I tried to run away myself
To run away and wrestle with my ego—Joni Mitchell
One can imagine, somewhere between selfless slavery and imperial command, a middle way. There’s a place one can imagine in the tao of the performer, a balance between vocalizing that’s all “me me me” and respect for ensemble.
The relationship between ego and voice concerns me right now because I’ve been thinking a lot about
- virtuosity and the virtuoso, both in older periods and now
- how to reconcile ego in my work as a writer, composer, keyboardist and performer
- finding personal meaning in performance
I am living a kind of lesson this week and because ego is so much a part of this I am determined to talk about this in the blog as well.
On Sunday the choir resumed its regular activities at Hillcrest Church in Toronto. Some Sundays I am tenor soloist, other Sundays I am the organist.
I am not sure whether I began my musical journey as a singer or as an accompanist. That’s probably very uncommon, because most people begin their musical lives alone, singing or playing (or both). But while I did some singing in school, I was accompanying at home at an early age, coming from a big family that included some older siblings who were singers.
What this has meant to me is that my musical journey has included long stretches of service, playing for others, understanding music as a kind of support function. It’s the reason I was drawn to film music, where music is disciplined like a child (the phrase “seen and not heard” absurdly comes to mind) to know its place, unlike the function of music in opera or the symphony hall. I am reminded of the title of Gerald Moore’s autobiography, which could have been my personal motto, to whit “am I too loud”?
I only started vocal study after my 40th birthday, after I started to notice how much fun it was to sing along with various cast members when I was a music-director of a musical. People started telling me that I should sing, given that I was usually louder than anyone else, even if it wasn’t necessarily pleasant sounding.
Hm, there I go: judging.
When I sing I am always unable to measure up, because of course inside my head I still hear the voice of my older brother, as he sounded to me when I was a teenager, and he was a professional.
But even though I am haunted by my past, let’s get back to 2012.
As I started to say, before I segued off into neurotic free-association, the choir resumed at my church this past weekend. I sang a solo.
I have usually been a very modest singer, the person who thought he doesn’t sound very good, and only starting to sing very late in the game, after having spent almost his entire life at the keyboard reading vocal scores and coaching singers, rather than standing up and singing them myself. As a result I have been very careful, perhaps too careful, always mindful of my limits. Humility isn’t only a by-product of service however. It’s also a good fundamental philosophy when one is not hugely trained, not certain of one’s technique.
While humility was my usual approach (and those who know me may be tempted to say “you call THAT humility?” ..but nevermind), this past Sunday I took a completely different approach than usual. I think I got a little carried away. I missed singing. Not only had I not sung in the church for several months, but haha I confess, I hadn’t sung for months even during the week. No practice. No vocalising. While I’ve been prudent in other years, inspired by humility to practice and make sure the voice and the high notes are still there, I didn’t do any of that in 2012. I played a lot of piano, bemused and bewildered by Beethoven and the performances of Stewart Goodyear. Instead of singing I played through the Beethoven piano sonatas several times.
And so, perhaps a bit too cocky, and missing the sound of my own voice in my own head, I attempted something this past Sunday on our first service since the summer, that was ill-advised, namely a piece from Elijah. It’s not even very high. But after a service where I’d been singing a lot of low-lying hymns & anthems, and unable to resist the impulse to pump out a loud sound and revel in that sensation (after months away), I forgot the fundamentals.
Voices usually employ two registers. There are exceptions (thinking of voices that are at one extreme or the other, using only their very high or very low register), but voices are normally a blend, with a careful management of the middle, that tricky place where the two registers overlap.
Tonight I had a singing lesson, a wonderful reminder of how it’s supposed to work.
Sunday? I suppose the way I sang the solo was also a singing lesson of sorts, and one that I am pondering this week. When the high note cracked because I’d used too much low register, I had to keep singing to the end even though I wanted to run away, or at the very least say to David Warrack (our kind & generous Music Director) at the piano “um David is it okay if we start over”?
There may be some in the congregation who didn’t notice, but this wonderful place is so supportive and loving that they gave me generous applause afterwards (although they were also applauding David’s usual excellence).
As I pondered how I felt, this generous response to the egg I had laid in the church, I thought about ego. I have ridden this horse for years, the wild bucking bronco of performance, loving the adrenaline rush and the satisfactions of doing it well and getting not only applause but kind fellowship with a congregation, who take you to their collective bosom as though you were a member of their extended family: which we are in a very real sense. The horse didn’t precisely throw me. It’s more that the horse stepped on my foot, for one moment reminded me that I am not quite as glorious as I think I am.
At the lesson tonight Carol & I talked about some of this. Carol is Carol Baggott-Forte, a wonderful singing teacher whom I met long ago. I studied with Carol briefly in the early 1990s, and now happily our paths have crossed once more. The timing seems serendipitous.
I am not my voice, even though the association is so automatic when one sings well. It’s redemptive to remember that we make something when we sing, that it’s a choice and a creation, because we allow ourselves to become the voice, to become the sound when it’s working well.
Carol quoted something from her mentor Cornelius Reid who said –as I roughly paraphrase—“if you destroy the voice you destroy the psyche. Heal the voice and you heal the psyche”. There I stood with Carol, so glad to hear and see her comforting presence, and enjoying a very real kind of healing.
I hope to see her again, even though she’s not usually in Toronto. I am taking some things to heart that she said in the lesson. For instance sometimes we worry too much about whether the sound is “pretty” (whatever that means) or “big” (ditto). Carol talked about the vagus nerve, which is implicated in those magical moments when we have a lump in our throat from emotion. How indeed am I to avoid identification with the instrument that’s housed inside me, when this site of intimate emotional events suddenly throws all attempts at expression into a kind of chaos.
So I have to allow the voice to make whatever sounds it wants. I didn’t recognize myself at times during the lesson. That’s probably good, because with Carol’s help I wasn’t doing the usual things I do. And I mustn’t judge. Just let the sound happen.
As Scarlett O’Hara might have said, if Tara were a church, and the American Civil War, a particularly rough service: “next Sunday is another day.”