Silence is golden.

hoarseI had a couple of back-to-back gigs over the weekend. The sore throat that’s been coming and going for the past week seems to be settling in for a more prolonged stay, accompanied by fatigue and sinus trouble. And an old friend’s impromptu visit to New York included a few glasses of wine and several hours of animated conversation. In a nutshell, friends: I am a bit hoarse.

Vocal fatigue used to terrify me. At the first sign of hoarseness, however slight, I would alternate between self-flagellation (“My technique is awful! Why else would I be hoarse, for God’s sake? Why did I have that glass of wine? God, I’m an idiot.”) and sheer panic (“I’ve probably done irreversible damage to my vocal folds. I’m sure I have nodes and I sound like Tom Waits with a chest cold. I have no future!”).

The truth is, singing is a very athletic activity. It’s amazing to think that the vibrations of two tiny, delicate folds of skin in the throat can rock Madison Square Garden or fill La Scala. Given the demands we singers place on our voices, occasional vocal fatigue and hoarseness are to be expected. Athletes invariably deal with fatigue and, occasionally, injury throughout their careers. Singers are no different.

chamomile_teaOf course, when it comes to vocal health, singers tend to be known for high-maintenance behavior and superstitious rituals: year-round scarves (a warm throat is a happy throat!), room-temperature water (see “year-round scarves”), copious amounts of chamomile tea with honey (chamomile is a natural anti-inflammatory), no air conditioning (except at nighttime during allergy season), and nasal irrigation (gross but effective).

But when my vocal health regimen is trumped by too much singing, lack of sleep, seasonal allergies, or that last cocktail I just had to have at the noisy bar, my favorite, no-fail remedy for vocal fatigue is simple and obvious: Stop. Talking.

meditationGiven that loquaciousness is as much a part of my make-up as my eye color, a vow of silence is not easy to undertake. But after just a few hours of silence, I find that, along with my vocal folds, my mind is resting. Monasticism, however temporary, seems to agree with me.

The city’s hustle-and-bustle seems to diminish with every passing quiet moment. Having dispensed with verbal expression, I am better able to distinguish between useful thoughts and the reactive ramblings of my untamed mind. It’s no coincidence that silence is often part of a spiritual practice; we can’t quiet the world, but we can quiet ourselves enough to experience the world as it is.

Self-imposed silence used to feel like a punishment of sorts. Now, I view 24 hours of uninterrupted quiet as a gift for my tired voice and, as it turns out, my tired spirit. Tomorrow, of course, I’ll recommence singing and talking with renewed vigor and gratitude. But for today, silence is golden.

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A wee rant (and a glowing endorsement).

It’s no secret that I come from a classical voice background.  Growing up, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline and Carmen McRae were my first singers, but I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska (cue the obligatory Sarah Palin questions.  For the record, I didn’t/don’t know her and don’t care to).  To say there wasn’t exactly a flourishing jazz community in Wasilla is akin to saying it got a little chilly come December.

So classical study it was.  I logged countless hours in children’s choir, private voice lessons and competitions, and was even a soloist with the Anchorage Opera.  I went to college to study classical voice and was completely miserable.  One day my voice teacher said to me, “You can make it to any jazz show that comes to town; why won’t you get yourself to the opera once in a while?!”  The light came on, and I moved away from classical and toward jazz for the better part of ten years.

The road not taken...

The road not taken...

I resumed serious classical study when I moved to New York City, mostly because I had suffered a vocal injury and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.  I also resumed classical singing because I wanted to finish my college degree, which had been hanging over my head for a long time.  I did finish the voice degree and had the chance to sing the lead in a Monteverdi opera and the soprano solo in a Vaughan Williams piece (backed by 80-voice choir and full orchestra).  

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

As Poppea in Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea"

By the time I muscled my way through my senior recital, it was abundantly clear to me that a career in opera just wasn’t for me.  

My reasons for not pursuing a classical voice career are myriad and will probably show up in a future posting, so the question arises: if I knew at 18 years old that I didn’t want to be an opera singer, why did I keep circling back again and again to study classical voice?  

Simple: I’m a technique junkie.  I love the mechanics of how the voice works.  I love the way that a simple adjustment to the breath or vowel can transform a phrase.  I am endlessly fascinated by all the vocal colors and textures available to a singer when she really knows her instrument and how to use it.  It drives me crazy that, outside of classical music, talking about vocal technique on its own terms almost never happens.

Disclaimer: this is where my wee rant begins.  Contemporary singers these days tend to fall into one of two categories: melismatic, chest-voice-pulled-up-over-the-rafters belting, or a wispy, precious, overly aerated sound that is often characterized as “ethereal” but can more accurately be described as “unsupported.”  I’ll leave the melismatic belters alone for now because, frankly, I don’t really care about the American Idol contenders.

But I’m really sick of listening to this never-ending succession of female singers who sound like little girls, whispering breathy intimations into the mic with absolutely no core, nothing to anchor their sound.  It’s lazy, it’s disingenuous, and–forgive me–it’s really fucking boring. Feather-light, head voice-dominated cooing is a fabulous color to have on your vocal palette, but if it’s the foundation of your sound, there’s nowhere to go!  

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that everyone needs to go study opera (shudder).  But how about singing with some backbone, ladies? (Caveat: there are singers who actually have ethereal, airy voices, and they inhabit their voices beautifully, with presence and resonance. Those aren’t the singers I’m referring to, here.)

Anyway, with all that in mind, here’s my glowing endorsement: Lizz Wright, you are doing some serious 360-degree singing.

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

The lovely and amazing Lizz Wright

 Your rich, velvety contralto is never forced or pushed, but your singing is full-bodied, supported and opulent.  In addition to your impeccable musicianship (time concept, songwriting, song selection) you clearly care about juicy, inhabited, connected singing.  So thank you.  A thousand times, thank you.