Unlearning to Not Sing

Relax your tongue.

Drop your shoulders.

Prepare to yawn. 

In grade school I learned that I shouldn’t bother singing and for two decades I didn’t give it a second thought. “Tone-deaf” was as much a part of my identity as being short, brown-eyed, and good at learning foreign languages; whatever I might have been missing—I wasn’t even missing it.

Things changed a few years ago when I started attending audation classes for babies with my infant son. Featuring simple melodies, a reassuring teacher, and a group of non-judging participants (each focused entirely on her respective toddler), these sessions created the perfect environment for the acquisition of basic music skills, not only by the just born, but also, it turned out, by the unsuspecting adult. The teacher, Gordon Method educator Anita Wleklińska, possessed a voice so beautiful, so effortless, and so bellowing that it was easy to follow her lead and still remain safely camouflaged. The songs she selected were uncomplicated, pretty, and endlessly repeating. In fact, they were so memorable—and the experience of attempting them so pleasurable, the conviction that my flawed singing was good for my son so compelling—that I found myself singing more and more often at home. 

In time, Anita’s sing-songy tunes were joined by my own lullabies, both existing and new. Another year later, I could swear I was on pitch at least some of the time. By then, I also had a pretty good idea of what it was that I had been missing out on during all those song-free years of my life.

Not up. Forward.

Breathe into your back.

Allow the voice to just happen. 

Five months ago I started taking lessons from acclaimed voice teacher and gifted soprano Eliza Szulińska. Charismatic and irreverent, Eliza is easy to like and hard to resist. She stuns me every time she selects a song for me to study, so apt is her ear for my ear (for both music and the meaning of lyrics). Eliza also has an uncanny ability to communicate the inconceivable, giving direction that works without necessarily making sense. Sometimes I know what she means, sometimes I don’t, and there seems to be no correlation between understanding my instructor and showing improvement. Eliza’s range of teaching methods invokes in her learner a combination of random body movements, unbidden confessions, synesthesia, laughter, and tears. On a day I felt achy and tired, I spent the entire lesson lying down with my eyes closed, not singing but humming the song we had planned for the day. Another time, Eliza had me pretend I was smoking in order to reboot my breathing (supposedly, most addictive of all in a cigarette is the deep, focused, distributed breathing it affords the smoker). And once or twice she has even poured me a shot.

Singing lessons unearth a person. Like physical therapy, they relax tight muscles and flex ones we've neglected. They deepen one’s breathing, ease tension, straighten posture. Like psychotherapy, they make one more curious, more patient, and less afraid of embarrassment. Like any breathing practice, they energize the body and quiet the mind. But what is most amazing, most irresistible, at least to a learner as inexperienced as I am, is the sensation of pointing one’s voice at a sound and not-missing: all the satisfaction of a ball landing on that sweet spot, only the ball is a sound and the racket the body.

I hear a melody now and I find myself able to repeat it, able to remember it. Absent-mindedly, I hum and sing every day, reveling in the way the vibrations massage my face, the air fills my body, the lyrics and melodies give expression to my inner reality. I am speaking differently, standing differently, listening more. My big achievement, not being off key, is matched by new achievements: not holding back breath, not muffling vibrations. Indeed, learning to sing as I have been learning to sing is mostly a process of unlearning. It is an exercise in surrendering control so that maybe I can come around to claiming it very, very gently.

Send it through the eyes.

Wider. Narrower. Lower.

Let everything go.