Janelle Laarakker, voice coach from Ontario Canada, interviews Jennifer about how to find vocal strength, ease, and freedom.
Can you please define “vocal freedom” for us? What do you consider to be the first important step singers must take to discover true vocal freedom?
For me, the path to vocal freedom runs alongside the quest for personal freedom. And as a result, the questions that we need to ask to achieve both are very similar. What am I holding onto that doesn’t serve me? What do I need to release to have the freedom that I so long for? Is there anything in me that is resisting true power? Am I in any way comfortable in my discomfort? Am I wary of full self-expression? Am I uncomfortable with surrender? This last question is particularly important, as the most meticulous and powerful singing requires the ability to truly let go and allow your voice and the enormity of your instrument to overcome you.
When most singers think of vocal freedom and how to achieve it, very often they look to technical issues with the voice and exercises to remedy them, without also looking at these larger themes. Sometimes technical problems are really just that, of course; sometimes to relieve vocal tension, you need a specific change in your physical approach. But more often than not in my experience, personal and vocal issues are intertwined in both their presentation and resolution.
In addition to clearing out issues that stand in the way of our freedom, as singers we also need to know what it is we want. Do I want to be a great singer? Famous? To be connected to my true voice, or to sound a certain way? To revel in the amazing experience of singing, no matter how far I go professionally, or to reach the top no matter how hellacious the journey may be?
Too often we’re unsure of what we want, in singing and beyond. We blend our true desires with what we think we should want– often without realizing it– and then our actions are equally muddy and muddled.
In observing and coaching other singers, what are some common issues you find are causing their vocal tension and damaging singing habits? Are singers often limited by similar inhibitions controlling their ability to sing freely?
Most of the issues I see with singers involve faulty belief systems that then manifest physically. These beliefs include that singing is physically hard and burdensome to master, that it is something people can’t inherently know how to do well; that someone has to teach it to them. That singing must be learned with a language and intellect-first approach, and that excellent, reflexive singing follows only as a result of learning this way.
In my experience, these are all false. You first have to allow the automatic aspects of your instrument to show you what they know how to do, and to continue to work in partnership with this wisdom when it comes to areas that need to be modified and developed.
I’m always heartbroken to see how much anxiety and difficulty people have when it comes to issues involving ‘range’, ‘registers’, and their ability to hit ‘low’ and ‘high’ notes. These and many other problems stem first and foremost from clinging too powerfully to language, rather than recognizing that the words we use are reflections of what the body accomplishes without these often unhelpful guides.
Think about it: on a vocal slide, you move right through your range and register shifts. Both low and high notes are effortless. Your voice knows what to do; it’s your mind that makes singing and developing the voice so much harder than it has to be. There is a huge distinction between effort and struggle. Stop resisting your voice and you will be amazed at how efficient and powerful it is.
How does discovering our “authentic voice” positively affect our vocal development and our entire singing experience?
When we’re in alignment personally and vocally, issues gain the proper perspective. When the voice is a vehicle for self-expression, rather than something that has to be perfect to provide us with a sense of meaning and worth, we not only bring the right energy to our training and development, but see the proper paths to take, and are easily able to follow them.
For me, discovering your authentic voice means discovering your voice as an expression of who you really are, and removing any added ‘stuff’. You’re just you, expressing yourself plainly, powerfully, and comfortably.
Stripping away the excess also tends to help resolve issues singers have with finding their real sound. Most of us learn both inadvertently and deliberately through imitation, which is a fantastic teacher. Some however, then have a hard time discovering who they are beyond an effect. Honing in on who you are authentically makes this sonic recognition more simple.
How can singers effectively bridge the gap between intellectual singing and emotional singing?
In my view, it is best for intellectual engagement– particularly when it comes to development– to come after the initial, emotional engagement. You have to witness the voice before you try to make adjustments to it; you have to observe the voice before you try to name and describe what it’s doing.
That said, some people can handle an intellectual and/or technical discussion of how to best approach a passage, integrate it, and then let the voice and its full emotionality lead. It really depends on the person. And certainly, when it comes to advanced singing and development, the two- intellect and physiology– are ideally able to be engaged simultaneously, with the intellect playing more of a check on the autonomic physical engagement.
Regardless of the approach, the goal is to possess a full knowledge of how to use your voice as a matter of ownership, rather than something external that has to be thought and worried about. So long as the body knows, and the singer knows that it knows, that’s all that matters.
Can you share your view on singing as a creative process?
When I think of creativity, and the creative process, I think of curiosity and wonder. I think of humility, and its power to help us remain excited about learning and discovering.
Albert Einstein said that you can live life as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle. I see this as wholly applicable to singing.
What advice can you give for how to embrace our natural singing voices while maximizing our potential for healthy vocal production and artistry?
My advice is to sing constantly and to trust yourself, and your voice.
Embracing our natural singing voices requires us to explore and play. Maximizing its potential involves observation and integration. Both require dedication and an unbounded sense of time.
I have a three year old who loves water. He’ll spend 30 minutes pouring it from one container into another, absolutely mesmerized. He’ll fill a bucket, dump it on his head, then roll around in the puddles. He’ll spend forever tracing the edges of his spills with his fingers, then watch the droplets fall from his fingers back into the bucket.
When he plays this way, Lucas is doing just that… playing. He’s taking it all in at a level I relate to when I totally lose myself while ‘working’ on a song. I put work in quotes, because even the trickiest parts of my voice and most challenging passages never seem like work to me.
It has to be fun, or you won’t enjoy it. And more, you won’t likely get down deep enough into the experience to own and truly understand it.
Allow yourself to play, and to get lost in the richness of developing your voice. It is truly a miracle.