A Few Thoughts on the Nature of the Voice

Different stages in life have their own times, and so do different kinds of abilities. Athletes peak young. Dancers peak young. Models peak young.

Singers peak old.

In the classical world, a “young singer” is any singer under the age of 40. A woman’s singing voice doesn’t even finish developing until she’s about 35, and a man’s develops a little earlier, but still in the late 20’s/early 30’s range.** So the 30’s aren’t even the peak — they’re just the beginning of the peak.

Being a singer is like this: let’s say you have an instrument, and you play it all the time. But every once in a while they take it away, raise the bridge, and put different gauge strings on it. Or you drop it, they fix it, and when they give it back, now it’s painted blue. And if you’re sick, or you’re in a bad mood, or you’ve stayed up too late, your instrument now plays only in E flat for the next week.

After you’ve been playing your instrument for years, you find that all these tiny incremental changes have made a big change overall. All of these adjustments — all of this living — have put more power, more strength, and more soul into your instrument than you ever dreamed of.

And maybe you find that, all this time, you thought you were playing a violin, but your instrument seems to have become a sitar. Or a trombone. Or whatever.

And, coincidentally, that thing it became? Secretly, that is the instrument you always wanted all along.

I believe that it takes 30-plus years for our bodies to begin to find our voices because that’s how long it takes our hearts to begin to resonate and sing at their true frequencies. For most of us, we spend years wandering in the dark, saying things we don’t believe, giving and taking disrespect, and trying to figure out who we really are and what we really want to say. It is not until well into adulthood (if then) that the dross begins to fall away to reveal hints of the gold underneath. Why then should our singing be any different?

The song makes the singer just as much as the singer makes the song.

Story: A few years ago, after years of singing with a beautiful, clear, church-choir soprano, I came out with a blues-mama belt straight from my gut. I was 32 years old, I had been singing regularly for decades — and I had never heard this voice come out of me before. The song came out when my heart was ready, and my voice came out to welcome the song.

Story: Several years ago, when I was having vocal problems, I found that if I said something I didn’t really mean (like “yes” instead of “no”), my throat tightened up and my problems got worse. For the sake of my singing voice, I had to truly think about my speech. I had to make sure that my voice was aligned with my heart.

Story: Around about the same time, I noticed that I could only sing without discomfort in Spanish! And then I realized that losing my ‘voice’ was not a new experience: when I was 4, my family moved from Spain to the U.S., and the other children teased me so much that I forgot Spanish. Losing my first language was my original sin, learning it again was my journey, and singing in it now — is redemption.

So: good luck to everyone. May you all make friends with yourself on the continuing journey to your heart’s true voice.

Happy Announcement!

Dear Everyone:

I have an announcement to make.

It’s a Good announcement.

This weekend, I will be at the Kerrville Folk Festival, competing in a contest called Music2Life. The contest is an unusual one; it celebrates songs of social change. It’s hosted by Noel Paul Stookey and his daughter. (More info: http://www.music2life.org/ ).

The judges for the more than 200 submissions this year included Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins, and Peter Yarrow. My song Nickel and Dime was chosen as one of the ten finalists.

For those of you who don’t know, Noel Paul Stookey is the “Paul” and Peter Yarrow is the “Peter” in Peter, Paul and Mary. So this is kind of a Big Deal.

But Wait! (as they say on tv) There’s More!

This is a Big Deal to me for a number of reasons. The first is, I’m going to be singing, officially and stuff, on the Kerrville Threadgill Stage, which is like a super awesome dream-come-true, Christmas-cum-Birthday, Sweet 16 and Graduation all rolled into one. Some girls dream of their weddings, * but not me: I dream of singing on stage at Kerrville in front of a bunch of hippies.

But here’s the other thing: it’s also another kind of homecoming. Because, 7 years ago, through a series of coincidences too convoluted to describe, I ended up working as a Tech Support Lass for one Peter Yarrow, in New York, New York.

There I was, my first day working for him, on the phone for hours with a technical support agent in Germany, trying to get a European wireless network card to work with Peter’s American laptop,** and thinking, “God, I don’t understand. I want to sing music. So why is it that I’m here working with computers and doing tech support?”

Later on that day, Peter asked me to sing for him. I went into the bathroom and breathed deeply, and then I said yes.

Three weeks later I was on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival, in Kerrville, Texas, to attend the songwriting school. Two and a half years after that, I moved to Austin, Texas, where I’ve been living ever since.

“What’s ‘Kerrville?’ ” I had said to Peter. “Trust me. It’ll change your life,” said Peter.

And it did.

The seven years since that trip have not been easy.*** But I’ve had some of the most beautiful, passionate, true, and joyful moments of my life. There have been many, many times when I’ve thought, “Ah, yes, this is my life!” To have that feeling – even once – is a gift that makes life worth everything.

So, join me if you will – in person, in thought, or in happy vibe – this Saturday, June 5th, at the Threadgill Theater, 1-3 pm. In Kerrville, Texas.



*All I know is, it’s being catered by TacoDeli.

** And I never did get it to work…

*** This is what is known as “understatement.”