Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? You either had “training-wheels” or your father ran alongside you, holding the bike steady. How long were these tools necessary before the wheels came off or dad faded smiling in the distance? How eager were you to get rid of them and finally ride free? How ready were you to face the risks and potential pain involved in that initial loss of support? The answers to these questions depend, of course, on your own level of boldness and risk-averseness. Many of us have experienced breaking a leg or spraining an ankle. We had to use a crutch for a certain period. Take it off too soon and we augment the injury. Wait too long and we develop unwished for compensations that might take even longer to heal or require even more crutches.
You probably wouldn’t consider training wheels a crutch, although they could be considered one. You also probably also wouldn’t call the crutch in my second example a tool, although it is a tool for healing.
In teaching singing, we often use methods that are intended as tools, but used too long, can become crutches. As singers we often develop habits that are originally intended as tools, but are used as crutches. An excellent example is putting a hand (or hands) to the ear to briefly check vocal feedback in poor acoustics. We’ve all seen it. Some of us have done it. Some of us do it so often in rehearsal that it becomes an automatic habit. A DANGEROUS automatic habit. I remember singing an opera in concert form with an older, ‘name’ tenor. Big part. Big orchestra. Famous aria. Bad acoustics. During rehearsal, because he could barely hear himself, he brought his hands to his ears on the high notes. He did this so often in rehearsal that he forgot himself during performance and the hands went up automatically. Gorgeous voice, great top, but the audience boo-ed after the aria with enthusiasm.
Another example was a “Lucia” performance. The soprano was intensely focused on keeping her jaw open and relaxed. She checked this by moving her jaw back and forth, left and right on the high notes. It kind of looked someone trying to dislodge a fish bone from between their teeth. Not the image you want for Lucia, at least not in the first act. Yet again, she did this so often in rehearsal that it crept in during her performance. Also again, gorgeous voice, great top…but the effect was so bizarre that the audience (and most of the singers onstage) cocked their heads to the side and furrowed their eyebrows.
What was the missing factor with these two examples (and the myriad others that I’m sure you’ve experienced as well): INTEGRATION! In other words, the singer had stopped halfway through the ‘check’ process, without integrating what they were looking for. So the ‘tool’ became a ‘crutch’ which was used automatically and unconsciously. It is possible to integrate this in such a way that it is usable in disguise onstage. How many singers do we know who find skillful ways, in lousy acoustics, to bring their hands closer to their face in a gesture that ‘looks’ expressive, but is more a means to get more voice feedback? Or singers who rock back and forth with the intention of dropping extraneous tension? These are good examples of integrating and using potential crutches as good singers’ tools.
In the voice lesson as well, especially in the functional, anatomical schools, the use of such tools in the experimental phase and before integration, it’s important to emphasize integration and to make clear to the student how the principle is made repeatable. For example, if you’re integrating the rounding of the swallowing muscles (pharyngeal constrictors, superior, middle, inferior) using an exercise like Ah-U-Ah on a single tone and notice the Ah after the U has a much stronger Singers’ formant and a more stable and optimal vibrato, plus the lips remain lightly rounded by Ah, it’s important to make clear that this is function of the swallowing muscles and NOT the lips. For the primary function, swallowing, the lips and the constrictors are both needed. For the secondary function, resonance, the constrictors no longer are dependent on the rounding of the lips. This is easier said than done, because the lips are MUCH easier to feel than the rounding of the constrictors. It’s of primary importance, however, because singers tend to use exterior muscles to regulate interior functions. The danger, as in my examples above, is that the student gets in the habit of over-rounding the lips to initiate and regulate internal rounding and cuts off instead of strengthens upper partials. An emphasis on integration and the independence of these movements makes this clear.
Offstage, this distinction is a bit subtler. In some situations (read: in certain hierarchical power structures) it is inadvisable to express, or even feel, certain emotions. In such situations we develop so-called ‘secondary’ emotions to shield the more vulnerable primary ones. This can be considered a ‘tool’ for protection or intimacy regulation. Who hasn’t shown anger to cover up sadness or shown happiness to cover up disappointment? It’s what some call ‘putting a good face on things’. Others call it a ‘mask’. Others call it a ‘game’, in the Berne-ian sense.
As mentioned above, when we get in the habit of using this kind of tool and it goes on autopilot, it becomes more of a crutch. Do this enough and it’s a recipe for pain. One of the definitions of maturity is finding such tools-turned-crutches and optimizing them. This is the goal of ‘coaching’. When it goes well, we feel more present, more vital and more authentic.
Becoming more and more of ‘who you are’, more and more Echt, is the work of the creative artist. Whether as a singer, a cook, a father, a husband, a teacher or a coach, honing the skills involved in turning old crutches into new tools is the stuff of living well.
Evan Bortnick http://www.musa-vocalis.de