm. Still, it's been six months since I started this blog and I ain't let nobody hear nuttin' yet. I mean, if I keep waiting until I sound awesome and everything's perfect then it's never going to happen and everyone's going to lose interest, right?

So many questions. And only two lessons. But I heard Sufjan Stevens's voice almost crack a few times on Monday night and it was heart-breakingly effective. I paid attention because he meant it.

And I mean it. I really really do. I just have to let go and get out of it's way.


  1. I love that story about you and Mark.

  2. This is not a big deal. It sounds to me like you just need to transition your singing from a Science into what it really needs to be: an Art!

  3. Not a big deal to whom?? It's like learning how to ride a bike all over again, except with only one wheel and no brakes or handlebars! The technique is so ingrained in me that I honestly at this point can't make a sound that's "out of line." My body/training won't let me do it. But slowly, slowly...