Like Playing The Piano With Mittens…..

Let’s get personal for a moment-
I spent a fair portion of my early twenties being profoundly dull in performance. I bored just enough people and received just enough cold receptions, that for a few years in my mid-twenties I did very little singing. It entered my consciousness that perhaps a lack of musicality was to blame… But how could I be unmusical? Even as a child, it was always brought to my attention that I was at least reasonably musical. I was asked to participate in things as a strong lead, or a capable performer. I learned music as fast or faster than others and I rarely, if ever, was identified as the musical weak link.
As far as I could tell, I had reasonable musical instincts, and I had a good sense of rhythm and flow, regularly on display in my frequent swing and salsa dancing, another hobby of mine. So, was I unmusical? No. Perhaps not the MOST musical cat around, but certainly within the spectrum of those who do regular performing. And yet…. why the conspicuous absence of musicality during those years in my early 20s?
I remember very clearly- One day, I was watching a video of a film with John McCormack. One of my favorite singers, McCormack has always been for me a shining example of communicative singing. And yet, for all the enjoyment I’d had from his recorded legacy, this one scene brought something home to me. In it he sings a fairy tale to a group of small children. His charming exaggerations struck me. Has singing was lovely, to be sure, but these exaggerations, for the benefit of the children, to serve the story, clearly took first priority, even at the expense of other “technical” ideals. That’s when it dawned on me. I had forgotten my priorities…..
I’d like to hope that I am at least marginally better communicator in more recent years. But as a teacher, I never forget that lesson, and I caution the very easy writing off of young singers as “unmusical”. Some people are indeed not terribly musical. But there are those whose musicality has been hidden.

Musicality can be present, and yet become subordinate to other factors. The subordination of communication to either-
1) an overly complicated technique which hampers rather than liberates us.
2) a psychology so afraid of making an ugly sound that it translates this same liberation as a “loss of control” and desperately seeks to regain control by tension.
3) this same psychology creating fears of being judged and found wanting, culminating in a desire to “play it safe”, aka boring.

It is a very real phenomenon that a person who, unhampered in their youth by thoughts of “technique”, display a reasonable degree of “talent”, and then upon receiving instruction gradually disappear from their own performing, distracted by or subconsciously leaving the “technique” or the music to do the speaking for them. In many studios a very high premium is put on technique, leaving “interpretation” to be dealt with in the odd masterclass, or exclusively in coachings. And I am a believer that the teacher and the coach have different jobs, albeit with some overlap. But to the degree that “technique” is simply the manner in which you do a thing, and that storytelling and communicating is the very thing we are trying to do; it seems like a contradiction in terms to teach technique too much apart from interpretive tools.
So, before you write someone off as unmusical, try to remember that they might just be waiting for permission to not be perfect.

For those interested, here is a link to the film, and the scene I refer to begins about 15min in.

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