Documentary Singing

Paul Dejong, the head of voice at Humber College’s Theatre Program, has sent me a youtube link. It is fantastic. A young girl…really, a toddler…is singing along with Adele in the back of the family van. She follows each curve of the melody and each curve of Adele’s emotional life within the song. Her ‘two-something’ ability to identify with thoroughly engaged temper tantrum holds her in good stead and she is really expressive within the container of this breakup song. Paul has labeled the link ‘innocent vessel’ and I respond with an under-my-breath, “holy autonomic nervous system, batman!” when the girl’s singing comes to an end.

I write about voice. My voice…the human voice…women’s voices.

Under this layer my writing is about body, the immune system, chronic stress, what is to be a woman, to experience men, menopause, relationships, my father, my mother, creation, transformation through art, disability, performance, the singers we all grew up with…the human autonomic nervous system and all the sounds it makes when we hear it come to life and express through breath.

The weave is so fine between these things that fully separating them out is not always possible, and so slowing things down – telling a story about how something felt, or concentrating on a smaller area to see its ‘warp and woof’[1]  – gives us a chance at sharing this information with one another. We are dealing with texture as we search for spirit.

The baby’s first gasp signifies new life; death rattles us out of our bodies. At either end of our time on this planet we are freer in our expression of breath and sound than during many of the years in between.

When I teach I am working with a student’s socialized self, their internalized beliefs about their own narrative and their animal bodies. I could also say that external expectation, the ability to self-regulate and very basic survival skills present as part of every lesson, every note sung. None of these things are good or bad, they are all a part of how we live as humans, but they can be out of balance, one thing favoured over another through nature and/or nurture. They can trap or limit us. How we have coped with life during times of stress has grown into ‘the way we are’, when in fact there are other equally authentic parts of ourselves which have gone to sleep through fear, misunderstanding or lack of practice.

I could explain everything I know by describing – as a general and much simplified rule – the differences between teaching men and women these days. Women I have to teach how to be fruitfully expressive, guilt free and balanced within their anger. Men I need to put in trusting touch with their sensing/sensitive/sensual virility/potency. To do this, a dance between bound and unbound begins, a tensile flow between light and dark. At the end of the day we each learn that we do need to have it all – the basic feelings or emotions of mad, sad and glad – and the actions of yield and aggress – whatever version or mix of male and female (mother/father) we are at any given moment. All of it without judgment.

My partner and I have just seen Michael Haneke’s award winning movie Amour. It was highly recommended by my friend Arsinee and I trust her ability to look at difficult things without flinching and also her intellectual rigour with regards to film and art. The story is a very sober look at aging and the actors are both in their 80s. I am permeated by their physicality in the days that follow our viewing of the film and wonder if the line between documentary and feature film becomes very fine when the story of the actors’ bodies, their age infused movement, their transparent sensing of one another, is so beautifully revealed by the camera.

Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Amour’


In my singing studio with a student who is successfully revealing her body/voice/impulses, I am struck by the thought that what I am trying to teach my students is ‘documentary singing.’ Of course they will apply who they are and what they are doing to a song or opera – but within that action and fueling their choices is raw vocal sound – sound specific to the species, not just the individual – and I want that sound to be revealed in a way that becomes a testament to the insides of the human animal, not just something shaped by the approximate and limiting narrative we repeat to ourselves daily.

Documentary Singing. Not just about catharsis, but about essential expression linked to a fully inhabited autonomic nervous system. I eat, I sleep, I make love, I cuddle my children, I growl at them, I hunt, I laugh, I shit, I hope. And I use non-judgmental witnessing and an integrated understanding of these things to create a sustainable singing technique in which I reveal, rather than illustrate, the state of being human. Each puff of breath that starts from behind my sternum, that flows the line of a song, or fuels a grunt of passion, has the opportunity to connect me to the shared state of being human as well as the personal and cultural residue that informs the shape and function of my cellular structure.

I have an irrepressible urge to reread Walt Whitman’s 1855 long and ecstatic poem ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’

The words pulse through me and I wipe tears from my face.

It is sensible to feel exposed when singing. I just heard Hugh Jackman compare the live-singing scenes the actors had to shoot for the movie of ‘Les Miserables’ with nude scenes…it takes a little time to feel comfortable in front of a massive film crew when taking off clothes or when the subtle arming of the speaking voice gives way to the preverbal sounds used in singing. I too have done nude scenes on stage and on film and I have to say I found them much easier than being made vulnerable by a song.

So many people say that their worst nightmare is to sing in front of others. We know the stakes are high, and we know that the singing voice comes from someplace very deep within, that it does turn us inside out. The autonomic nervous system is the seat of singing. It is the engine of feeling – for responding to threatening or friendly things around us and within us. It is the part of us that regulates ‘rest and digest’ and ‘fight and flight.’ It betrays us, as it should, and it is wonderfully expressive.

And so Hugh is right, we become naked when we sing. Doing this as a profession – as much as a person might say ‘I have always wanted to be a singer’ – becoming naked over and over again in front of strangers and with huge pressure to perform well, to earn money, to prove one’s worth – is almost too much for one person to bear. And yet when I get to be in the audience I gravitate to those singers who do indeed bare it all.

I have been looking at hours and hours of youtube footage of famous singers – wonderful performances, flawed performances, singers suffering and singers triumphing. And I have been listening to hours of interviews – singers coming clean about their addictions, their dark moments, their challenges, how diligently they need to care for their instrument. Sometimes eating well, sleeping well, finding balance in the mundane, sometimes crashing and burning…happy to survive.

As a singer (professional or amateur) I am using the part of my body that knows how to digest and how to sleep and how to make love in order to practice my craft – to convey feeling and thought. And what is constructed from this magnificent extension of the autonomic nervous system, in combination with the mind, is music. I recently read in an article on the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health’s website that scientists suspected that music and the human ANS are linked. I would like to tell them that music’s genius comes from the ANS, indeed originates there. Music is a simultaneously delicate and robust activity, a musician needs to be a master of many dualities – soft and hard, expansive and contained, brilliant and contented, happy and sad, furious and self-possessed – in short a true familiar of the ANS – in order to create music or meet its demands. In fact a musician has the opportunity to experience the ANS not as ‘fight and flight’ in opposition to ‘rest and digest’ but as an integration of these potentially antagonistic states.

Singing is really transgressive and really dangerous and really exposing. It is a direct line to the place that we begin to tame, in particular, once language comes along. Language is one of our newest birthday presents – and because we are so enthralled with this gift we do not now how to play with it in proportion to all our other toys. Language can qualify things to the point that the original feeling is no longer namable. The way language has evolved through our intellectual capacity allows us to live in past, present and future.

Singing can hold us in the present moment through awakening and eventually balancing sensation. Return sense to ‘life’ when we are overwhelmed with daily concerns, or worrying about a planet under threat from global warming and from war. When I am too afraid or overwhelmed to scream about it – to do anything practical – the rock and roll singer screams out in a way that reminds me to feel my feelings and to listen to them. He or she jostles me free from the entropy I can get stuck in, gives me the courage to stop not feeling.

I drown myself in broken sounds as I surf the net. Janis Joplin, Ann Wilson, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Jones, even Ken Tamblin demonstrating how to be any famous dead singer you would like to be. Today it is Steven Tyler who really gets under my skin.

I go back to the role of the singer, trying to understand its contours, demands and risks. High priests and priestesses of emotion, experts at accessing and channeling huge gobs of feeling….sustainers of sob and laugh…professional ANSers.

I am reminded of Bill Viola’s piece Nante’s Triptyche. I saw it at the Tate modern some ten years ago and it blew fresh thought and feeling through me. The video images are truly larger than life, occupying one whole wall of a large room. On the left panel is video of his daughter being born in real time and on the right is the death of his grandmother. In the middle is the artist struggling underwater. As I remember it, his daughter was born and then, just as I absorbed the open and unformed features of that little creature, his grandmother died. In that moment I saw something that took my breath away even as hers left her body; his grandmother’s jaw slackened, letting go of a lifetime of tension as her soul departed.

Innocent vessel sings out her feelings, Steven Tyler never lost his ability to cry, a baby is born, my father is dead only three months now and I am suspended somewhere between all of this, thinking that I need to go on a really big walk in nature…every day. Find a simple old-fashioned way to work with the needs, desires, feelings, hormones and thoughts all pulsing through this body of mine. And sing….don’t forget to sing! Documentary style.

Sing with me, sing for the years?

Sing for the laughter and sing for the tears?

Sing with me, if it’s just for today?

Maybe tomorrow the good lord will take you away

                                    (Dream On, Steven Tyler)









[1] The essential foundation or base of any structure or organization.

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