Today, I’m sharing with you a very personal story that has lead to my absolute basic philosophy as a voice teacher and vocal coach.
In September 2018, I have presented a poster based on this blog post, at the conference ‘Towards Best Practice: Teaching Singing in Higher Education – Core competencies at the University of West London, and won 2nd prize 🙂 Click here to see the poster.
Let me start with a time line.
- 1997: After 7 years of playing the flute, I chose voice as my second instrument at the music academy, as I was singing almost constantly and everywhere. This singing was much to the dismay of my brothers, as I loved inventing backing vocals while we were in the car with the whole family. I guess they preferred the lead vocals… or no vocals produced by me at all 🙂 I was 15 years old when I took my first singing lesson. My teacher was a classical singer, so I received classical pedagogy.
- 2001 – 2003: The love for voice had overpowered the love for the flute, so I went to the conservatory of Ghent, Belgium. I got my candidate’s degree (now equivalent to bachelor’s degree) for classical singing. And might I add with some pride, with great distinction for voice.
- 2003 – 2005: I proceeded studying classical singing at the conservatory of The Hague in The Netherlands.
The vocal pedagogy I have received was mainly the “traditional” kind. The teachers had a very clear goal in mind and guided me towards that goal. They put me in a box of voice type (from mezzo to soubrette…) and decided which songs would suit me and my vocal development. I did my very best to fit into the box and perform the songs as I was expected to. OK, I have to admit that I cheated once in a while. As a teenager, I performed at quite a lot of weddings and funerals. If my teacher at the time would have known that I didn’t just sing Ave Maria and Pie Jesu, but also belted out ‘The Power of Love’ (Celine Dion) and the likes, she would have kicked me out. Seriously. I was to sing classical music. And if I sang a musical theater song, It’d better be sung with classical technique.
The older I got, the more I came across wrenching situations.
For example, towards the end of my classical education, I fell in love with Kurt Weill songs. He has written songs for actresses without trained singing voices. The emotion prevails. A lot of songs are sung by tormented women that are enraged, because a man has done them wrong in one way or another. *Yay* 🙂
However, for decades, it has been the tradition among a lot of classical singers to sing Kurt Weill “beautifully”. With that, I mean with a dark, round, classical sound and no vocal effect whatsoever. For me, that’s not how these songs are supposed to be sung. When I sing / shout “Nimm doch die Pfeife aus dem Maul, du HUND!” (“Take that pipe out of your mouth, you DOG!”) from ‘Surabaya Johnny’, I want to bite with a sharp raw sound, grunt, growl, pour my heart out. But I got told off for every sound that deviated from the teacher’s opinion. It was not interesting, not as it’s supposed to sound, and most of all, damaging my voice. But to me, it was interesting, sounded as I wanted it to sound (great!), and it didn’t hurt. Even so, I listened to the teacher. She was the teacher, she must’ve known best.
In my final year studying in The Hague, my vocal problems started. And they didn’t stop for a year. Without any identifiable reason, my voice would suddenly ‘stop’. Sometimes it felt like my voice was a piano with some of the keys missing. C and D would be fine, E was missing, but F and G were fine again. The day after, the problem was gone. But the day after that, the G was missing.
None of the ENT specialists I went to could give me a diagnosis. All I heard was “I don’t know what it is, I don’t know whether it will ever go away and if it goes away, if it will stay away.”. All I knew was that during examinations, there would sometimes be a sub glottal deficiency noticeable. A swelling that would come and go without an identifiable cause and very randomly. The final ENT specialist I went to, was a very renowned one. He worked with the top classical singers of that country. And that’s the doctor who declared me officially handicapped to the voice. I have it written black on white that I am genetically not predisposed to be a singer.
I still see myself sitting on the bench outside the hospital. I cried a bit. But to be honest, that was the only time. I think my mother has cried much and much more about the situation than I have 🙂
I quit my studies at the conservatory of The Hague and moved back to Belgium. A few months later, I solved the issue myself and it took me exactly 1 day. On that day, I said to myself: “From now on, I’m not going to do anymore what other people want me to do, or what I think that they want me to do. Instead of trying to point my voice in a certain direction, I’m going to listen to my voice and follow the direction she is leading me to.” For the first time since I had started voice lessons, I made true contact with my voice without having a certain goal in mind. You might say without forcing her down the road I thought was the right one, because my teacher had told me so.
I only focused on 2 things.
- Does it sound as I want it to sound – and not as a teacher / coach / somebody else wants it to sound?
- Is it healthy? This means that it doesn’t hurt, tickle, strain,… and I can repeat it perpetually without getting hoarse.
And there she was: My Voice. Stronger, happier, more flexible and bigger than ever. I had loads of fun while playing around with funny, ugly, coarse, strange sounds. But then again, what is the definition of funny, ugly, coarse, strange and the likes? There is no such thing as “a beautiful sound”. What might sound beautiful to me, might sound ugly to you. Soon, I started to look for vocal methods outside of the world of conservatories. I was convinced that there had to be more people like me. People that were convinced that you could make so much more than just “the classical sound” and still have a healthy voice. Of course there were…
In 2007, I went to my first masterclass of Cathrine Sadolin (Complete Vocal Technique) and the light went on. There even was a method on all those beautiful, crazy, lovely, diverse sounds that we can make. That was the beginning of an amazing journey of educating myself in the latest scientific knowledge, methods and pedagogy. I even have performed scientific research myself! If I would say that to my science teachers of my youth, they would have a hard time believing it 😉 And I am planning on continuing the journey until my final day.
It is my duty to keep on searching, discussing, learning, listening and growing as a singer, teacher and coach. Talking about my growth as a singer… Studying all these non-classical sounds also made me a better classical singer! Because the basic rules of producing all possible human sounds are the same. And getting to know every corner of your voice obviously liberates you in all possible styles and genres.
Now, I’m not saying that all these classical teachers I had were bad teachers. But the result of all this, is that I firmly believe that the job of a teacher / coach is to be in service of the artistic identity of the singer. We have to guide the singer through all the possibilities and help them find their own voice. Not a copy of our own voice.
If someone enters my studio with the song “Memory” from the musical “Cats”, and she will audition for a part in that particular musical play, I will tell her what “the rules” within the genre are. She must know what the judges expect her to sound like. If she would ask for it, I would give my own opinion. After all, I do have one 🙂 But the most important question is “What do YOU want?”. If she wants to sing a death metal version of the song, with distortion, grunt and the likes, and I find that it sounds horrible, that’s my problem. Not hers. My job is to help her sing the song with distortion, grunt and the likes in a healthy way. Period.
My personal artistic identity is very diverse. I love to start the day with a very clean, lovely, classical “Ave Maria” at a church service, and end it with a rock band, while I rattle my heart out. And the day after, I might perform a jazzy version of “Blackbird”, accompanied by my favorite accordionist. Nowadays, we know that that is possible in a healthy way and that there are methods to teach singers all this. If the singer that enters my studio doesn’t want to know all these possibilities and just wants to perfect one part of his / her voice, then that’s also OK. I must not project my own ambitions onto my clients. I am in service of them and their choices.
All I can do, is try to make singers conscious of their voice, their body, their breath, their instrument, their sound, their story,… And with this consciousness, they end up being able to make their own choices. I open the door, but they have to walk through it.
Thank you for your trust, dear singers. Thank you for allowing me to accompany you on such a personal and emotional journey. What an amazing job I have.
PS: In the end, I am very grateful that the ego of that ENT specialist didn’t allow him to say “I don’t know.”. Because of this official declaration of me being handicapped, I could quit the conservatory very easily. My voice had tried to tell me already for a long time that the road I was taking was not the right one for me. The doctor gave me the final push and very soon, I ended up on the path that was oh so right 🙂
PPS: No, I don’t have a disabled permit…