Finding the Courage to Sing
| Vocal Improv as a Life Skill |

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Margo Hennebach, GCFP, LGSM(MT)

Everyone has their own story.  I hear ones about being tone deaf or not being allowed to sing in the chorus.  I hear how people hate their own voice, especially on a recording.  I see people so terrified to sing in public that they pretend they don’t want to sing at all.  

The fact is, we’re born with the urge to sing.  At the same time, we navigate what’s acceptable to others and believe what we’re told.  Eventually, we might even stifle the impulse until we overlook it altogether.  The author and improvisor, Nina Wise, says that “like a muscle group that is underused and so atrophies, our unexercised voices have lost their strength, flexibility, and range.  Convinced we cannot sing well, we do not sing at all;  and not singing at all, we do not develop the ability to sing.”

This reminds me of my own suffering around singing.  When I was 15, I brought my parents to an open mic at Folk City in NYC so I could perform some of the songs I’d written.  I was so excited to be performing even though there were more comics than singers, and their acts included more obscenities than jokes.  In the car on my way home, my Dad said my voice was shrill and suggested I sing other people’s songs instead of my own.  Now I recognize that he was afraid for the kind of life I would have as a musician performing in clubs.  At the time, I stuck my head out of the window and cried my way home to NJ.  

I might have stopped singing altogether that night had I not been taken by the sound of my own voice echoing back to me in the Holland Tunnel.  I’m not sure if I was crying or singing at this point, but I knew I had a voice.  I learned that when I give myself over to the sound that’s inside of me, I’m not disappointed.  I wake up and wonder what else is in there.

Now if you’ve ignored your impulse to sing for a long time, making a sound will require an act of courage.  But the good news is that when you open your mouth, courage will find you. You can cross the threshold from “I can’t sing” to “I’m a singer” in an instant.

Here’s something you can try at home:  

Find a steady tone like the hum of a refrigerator, air conditioner, or from the traffic outside.  Match the tone to the best of your ability until you can do so with ease.

Now use that tone as a drone and begin to move away from the tone and then move back.  Find single notes that create more dissonance or tension and those that create more harmony.  Be playful and explore.

Next begin to solo over the drone.  What does your song sound like?  A Middle Eastern ballad?  An Irish ditty?  Come back to your original tone and find another song inside yourself.

Welcome to improvisation!   I invite you look for an early memory of this kind of vocal freedom when you were young.  Can you find one?  Can you imagine sharing this vocal freedom with others now?  

Here are some hints to get you started:

Sing with your whole self.  Dance and sing to recorded music with your friends.  It’s a great way to share the physicality of singing.  Feel your breath deepen as you find your feet and soften your knees.  Let go of unnecessary tension in your neck and jaw.

As a group, agree to listen and say Yes! to whatever happens.  Support one another by making eye contact, singing in unison, harmonizing, finding a bass part or by creating a groove.   

Finally, trust yourself.  Don't confuse the broken record of your inner critic with your authentic voice.  Be gentle.

Finding the courage to sing is not unlike finding the courage to love.  All it takes is a little practice.  Jumping off the cliff is not required, but keep your eyes open so you can see the view.