My body knows how to sing. I have studied vocal technique for fifteen years, and I’ve studied with some legendary voice teachers. I feel so privileged to have worked with each one of them.
And yet, almost every voice teacher I’ve known has given me the same rotten piece of advice: “Forget what you learned before you came to me.”
This advice was given to me, over and over again, by well-meaning teachers who wanted to correct some issue in my vocal technique. No matter how many degrees I had earned or how many roles I had sung, they always wanted to start from the very beginning. They wanted to begin with a clean slate.
Since I am now a voice teacher, myself, I know exactly how they felt. When I meet an advanced student who is already an accomplished singer, but who has a bad habit that is holding her back, I wish I could eliminate the problem. I want to go back into her past and fix the bad habit before it started. But that’s not how it works.
It is very hard to change a “muscle memory.” When you repeat an action over and over again, your brain learns to engage the necessary muscles without conscious effort. Every time you throw a ball or drive a car, you are accessing muscle memory.
If a young singer practices correctly, he will be able to sing for hours without straining his voice, and he won’t even have to think about his technique. But if he learns a bad habit – shallow breathing or a tense jaw – then all of those hours in the practice room could actually damage his voice. The bad habit will be tangled up with the good habits; it will be engraved into his muscle memory.
That’s why teachers want to start fresh. They want to erase those old muscle memories and replace them with new ones. But there is one big problem with that: it doesn’t work.
You can learn new things but you cannot erase your own history. Research shows that the brain can absorb new information at any age – including sophisticated sequences of motor learning — but the old sequences remain in the basal ganglia, in case they are ever needed again. When you build a new muscle memory, the old one fades to the background, but it does not disappear.
I am living proof that new muscle memories can be built on top of old ones. When I first started singing, I was a high coloratura soprano; my first role was the Queen of the Night. But my voice grew into a much more dramatic repertoire — I now sing Wagner and Verdi! Every time my voice had a growth spurt, I had to recalibrate my technique.
Just to make things more interesting, I studied opera in Europe, where the national schools of singing are still quite distinct. (Historically, there have been several methods of operatic training: the German School, the Slavic School, the French School, the English School, and the Italian Bel Canto school.) I first studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and then I moved to the Centro Universale del Bel Canto in Vignola. When I moved from Austria to Italy, I crossed an invisible border of vocal pedagogy! I had been quite successful with my old singing technique, but in order to survive in this new environment, I had to learn a new technique. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Then I moved to New York City, where I discovered the American School of singing. I had to alter my technique again.
But every time a teacher said, “just forget that part,” I felt like I was dying inside. Singing has always been very important to me, and learning how to sing has been one of the great joys of my life. Vocal technique has always felt like a precious treasure, one that I have earned after thousands of hours of hard work. So whenever I tried to forget something I had learned, it felt like I was losing a part of myself. And it affected my music. By trying to selectively forget bits and pieces of my technique, I was losing my joy in singing.
My breakthrough came the day that I stopped trying to forget. My brain was stuffed so full of technical information that I was no longer able to sing with joyful abandon. I was tense and uncomfortable. I called myself “the soprano who knew too much.”
Finally, in a moment of sheer frustration, I rebelled. I said, “I am going to remember everything. I am going to embrace everything. Every teacher. Every school. Every nugget of wisdom. Even the conflicting information. All of it.” And in that moment, I felt free. My voice soared. I was finally able to use all of the wonderful things my teachers had taught me.
I will never stop learning new things, but I don’t want to forget what I already know. After all, I have been blessed with a world-class education in opera. I may have had an unconventional journey but I am not going to reject my own past.
You can’t get very far in life until you accept your own history. You have to be brave enough to look at your life with total honesty. Get comfortable with the parts of your past that you don’t like. Embrace the parts of yourself that embarrass you most. It’s the only way to make progress — as an artist and as a person.
The great American novelist, James Baldwin, once wrote, “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”
For me, singing got easier when I stopped fighting my own habits and started to embrace everything that I have ever learned. In that moment, I discovered something wonderful: my body already knows how to sing.
What does your body know?