Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I am thinking a lot about words. My singing coach has me focusing on my words and the feeling I put behind them. I find I am constantly aware of the feeling in my vocal chords and the sound of certain words. Certain words carry varying degrees of emotion, and you can feel them when someone is speaking  to you.  Last night, he had me sit at the piano and play the same chords over and over again until I really felt like I was ready to sing. I was not allowed to sing the words until I felt them in my core, complete with images and memories to accompany them. Pretty powerful. This exercise made a huge difference, and I sounded completely different by the end. I was singing Leonard Cohen songs. To me, he is the God of good lyric writing. No one does it better than Leonard. I was singing the song, "In My Secret Life." At first listen, this song sounds like it will be about an affair, but the more I sing it, the more I realize it is really about this inner world we all possess and often never express. Sometimes it is hard to get the words out. It is so difficult to get our feelings out in words that will not offend. It seems like every time I read the news, someone is apologizing for their words. Freedom of speech does not really exist in this country. Sure, you will not be jailed for your speech, but you may lose your friends, your career, your family, your whole livelihood. Sounds like a slightly different kind of jail.

I believe I started singing because I was afraid to speak. When I was a kid, my family moved to a small Southern town in North Florida from Connecticut. I remember being excited about moving to Florida, but I was surprised and saddened when the kids at school made fun of my voice. I suppose it is only natural to develop a Yankee accent when you begin talking in New England, but in the South, you do not want to sound like a Yankee! This wasn't one of those super traumatic experiences that requires years of therapy to release, but still, it made a deep impact. I was very proud to be from Connecticut, but I do remember being ashamed of my voice. I remember it wasn't just the accent that offended people. The timbre of my voice, the volume, the vocabulary, the absence of "m'am" and "sir" in my vocabulary... I also talked a lot. I was so excited about life, so I was very chatty. Southern girls tend to be a little quieter, a little more calm and tame. I also said "You Guys" instead of "Y'all" and when an adult called for me, I said "Yeah?" instead of "M'am?" I still remember the look of shock on my teacher's face when she heard that. 

I remember thinking that one day my voice would blend in better. Surely I developed a hint of a Southern accent by the time I was 18, but even then I remember a guy in college asking me where I was from because I (say it with a southern accent:) "don't talk like you're from here." By then I developed a pretty good sense of humor about it. I learned how to laugh and admit, "Yeah I know... I moved here when I was 5, but I'm technically from up North." 

In singing practice, you must become so sensitive to the sounds coming out of your mouth, and the feelings behind them. It is a completely different kind of mindfulness practice separate from piano playing. I have had moments in my life when I am so rushed that I don't give a single thought to the tone of my voice in a conversation. My words have been misinterpreted as "rude" simply because I was not aware of the tone as they were coming out. Singing practice has made me more aware of my voice in all areas of life, but right now I am focusing harder than ever on what my voice sounds like on a regular basis. Try saying the word "love" with different emotions backing it up. Say "love" with anger, calm, melancholy, regret, irritation, impatience, kindness. The feeling is going to give it a different meaning each time. 

I began singing because I needed a safe way to use my voice. Being a bit of an oddball in school made me shut down and keep my thoughts to myself. When I began interpreting words through singing, I would feel every single line and something about the feeling resonated with audiences. As I became a teenager, I began choosing songs with a little more edge, and I noticed I could get away with expressing thoughts in song that I could not get away with through speaking. For some reason, I could sing the thoughts in my head in a way that resonated with others. My speaking voice though.... I don't really know. Somehow the sound, the accent, the volume... it brought up negative feelings in people. A prejudice of some kind. That's why I believe so strongly in the power of music. Music can transcend all negative thoughts about others, and make you realize that we are all human beings possessing all of the same emotions. Music can transform a word into a pure emotion, an emotion we can all relate to.  

My favorite verse in the song "In My Secret Life" goes: "I smile when I'm angry, I cheat and I lie. I do what I have to do to get by. But I know what is wrong, and I know what is right. And I'd die for the truth in my secret life."

I like this verse in particular, because I feel like we all lead double lives. We live the life that we show the world, and we live the life inside ourselves, where only we get to know how we really feel. For the most part, we are dishonest with our words. We lie to avoid hurting other's feelings, and sometimes lying means sacrificing our own integrity or happiness in order to make others more comfortable. Good thing we have music to bring us all together again. Mr. Cohen understands this. His words always remind me of the importance of music and the importance of expressing emotion through song.

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