Why do you sing?
This is the first question I often ask new voice students, sensing that they sometimes need to be shaken awake, in order to change direction and grow.
It may be in a classroom setting or private lesson, but the question remains the same and often catches singers off-guard.
“I’ve never thought of it before.”, say some, stunned by the question or the more difficult prospect of having to respond. Others might find it tedious or have no ready answer, asking for a week or two to mull it over. That’s fine, I say. Take your time. It’s a good question and you might want to give it some thought.
I’ve been working with a lot of grad students lately, those who have just completed their undergraduate studies, but are still hovering somewhere between a song and a prayer.
They say they want to transition to teaching or a career, but few know their current Fach or the appropriate audition repertoire to sing. Sometimes the education has been spotty and they are left with unanswered questions or have large technical gaps to fill. Some present themselves as complete tabula rasas and seem to have no idea as to why they’re here or how to proceed to the next level. Blank slates, all.
So for them, I will ask the very same question: Why do you sing? Is it to make yourself happy or to please others? Is it because you like the feeling or love the attention and applause? Is it because you did well in college and were encouraged to keep going?
Or perhaps it is because once you heard a quiet voice inside and were curious enough, intrepid enough to keep it close and listen to it, to trust it as it grew and became louder, loud enough in fact to finally make you want work harder and sing into it to discover your real sound, your own true voice. That’s right. That’s what makes an artist.
Then the question becomes even more compelling and, for this purpose, philosophical: What is it you truly want in life and what are you prepared to sacrifice, in order to attain it?
If you are genuine and sincere, the real answer may shock or even surprise you. It will bubble up from deep within your interior world and give you a heightened sense of purpose, even joy. And it will lead you in a direction you might never have thought of otherwise.
Careers are sustained by this and require more presence of mind, physical strength and endurance than you know. Careers take great courage and perseverance, solid technique, tenacity and resilience enough to get back out there and keep on singing, no matter what. Good days or bad days, it doesn’t matter. The joy will always be there, waiting for you.
Teaching, let it be told, takes all of that and more. The greatest colleagues and mentors in my life gave me lead enough to run ahead and show them what I discovered on my return. Inherently, each understood and knew for themselves what it was that I was seeking, why we never gave up and why we would always come back prepared to share ideas and learn something new. This gave our work such intensity, such trust and inspiration that the experience of all that informs my teaching to this day. We were there to study and learn alongside one another, to stop time and create something beautiful together and always to reach into the unknown for something just beyond the scene, mysterious and everlasting.
Knowing audiences come to classical performances seeking the same experience, looking for illumination and to leave deeply touched, grateful to have felt time stop for that one gorgeous phrase or perfectly placed high note spinning off into infinity.
As a result, I keep a short quote by Robert Browning handy and offer it here as part inspiration, part challenge for the future:
from Andrea del Sarto, “Ah, but a Man’s reach must exceed his grasp, Or what’s a Heaven for?”
Now, why do you sing?