by Lonny Smith, April Guest Blogger
I have a beautiful voice.
I wish I could communicate the amount of effort it has taken me to type these words and leave them floating on the page. My mind sprints away: “Such egotism! So overblown! Are you implying that others don’t have beautiful voices? Maybe if you weren’t so puffed up with the sound of your own voice….Why not just say that you have a ‘pretty’ voice, and people will love your self-cajoling sense of irony?” And so on.
But I do have a beautiful voice. Some may disagree, but a lot of people have pulled me aside to pay me compliments, ask me to sing, or coax me into recording their outgoing voicemail message. So please forgive me if, in putting aside false modesty and self effacement, I veer dangerously close to complete and total narcissism. Please also allow me to set aside the essentials of interpretation, honesty, musicianship….I want to talk about making sound. Beautiful sound.
In our society, beauty is often treated as a zero sum game-its virtues aced out by a correlated shortcoming. Unlike intelligence or charm or good health, beauty is the gift that comes with a price tag-if you’re pretty, you may also be a little dim. If you speak beautifully, you must be a slick wordsmith. If you sing beautifully, you’re probably vapid and insincere. Remember, beauty is only skin deep! Beauty fades, but dumb is forever! These grim reminders that gifts come with both a tradeoff and an expiration date are not usually offered to those with great intellectual gifts or money-making skills. Perhaps as a result of several millennia of proscribed gender roles and Western philosophy, there is a curious distrust of the sensual, the appealing, and the intuitive. The mind must always be valued above the body.
But somehow, the appealing retains its appeal. This isn’t fair or democratic or reasonable. Maddeningly, nature’s gifts are distributed with little respect paid to logic, justice, or bloodlines. Sometimes the process makes sense, but most of the time the rules remain a mystery. How the mind hates the untidiness! The unfairness! The waste and abuse! Looking at others’ gifts, it’s all too easy to become jealous and leave our own gifts ignored and unopened. We may seethe at God’s mistakes and the lack of equity, just as Salieri applied his passion to undoing Mozart rather than to his own music (at least in Peter Shaffer’s telling of the story).
In the world of performance, this attitude can weigh heavily on singers. A beautifully polished gem of a voice is transformed into a burdensome rock between the singer and the song. Performers, teachers, and directors regularly tell us (often with a hint of glee) that a pretty voice is not enough, and can even be a barrier to success, and I guess I agree. I’ve seen too many singers put aside their interpretative talents to spin lovely, pear-shaped tones, closing their eyes to savor the sound while shutting out their audience. Too many times, I’ve been that singer. Yet, time after time, I’ve heard amazing sounds produced by singers who drop all attention to pretty tones to focus on the meaning of the words. Time after time, by getting specific about what I’m singing, the thorniest technical challenges disappear.
Is it possible to appreciate the voice as a vessel for music but also to recognize the limitations of even the most beautiful voice? The qualities that will show off Bob Dylan’s music are obviously different from those that will illuminate Jerome Kern’s. Still, you will never really know this until a singer actually tests the song and surprises you with the results. Hearing Kiri Te Kanawa sing Nellie Forbush might lead you to conclude that opera singers should stay far away from the American songbook, unless you’ve had your heart broken by Dawn Upshaw’s interpretations of Marc Blitzstein’s music. Hearing Madonna’s riff on “Imagine” may tempt you to leave the song with John Lennon unless you’ve heard Eva Cassidy sing it with beauty, authenticity, and inventiveness.
There is magnificence in the act of honest communication, however beautifully or awkwardly it is expressed. Rather than dreaming of a world where beautiful voices are elevated above all others, I think I’d prefer a simpler world where all singing brings joy, regardless of how well it is done. Admittedly, it would be a loud and cacophonous place, but I bet we would have even more great singers emerge in the absence of fear and shaming. In my own voice’s ugly duckling days, I took comfort in a plaque on a voice teacher’s piano, which read: “If only the birds with the loveliest voices sang, the forest would be a quiet place.” As my voice slowly emerged through patience, hard work, and dumb luck, the words rang truer each day.