Be the Vessel, Be Yourself
In 2000, when I was thirteen years old, Bon Jovi released a single called, "It's My Life." It cycled through the top 40 the summer between my seventh and eighth grade years of middle school. I fell in love with the song, and subsequently asked for the CD of their album, "Crush", for Christmas.
Although it is not my favorite Bon Jovi album, "Crush" marked a turning point in my musical development. I had taken a few years of piano lessons, sung in choirs, and spent three half-hearted years playing the clarinet. Something in that album flipped a switch in me and I began to take music seriously. I was thirteen, and I knew that this was going to be the work I would do for the rest of my life.
I was a really smart, competitive kid, and I wanted to be the best musician I could possibly be. I bought all the Bon Jovi albums I could get my hands on and proceeded to teach myself how to imitate Jon's vocal pyrotechnics. I proceeded to do this with other artists like Savage Garden, TLC, Alicia Keys ... really anyone. I tried to imitate the sounds of any and every singer.
I didn't start studying voice seriously until about two years later. Knowing what I know now as a vocal pedagogue, I'm glad my parents waited that long to get me voice lessons. In a strange way, I think that those years of grand experimentation helped me cultivate something really important: My artistic voice.
Imitation is part of learning. One of my many side gigs is teaching young Chinese students English. The first thing they have to do is directly imitate sounds and speech patterns. The step after that is to have them formulate answers to questions. A new ESL student cannot answer questions before they can imitate words. This is a simple fact of educational development.
Similarly, in music education, we always work to have students repeat phrases, and then we scaffold in call and response. It is the same basic ideology.
It makes sense that most of us begin our singing lives by becoming master imitators, because singing is a form of human communication.
In a way, singing is beyond speech because the singer communicates their innermost, vulnerable self to an audience. If you are a musician, chances are you are singing because you have something to say.
YOU. YOU. YOU. YOU have something to say.
It's easy to forget that it is your voice, both in physicality and philosophy, is the most important part in the whole picture. Remember, a teacher is an advisor. Someone who makes this communication easier, but YOU are the vessel. The job of the teacher is to make it as easy as humanly possible for someone to be themselves and artistically generate what they want to convey. You are the body, the vessel that holds the soul and voice that must be heard.
Communicate your true self in your music. There are rules and there are opinions. However, at the end of the day, who you are is non-negotiable.
One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, has a great quote from an interview that I love: "I will not negotiate who I am with you."
This quote is something I repeat as a mantra often.
I love to write, think, and read. My great non-musical interests are theology and philosophy. For a long time, I did not see the connection between my love of these things and my music making. I would frequently feel guilty that I devoted just as much time to these curiosities and pursuits as I did my music. However, what I have found is that for me the two are not mutually exclusive. They are in fact part of my whole and what make me the musician that I am. I feel like it has improved my music, and my teaching tremendously.
So, my friends, find ways to make yourself more you. In doing this you work to become more of the musician and person you want to be.
At the end of the day that's what we want.
We want you.