“If Only I Had The Voice For It…”
I have a distinct memory from when I was ten, on stage with the LA Opera, joined by a handful of other choristers from the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, all of us smeared in brown makeup & singing the part of street children during a production of the Strauss opera, “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.” Just feet away from me was this huge opera star, her body completely enraptured in big emotions, singing with strength, ferocity, and full-bodied beauty. At that moment I said to myself, “if I had the voice for it, I would be an opera singer, hands-down.”
The strange thing about this memory is that, at the time, I already believed I didn’t and wouldn’t have the voice for it. Even though I was a 10-year-old, scrawny little girl, just a couple years into learning how to sing in choir, I had a fixed idea of my voice. I believed it was small and timid, and would always be small and timid.
What I didn’t realize was that my voice was being shaped, to a great extent, not by my own body’s potential, but by fear. Fear that had seeped into me long, long before I ever joined the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The sound of my voice was being shaped by distrust of my body, by a sense that my body wasn’t my own, by a fear of sensuality, and by a fear of big emotions. It’s no wonder I was drawn to the opera singer, with passion exuding from every single cell of her body. I wanted to LIVE like that. But it was precisely that passion that I didn’t believe I was allowed to have.
But Wait, My Voice Is BIG!
By the time I was in my late twenties, some (not all) of this fear had naturally started to dissipate. My voice started to grow into a voice that sounded more like a woman in her late twenties, and at moments, it was BIG! At this point I remember thinking, “Wow! My voice isn’t small, it’s BIG! Maybe I CAN be an opera singer, after all!!!” I remembered the promise I made to myself when I was 10, and started pursuing some vocal training.
In my voice lessons I still tripped myself up because I had managed to jump from one fixed concept of my voice (small yet accurate, no vibrato), to another fixed concept of my voice (BIG!). And so I would go about trying to recreate that BIG sound I had discovered. In other words, I tried to push, and force my voice to always sound equally BIG.
My voice teachers worked to help me through this conundrum, providing me with the technique and the body-awareness to support my voice and then just let it BE. But the context of the whole system of vocal training continued to be a struggle for me. As one who didn’t fully trust my body, didn’t actually believe it was mine or that I had rights to set appropriate boundaries around it, I entered into vocal training with a great deal of need to hear other people tell me about my voice – what I was capable of, what I was allowed to do, how I could expect to sound, etc. And so the weaker side of classical technique sunk in, for me – I sang a certain way to please my teacher or my audience, not me. I trusted that my teacher knew my body better than me, and I let them tell me where each note “should” vibrate.
No More Should-ing
I didn’t truly start to own my own body until I was 36, discovered I was lesbian, and broke up with my emotionally abusive husband. The change was catalyzed by a Sexual Ethics course at Starr King School of Theology, a Unitarian Universalist seminary. Ironically, what I learned from my queer ethics teacher pushed me further in the direction of freeing my voice than any music training. I learned that I had a right to pleasure. I learned that my body’s desires were IMPORTANT, and that I am never required to let other people dictate what I do with my body. The pressure to make myself do something for someone else’s pleasure without taking into consideration my own desires, no matter how subtle the pressure feels, is always wrong.
A few years later I heard this interview on Renee Sills’ Embodied Astrology podcast with queer opera singer and performance artist, Holland Andrews. From Holland I learned that humming and singing actually does good things for our bodies, physiologically, and can be used as a form of self-love. I got curious about what was going on inside me when I sang. I sang with the question in mind, “What are these notes doing FOR ME?”
The Discovery of Pleasure
As a 38-year-old who finally felt safe exploring my own desires and sensations, it was extremely enlightening to ask myself what was going on in my body, physiologically, while I sang. The more I sang while asking that question, the more heightened my sense of pleasure became. It seems there are pleasure receptors in there that I hadn’t even known existed, and that can only be reached by my own voice.
While I can think of numerous amazing singers who I’m pretty sure are deeply enjoying their own pleasure while they sing, it came as no surprise that I’d never heard of this vocal-pleasure phenomenon. After all, classical vocal training came from a culture that, just a generation or two ago, didn’t actually treat women (or anyone who wasn’t a white man) as fully human beings. Female opera stars were asked to perform music imagined by male composers, with male audiences in mind, for male pleasure. The concept that our voice is an “instrument” comes from a culture where all women were considered “instruments” of men’s pleasure. This same culture was steeped in a Christianity deeply influenced by theologians such as Augustine who feared the sound of a woman’s voice… lest it remind him of “base” sensuality, and cause him to fall into sin.
Stepping Into The Wild
So, just as I decided to stop sleeping with men I wasn’t attracted to in order to feel safe and accepted, I decided to stop singing in a way that I thought would make me feel safe and accepted. I started singing without giving a f*^% what anyone felt when I sang except me. And I discovered a whole new voice. I discovered low notes and in-between notes that I had previously thought were too hard for my “voice type.” And they felt really, really good.
I entered into a phase of un-learning, purposefully stripping away everything I thought I knew about singing. I let my voice fly raw, flaws and all. I started to learn how to be completely in the moment, asking each note fresh what it is doing for me – where it wants to vibrate. I learned to accept and celebrate the vast mystery of my voice – its wildness – and the fact that at every single moment it is growing, evolving, changing.
Reclaiming My Classical Roots
I recently returned to my memory of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. I watched the documentary “The Choir and Conductor” about my choir, and my conductor, with whom I’d sung for nine years of my childhood. I remembered the way Anne Tomlinson regarded us not as tools for her musical fantasies, but as fully human beings, with the kindest and most loving regard. She treated us with a level of respect that is, frankly, rare for young children to receive. And within that place, she invited from us the highest level of musical artistry. The documentary reminded me of what classical music CAN be, when held in the hands of someone so gentle, intelligent, and loving as Anne Tomlinson. I remembered the amazing performing opportunities I had with that choir… three international tours, countless performances with the LA Philharmonic and Master Chorale, and some of the most musically exquisite concerts of my life. The documentary reminded me that performance in itself is a pleasure. As is rehearsing for hours to get each phrase and each note just the way you like it.
I asked myself, in light of everything I’d discovered in recent years about owning and loving my own body, what it would be like to reclaim my knowledge of vocal technique and my classical training. It dawned on me that vocal technique is like makeup. As long as I was afraid of the sound of my own voice – like someone might be afraid of being seen without makeup – “wearing” technique was never going to heal my wounds or satisfy my craving for validation.
My Voice, My Body, My Pleasure, My Technique…
Now, I’ve learned to let my voice fly free and wild and love it exactly as it is, without “makeup.” I love it because it’s mine and it brings me pleasure, even when it sounds confused, a little out of tune, and a little choppy… or hoarse in the morning, or quiet in the evening. I love it even when I realize that my voice is never going to sound exactly the same twice and that there truly is no such thing as control.
And also, I love to perform. I love to create an experience for an audience, with a smooth-flowing, sparkly tone. I can use technique to enhance and funnel the voice I already know and love. I can claim technique the way I’ve claimed lipstick, as a delightful way to celebrate my own mouth. I don’t use technique as a tool to get me approval, but as a tool to enhance my own musical pleasure, and by extension, the pleasure of my audience. I AM learning to sing like that opera star who has spent years honing her craft – walking that line between complete emotional release and cool calculation to create such sublime beauty. And yet, I don’t wish to use my gifts to tell Strauss’s story, or Wagner’s or Verdi’s. The passion I exude is for my own story.
I Am a Wilderness Guide
Now, I teach singing in a completely new way. In fact, I don’t see myself as a teacher so much as a wilderness guide. A guide who helps my students to increase their trust in their own body with every single note they sing. A guide who continually returns attention to my student’s sense of themselves, their own inner knowing, their own ear, their decisions, their pleasure. I step into that role gently, with the awareness of what it means to be in a body that has traditionally been denied the right to its own pleasure, and I let singing be an act of empowerment. As we explore our wild voices, we can actually learn to sing through songwriting. My students and I can use the language of music – the way we each uniquely feel it – to tell our own stories, rather than performing someone else’s. And, most importantly, we use singing as a means to self-love.
MB Bolin, The Mystic Bard
For updates on all my offerings, join my Email List.