ROBYN DRIEDGER-KLASSEN "which came first?"
I did a fundraiser recital this weekend for the Vancouver International Song Institute. It was hosted in someone’s house, so the audience was small though they were crowded into the living room. My pianist, Terence Dawson, and I did a program consisting of contemporary English song. Most people I know would run screaming at the thought of sitting through an evening of contemporary music! But our hosts, who are wise and gracious, invited friends who didn’t know any better! Some of them had never been to a song recital and had no idea what to expect. For this reason, they were completely open and receptive to any experience we offered.
After the music making was over and we were all gathered in the kitchen for cake and wine (perks of the job!), I was approached by a gentleman who asked me one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard. He wanted to know which was more important: vocal technique or artistic soul. The question gave me pause because five years ago I would have said that artistic soul trumps everything, hands down. Up until recently I have firmly believed that the desire to communicate, the need to tell a story, and the emotional experience of the character were the most important aspects of singing. But in recent years, note by note, I’ve been changing my tune.
For a very long time - throughout my schooling and beyond, it seemed that during every lesson my teacher would tell me that I was letting the emotion lock the breath, or that in my desire to get the text across, I was creating too many glottal attacks (hitting the vocal cords together in an attempt to clarify a word beginning in a vowel) which resulted in a jagged sound with no hope of legato. At the end of a concert or opera I would be exhausted both emotionally and vocally. Any singer worth their salt knows that vocal fatigue at the end of the day means there is something wrong in the technique.
I practiced many long hours learning how to “cushion” the air at the beginning of each phrase so that nothing was ever forced, held or locked. I also learned how to find the proper resonating space for each tone in the entire spectrum of my voice. Now that my job includes almost as much teaching as it does singing, I am listening far more critically to myself than ever before. (In my opinion, the saying: “Those who can’t, teach” needs to be changed to: “Those who teach, learn!”)
I think that the most interesting part of my teaching journey thus far is that I can now instantly hear when a student is not using all the resonance at their disposal. My dear teacher, David Meek, calls it “the whole picture of the vowel”. I think of it as the dome of a cathedral, so high, round and perfectly built that it takes ages for the sound of a pin dropping to decay. The most mysterious revelation for me is this: when my breath is always in motion and when I open the physical resonances in myself, I somehow also become more open to artistic inspiration. Releasing the resonance in the chest seems to open the heart and likewise, when the resonance in the head is open and free, so is the mind.
Likewise, simple technique is nothing without emotion. Yes, a perfectly free breath is absolutely necessary for a beautiful sound, but that breath must come out of the emotion. In speaking, our breath is always a precursor to what we are about to say, not from what has already been said. Mind, heart, spirit and body are so intricately woven that technique and artistic soul cannot be separated. A solid, reliable technique is of the utmost importance - not only for good vocal health - but so that every one of the millions of options within a single phrase becomes available to the singer. When we are capable of singing one hundred percent of the time with a free breath, open resonances, hearts and minds, we are guaranteed artistic inspiration.
In my view, the answer to this audience member’s thought-provoking question is that neither technique nor artistic choice can take precedence. They can only be stretched, honed and beautified in tandem.