As a performer and educator, there have been countless times throughout my life thus far, when I have been asked by an audience member, a mentor, a student, a trusted colleague or curious dilettante, the same question, “When did you realize you had a voice?” And always, I have the same answer, “For as long as I can remember.”
Truth is, I always loved to sing. I never remember a time I wasn’t singing - and deep down inside I knew I had a gift. Now that I have had some success and failure behind me, I see this same intrinsic gift of “knowing” in many of the young people I encounter through OYO, other master classes and teaching experiences I am fortunate enough to share. This sure-footed, instinctual desire to sing and express that I had as a youngster, grew into my calling as an adolescent and my vocation as an adult. I am grateful that despite my knowing that I could sing, this maturation happened slowly for me.
I didn’t come from a classical music upbringing. Verdi was not played in my household growing up. In our family album collections, Miles Davis and Leadbelly were worshiped as the masters to be idolized and Bach and Beethoven took a back seat as old, white guys whose music was vaguely familiar. However, when I first heard the Goldberg variations played by Glenn Gould, I wept. I was ten and I didn’t understand why I was crying. Because my parents weren’t musicians and no one in my family had any aspirations of becoming artists, no one thought to push me toward voice lessons at an early age. Singing was just something I did naturally.
So when I formed a band in junior high school and composed funk songs that resembled the voicings of Aretha Franklin ballads, no one in my family blinked an eye. They cheered me on supportively as I starred in community and regional music theatre companies, joined a big band and played clarinet, composed my own songs on the piano, wrote poetry, discovered singers like Sarah Vaughn and Renata Tebaldi, and grew into my teenage years as “a natural.” It was only then that a very wise audience member approach my mother after a production of The Sound of Music in which I sang “Climb Every Mountain” and informed my mother that “a voice that beautiful deserves to be protected and could really benefit from some formal voice training.”
Mom took the number of a teacher in Portland Maine named David Goulet, we thought, ‘why not give it a shot?’ and the course of my life as an artist began. I was fifteen when I met David. Still young enough to be impressionable, but old enough to begin learning a technique, to be learning the pedagogy of singing. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that it was a blessing that I started voice lessons at fifteen and that I had allowed my body to go through puberty, I had sung in many different genres and styles, I could read music, I could play an instrument (or two), I had acted in numerous plays and musicals, and as a result had found my unique sound. At that stage, my voice was now finally mature enough to handle the rigorous demands of learning a technique and I was disciplined enough to try.
Too many times nowadays, I encounter parents of young singers or young singers themselves that want to rush this maturation process. They want to start voice lessons before the singer has gone through puberty. They wish to push the young voice to sing repertoire it’s not ready for yet, and they want an instant, overnight result. In opera, nothing happens overnight. It takes years of work, (on average at least a decade) to attain mastery. But, every voice takes decades to ripen. It doesn’t matter if it’s Musical Theatre, Pop, Jazz, Rock or Opera, if treated properly, with care, singing is one of the few performing art forms that rewards you for getting older. Most women’s voices don’t come to full maturation until age 26-30, and for men it can be as late as 35. So why are there so many young singers out there trying to sound like adults at age 8 or 10 years old? These naturals, often very talented and intuitive young artists, are being made to do something very unnatural - they are being encouraged to sing like adults before their voices are physically ready to do so. They are being rewarded for having a “big sound” without realizing that the big sound is not sustainable and in many cases dangerous for their vocal health. Instead of exploring their sound and discovering themselves as an artist, they are looking for instant gratification.
There is a distinct difference between being a “star” and becoming an “artist.” Stars burnbright and die out fast, but artists are eternal. That is where learning the craft of singing can reward you for a lifetime. Part of learning the craft comes from studying the world of singing. Fundamentals such sight singing, understanding solfege, singing in an ensemble, learning a foreign language, composition, acting, dance, poetry, improvisation, ear training, and diction are all part of that world and key elements that can be learned, beginning at an early age, well before vocal technique is introduced and the voice is mature enough to begin that process. I encourage those that know they are destined to sing to think about embracing not just the fireworks that come from being a star for a day, or a few years, or a few decades, but to consider the fulfillment that comes from truly being an artist with a craft. Craftsmen and women have skills that lay the foundation for a lifetime of happiness in their work as singers. And for all those “naturals” out there, I encourage you to be patient and kind with yourself. You are full of potential and your instincts will guide you in the right direction. Enjoy the discovery of learning about your voice as it gets better, more mature, more beautiful with each passing day, and let your life experiences do the same.