What do great legends like Pavarotti, Barbara Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion, and multiplatinum recording artists Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey all have in common? All these singers were trained with classical methods.
I’ve taken voice lessons for over nine years. This means nine long years of singing classical music. I hate singing classical music. In college I thought that I could finally sing something else. I wanted to sing Pop, wanted to be fancy and fun like the singers on the radio. My college instructor told me that if I had a classical foundation, I could sing in any genre I wanted. Which meant more scales, arpeggios, Do-Re-Me-Fa-So-La-Ti-Dos, and more dreaded tongue twisting Italian arias. Writers can be the same way, wanting only to write the fantastic, not wanting to build a proper writing foundation. They want to write with frills and trills. If a writer wishes to find his writing voice, that is his style, he must first learn how to make his own voice sing; and with a proper foundation, will free himself to write in his desired style or genre. Some find their voice naturally, but all must train. The fundamentals to training the physical voice and the writing voice are metaphorically the same: correct posture, deep breathing, and relaxing the voice.
Posture in singing is really everything. Correct posture creates effortless singing, opening the airway by keeping muscles and organs from pressing on the windpipe and lungs. In writing, correct posture is the basic understanding of the English language, yes, grammar and punctuation.
Spelling, grammar, paragraphing, and punctuation are a kind of magic; their purpose is to be invisible. If the sleight of hand works, we will not notice a comma or a quotation mark but will translate each instantly into a pause or an awareness of voice; we will not focus on the individual letters of a word but extract its sense whole (Burroway 88).
If you feel like instructor Janet Burroway, like that nagging mother, is sticking her finger in your back to correct your sagging spine, then you’re right, she is. If a writer wants to write well, he must know how to write within the rules. John Gardner, the dear-old-dad of creative writing, puts his views on posture a little more sternly. “No one can hope to write well if he has not mastered–absolutely mastered–the rudiments: grammar and syntax, punctuation, diction, sentence variety, paragraph structure, and so forth” (Gardner 17). Okay, then, what about that cool, older brother, the rebel who breaks all the rules? Stephen King, the master of horror, the red headed stepchild of English literature was himself an English Major in college (King 63). “You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your [writing] toolbox,” explains King, “and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, flunked that whole semester in Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one” (118). There’s no way around it. Good writing means good posture. Mom, Dad, and big brother say so.
Breath, air passing in and around the vocal cords, makes sound possible. To achieve a consistent, clear, and smooth tone the singer must learn how to breathe with his whole body and not just his lungs. The breath must be rooted deep inside the singer. This breath gives the singer his enduring voice, rich texture, and clear intonation. “Fiction,” muses Burroway, “is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven’t yet found out, you’re likely to end up pontificating or lying some other way” (5). Burroway is saying that writing comes from within. That good writing comes about when the writer is willing to search his soul for truth, and seek to learn, rather than write fake feelings, which are really little white lies.
In addition, the writer must learn how to breathe with their whole body, that is their soul. “[The writer] continually depends both on intellectual faculties, such as critical abstraction and musing speculation, and on intuition–his general sense of how the world works, his impulses and feelings” (Gardner 77). The source, the muse, the “intuition” should not come from the shallows, or from short intakes of breath. Stephen King puts it another way. He writes, “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level…” (144). In the depths of the soul is where writing should spring, and to get there, it takes breathing deep, descending into the basement to meet the muse.
Relax. With so many things to think about, posture (mechanics), and breathing (source, inspiration), I know that it can be hard to let the mind relax. If the singer is not relaxed his posture will suffer and his muscles will tire and ache. If the singer is nervous and therefore tense, he will find it hard to breathe. The same is true for the writer. Posture and breathing need to be second nature. What does this mean? Practice, practice, practice. “If you want to write, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot” (King 145). Daily writing, freewriting, journaling, these are all writing methods to relax the writing voice. But if the first two elements are not in place, relaxing your writing voice will prove difficult.
Because I wanted a solid singing foundation, I sang Italian arias. I learned German, and I even tried French. And once I learned the fundamentals I was allowed to sing jazz and musical theater numbers. “Listen to what they do and then try to imitate them,” my instructor would say. I learned how to sway my voice, swing it, even learned how to sing pop. I could pick my style but I sang with my voice. “Each writer’s interests and personality must inevitably modify the style” (Gardner 163).
It is not wrong to imitate another’s voice. King admits that his own writing voice (style) came about as a result of reading and imitating different authors (147). It is not wrong to write in another style or imitate a writing hero, but, where is your voice? One should not try to be King, O’Conner, Rowling, Hemingway, Twain, or Dickens, because the world has already heard and loved their voices. The writer must ask himself this question: Am I brave enough to add my writing voice to the fray, to lift my voice to the rafters.
Want to sing? Then, correct mechanics, breathe with the soul, and write with freedom.
Burroway, Janet, and Susan Weinberg. Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: A. Knopf, 1984. Print.
King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2000. Print.