I’ve spent the last four years studying the neurobiology and emotional anatomy of human connection. It has had a profound effect on my singing and also on my conception of my place in the Grand Scheme of Things. Along the way I’ve lost a truckload of friends. I didn’t misplace them, nor did I reject them. They didn’t quit me. Old and young, they died. As a result, one of my principal functions as a singer has been to sing at the memorial services of those I have loved. I cannot think of a more difficult situation in which to be in deep contact with my feelings, but there it is.
I’m clear about my function in these sad situations. My job is to show up with my heart, my feelings, and my voice and to create an emotional ‘space’ in which others can have their feelings and allow themselves some emotional release. My job is not to be an awesome singer and blow people away with my talent, voice, interpretation, range, volume, or any other aspect of vocalism.
These somber events have caused me to recalculate the function and value of singing, and to recalibrate my sense of what I’m doing when I sing. For me, as for many of you, the voice is the supreme instrument, capable of a greater range of expression than any other, partly because the voice alone has access to the world of words. The greater part, I think, is because the voice is the barometer of the soul.
Side note – I acknowledge that ‘soul’ is a charged word. Whether or not you believe that we possess souls or subscribe to a belief system that ascribes certain specific qualities to the soul, just try to go with me on this. For clarity, let’s just say that when I invoke the word ‘soul’, in this case I’m referring to our deepest emotional self and that part of us that connects on a profound level with others.
When I describe the voice as a barometer, I have a very specific picture in my mind. Most of us can tell how someone is feeling just from the way they say the word ‘hello’ over the phone. There is a wealth of information imparted in that single word, through register, timbre, inflection, and the relative length or brevity of the utterance.
Given the enormous amount of intellectual and emotional information that can be imparted and shared in a single word, a song can become an entire encyclopedia of the human condition, distilled and clarified. It can reinforce the shared connection of what it means to be human, with all its subtle shadings of joy and pain. You, as a singer, have access to a dizzying palette of expression and emotion.
So why is it that so much singing leaves me untouched? I have a choice here. On the one hand lies the temptation to immerse myself in curmudgeonly rumination on the deleterious effects of reality show vocal competitions in which the less talented and odd-looking contestants are humiliated, and the ones who are able to have fundamentally meaningless melismatic orgasms on every other note while doing the faux emotional ‘fall to your knees with clenched fist’ get the whoop-whoops from (I hate to use the word) judges on mechanical thrones. Well, as you can plainly see the temptation for me to excoriate is too great. Okay, I admit that it’s fun too. Easy pickings.
On the other hand, I can follow a less crabbed line and urge singers to bring the richness of their true feelings to their voices and the music they sing. I can already hear the objection; Does every performance have to be a deep, meaningful experience? I think the answer is no, of course not. Lots of music and musical occasions are superficial in a positive sense. They are meant to be diversion, entertainment, fun. There’s room for the entire range of feeling and experience in the big world of music, and Mahlerian emotion can happily coexist with pop ear candy and everything in between.
But I think that we singers are presented with opportunities for deeper connection to ourselves, our music, and our audiences than we generally take advantage of. Crappy sentence, cogent thought. Here’s an example. One of my kids was singing a very florid version of Leonard Cohen’s incredible song, “Hallelujah.” Lotsa notes, lotsa decoration in her version. I asked her what the song was about. “It’s about hallelujah,” she said. Now I think that it’s one of the saddest songs ever written, and that the chorus, which is just the word ‘hallelujah’, is as supremely and darkly ironic as a song can get. It speaks directly to the pathos of the broken heart. We sat down and really hashed through the lyrics. Then we listened again to the version my daughter had been so studiously copying. “She doesn’t get it, does she?” said my incredibly perceptive kid. “She doesn’t have any connection to the song. She’s just showing off.” Smart. Very smart.
So while I’m not so covertly bragging about my daughter (pipes of death, I tell ya), I’m trying to make a point. Singing isn’t just about vocalism. Singers possess instruments that can truly move us into realms of feeling that are ordinarily inaccessible. Singing can touch our hearts, the place in us from which we connect with each other and our world. So when you have the opportunity to make that connection, go for it. Don’t settle for a merely musical moment when you can create an epiphany.
About the author:
Barry Carl is permanently enshrined in the a cappella pantheon as the basso de tutti bassi due to his long and brilliant tenure as the thunderous underpinnings of Rockapella. He also writes short stories, articles, and the occasional review. He lives in upstate New York with his family of gorgeous women and one very mean but cuddly-if-you-know-her Lhasa Apso. He vibes with Eeyore and gravitates to healers of all kinds.