"The Naked Voice"

Stephen Smith promotes a wholistic approach to voice. The title of his book “The Naked Voice” suggests that only when one bears ones voice in complete honesty and integrity, stripped of pretense and characterization, can one reach the pinnicale of singing- moving the listener. There are moments as a teacher when a student truly exposes themselves. These are the moments when chills run down your spine, and tears run down your face. I had one such moment last week.
I started teaching Molly (name changed) three years ago. At that time her tone was nasal, and she frequently sang off-pitch. Due to her tendency to belt her range was nearly non-exsistent. I enjoyed teaching her because of her sweet playful personality, but I worried she held little vocal ability. But my mother’s words kept repeating in my head: “You’re only as good as your worst student.” Challenged, I determined to help her overcome her vocal inabilities. When I started teaching Molly she was oblivious to her vocal weaknesses. Confident she auditioned for the top choir, when she didn’t make it, she was devastated and her niave confidence was dashed. She went from singing soulfully (though untunefully), to hardly making any sound. Her breath suffered and she couldn’t make it through the line. Fast forward two years. Molly and I have become good friends. After two years of slowly building back her confidence, I finally faced her this year and said: “Molly, let me make an observation. You tell me if it’s true. You had an experience that made you doubt your ability to sing, and ever since you’ve been too embarrassed to really ‘sing out.’” She nodded yes. “Well, Molly, it’s time to rise above that. I’m here to tell you that your voice is beautiful, that your tone is lovely, and that you should feel confident to sing out, loud!” She shrugged her shoulders but couldn’t help smiling. I asked her to try, for me, to let it all out, to open up and bear her soul through song. Our trust strong, she went for it and the sound was gorgeous. She immediately recognized it and nearly teared up, as did I. It was a vocal break through, but more importantly an emotional break through. 
Smith speaks of the integral link between one’s voice (speaking and singing) and one’s self-esteem. Often our voices change in accordance with our environments. We shed accents, we deepen our voices, we tighten our voices often subconciously. 
In my vocal pedagogy class the teacher emphasized that our role was not as psychologists but teachers of singing. It bothered me then, but after reading Smith’s book it sounds even more eronous. Being unwilling to delve into insecurities and self-misperceptions is like a doctor not being willing to talk about nutrition and exercise with an obese patient. Drugs alone can’t solve the problem, neither can vocal tricks bandage excess tension due to self doubt, or stress. 
Maybe I put too much leverage on my impact on my students, but I really feel that singing lessons can be an a beautiful alternative to counselling. Just as a counselor strips things down to truth, when one sings the goal is to strip the voice down to the nude so that the true color and tone can emerge without tension or artifice. This isn’t a new idea. Many a movie has been made about the music teacher who enters the inner-city school and changes lives. I guess it’s just a new approach for me as a teacher. I like the idea of having a group of students that are there for psychological reasons. Of course, I’m not a trained pyschologist, but I think I have a nack for helping others feel good about themselves. And what more do most of us need?
(Does it sound totally crazy to pursue a connection with school counsellors, encouraging them to suggest voice lessons to students lacking in confidence, suffering from a poor self image, or even dealing with high levels of stress?)

2 responses to “"The Naked Voice"”

  1. Hi, Kjersti! I stopped by your blog when you posted your pictures of your house on facebook, and this article caught my eye. I am glad that your experience with music has been as eye-opening for you as it has been for me. I was grateful to have a teacher who did what you described above. He saw potential in me that I could not see, allowing me to go to a school I had not considered within my reach. And while there, he was discerning enough to recognize those emotional wounds, the sources of which he knew no details, and he was able to plant seeds that would lead to healing. Every lesson, I felt I was gaining insight into gospel principles even though our lessons were not religious in nature nor was religion ever discussed (other than one time when he said there are three things that are important in life: God, family, and music).
    I believe there is something special about the arts that allows us to reach deeper into our souls and examine ourselves. I, too, disagree with your professor that would remove from a teaching relationship the expectation that the teacher disconnect the psychology and emotions of the student from pedagogical practices when it is impossible for the student to make the same disassociation. And being able to help in such a way is THE reason why music is such an important part of the gospel and is such a glorious gift. Thanks for sharing your experience and heart-felt thoughts!

  2. I goofed on the second paragraph in my previous comment. I meant to say that there should not be an expectation to leave out psychology from pedagogical methods. 🙂

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