How I Learned to Sing

Last fall, I signed up for singing lessons after impulsively joining the Reed College Chorus. I hadn't sung in years and to keep up, I needed one-on-one help. As it turns out, singing is helping me with everything else in life. 

For example, now I sing rather than stew in traffic jams and my annoyance melts. 

Last week, at the end of my lesson, my teacher said, "Let's sing this together," and she opened to the first page of one of the pieces I'll be singing with 40 others next month. 

My teacher is a powerhouse. Standing next to her, while we both sang, I felt her voice practically blowing me over. To steady myself, my body tightened, which made my lips purse together, which made my voice shake and then go flat. 

"Good. Try again," she said. The second time, I didn't do much better. I couldn't help tightening up when it was time to open my mouth and let it out. 

Then I realized something. "It's a mental thing," I told her. "Really opening my mouth makes me feel too vulnerable." 

"Aha!" she said, exuberant with my discovery. "Very good. Try again!" This time when the impulse came over me to shut my mouth, I relaxed it open. This helped me breathe, which made my voice stronger, which made me relax more so I could breathe deeper, which helped me sing on key and on and on in a positive loop of better singing.

"That was the best you ever sang it," she said. And it was.

I will never be the powerhouse singer that she is. But I learned that when the impulse comes over me to stiffen, I can choose to do the opposite. In fact, the more "vulnerable" I let myself be, the deeper my breath and the more powerful my own voice. Maybe the mental thing I was talking about wasn't fear of being vulnerable but fear of being so strong I bowl you over. 

Relaxing doesn't make you weaker; it makes you stronger. Because when you relax you have access to more of yourself. And that helps you connect more with your audience. 

That's what I'm working on in my own performance and what I encourage in the coaching clients who work with me. You may not be singing this month but in some other activity, when the impulse comes over you to tighten, what if you relaxed instead and accessed the power you already have? What happens then? Please comment below.


Impression III (Concert), by Wassily Kandinsky, 1911, oil on canvas, 77.5 x 100 cm, Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany. This image is in the public domain.