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ii. passages: part of the story

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a passage is “a narrow way allowing access between buildings or to different rooms within a building; a passageway”.

The Italian word for passage is “passaggio”, in the vocal music world classically referring to vocal passages, to the points at which a voice transitions from one register to another. 

In this sense, it is like the different registers of the voice could be thought of as different rooms in one’s “voice house". A chest voice room, a mixed voice room, a head voice room being the main bedrooms, for example, each with their own character, decoration, wall color, shape size, texture… When I envision my chest voice room, for instance, I see chocolatey brown wall paint and lush velvet armchairs.

My awareness of the passages between these “rooms” or vocal registers was born after years of singing when, while singing in choir at age 11, the following thought crossed my mind:  “When the notes get higher, it’s like my voice is switching into a different level… That’s new.”

Without the vocal or physiological understanding of why that was happening, I noticed a passage for the first time.

After this awareness was born and I continued sing, I slowly began to realize that the passages in my personal voice house weren’t narrow, like many of my peers, from whose voices I didn’t hear any audible shifts when they sang, the way I felt them, heard them, in mine. 

The more this worried me, the bigger these passages seemed to get, which I later understood as a product of the inevitable roles psychology and mindset play in the act of singing. 

I had sung soprano my entire childhood until the age of 12.

When my voice began to crack while singing at my upper passaggio, choral directors began assigning me to the alto part instead and voice teachers began giving me lower repertoire to sing. 

When I sang a low solo at the age of 15 and my rich chest voice was discovered, I essentially became stamped as a low alto voice for life, because goodness knows the world needs more women who can sing low.

A lot of well-meaning and skilled people whom I encountered through my years of singing as a teenager gave me great feedback about my musicality and my vocal timbre, excitedly telling me about my potential as a singer, but no one I encountered seemed to quite be able to diagnose what was happening with my voice and subsequently provide me with tools to strengthen the weaker parts and I believe I was too young to understand how to seek this knowledge myself.

This situation left me, in the end, with a nicely developed chest voice room, a pretty decent middle voice room, and an underdeveloped head voice room which cracked and was quite weak; one might picture it as that dark, abandoned corner of the house where spider webs are slowly accumulating and which no one wants to be responsible for cleaning. 

I was raised surrounded by a lot of perfectionism, both around me in my immediate environment and inside, in my inner life. The desire to keep the way I appeared to the world presentable, pleasant, pretty and as close to perfect as possible robbed me of more and more of my freedom. Hearing my voice crack, which is a phenomenon typically affiliated with boys going through puberty and which people unfortunately use as source of their entertainment in the form of YouTube videos endlessly taunting superbly talented tenors who had the misfortune of one unlucky high C cracking and getting caught on film, filled me with shame and embarrassment. 

When I began studying music, this pressure increased twentyfold. Between singing in on average four university and/or professional choirs at any given time, weekly voice lessons, weekly voice studio class, singing in various opera studio productions, teaching and working with singers and choirs myself, preparing music for various performances, and all of the other responsibilities of a music student, my vocal problems were increasing with the pressure I felt and with the feeling that I had to figure out what was going on with my voice but that I just couldn’t. I developed unhealthy ways of practicing voice, of talking to myself and my voice, and of general being, pushing myself past my emotional and physical limits and grasping desperately at whatever I thought could help me win back my love, singing, eventually resulting in burnout and a lot of mental distress.

“The bigger the break, the bigger the voice”, is something I heard a lot during my studies, an attempted reassurance that my voice was waiting and ready to bloom if I could simply get my passaggios under control. 

Meanwhile, my voice was breaking every third note.

Who am I if I can’t sing? I wondered. 

Am I even me?

What about my dreams? 

Just… figure it out! 

Practice more.

Do more.

Just fix it!

It became a dangerous game, the type that sucks one in and leaves one running into wall after wall, dissatisfied and lost and unsure of the point; yet, unable to stop.

In my five years of my studies and the subsequent seven-and-a-half years since, I have experienced many diverse things with my voice (I will talk more about these in future posts!), and met and learned from many interesting and several absolutely incredible teachers, always wondering where my work with my voice would eventually lead me, if I would ever feel stable in or satisfied with my singing. While working as a teacher myself in Berlin, my time and life was very full and I was not singing as actively as I had during my studies; nonetheless, I practiced during my free periods and continued to take voice lessons, wanting to continue on the path though I was uncertain where I would end up.

The technical challenges that had accompanied me and my voice during my studies continued, sometimes improving slightly, but never in a way that felt sustainable or solid. 

A lot of other meaningful and profound events affected me deeply during this period of my twenties: the process of moving to another country, learning a second language and beginning a completely new way of life; taking my first job outside of my studies as a teacher in my second language; grappling with what it meant for me to live away from my home and adopt a new culture and the joys and challenges that are an inevitable part of such a choice; asking myself where I belonged in the world and what give life meaning; health diagnoses and health-related challenges which have redefined the way I live my life and how I regard myself and others… These events left me doing a lot of searching for a number of years and were enormously impactful on my journey as a singer and artist.

Now studying to become a breath, speech, and voice teacher in Germany, learning Konzept Schlaffhorst-Andersen, (read about it here! and as a result of my eclectic journey thus far, I understand more about myself and more about the architectural process of reconstructing a building (a voice!) and feel intrigued about all that is yet to be learned, experienced, and understood, about myself and about the voice.

I see now that a house, a voice, can’t be pushed into submission or be fixed by throwing more and more paint on top in hope to cover up the cracks, to cover up what’s happening underneath.Firstly, it takes a glass of water, a deep and centering breath (or 80,000), and the development of a new approach, so that one can start again. 

It takes a clear construction plan, a lot of elbow grease, trial and error, and years worth of time.

It takes the right place, the right time, the right people, the right mindset, the right circumstances, the right age, the right teacher, the right phase of life…

It takes understanding one’s soul on a deeper level, understanding why it feels so troubling hearing one’s own voice crack and beginning to ask questions like: “does this have to be so devastating? Can there be a solution to this?” 

It takes learning the physiological components involved in singing inside out, intimately studying the breathing process, in feeling every second into what the tongue is doing, the soft palate, the diaphragm, the stomach, the neck, even the knees… 

It's taking, for me, feeling into all the sensations that I for so long didn’t want to feel and hearing everything that I didn’t want to hear and that a lifetime of perfectionism had told me were catastrophically wrong and allowing things to be as they are without judging them. 

It takes showing up again, and again, and again. 

Waking up and choosing to show up again, even if the construction didn’t go well the day before. 

It takes constantly looking for new answers, adjusting, adapting, searching, opening. Developing a mindset in which curiosity has more of a say than fear.

Breaking open and falling apart and finding ways to stand back up and continue. 

It takes life. 

It takes living.

Because a voice is a portrait of a life, of a soul.

These days, my voice house is taking an a new design.

Practicing requires constant diligence. Right now, I am sick with COVID and know that during my recovery, my head voice will be that which requires the most of my attention and care and will need the most time to recuperate. But I know, knowing what I know now, that it will return, and that I will then continue the process of evening things out, of finding balance, of strengthening.

I interact with this process most every day. I try my best to face it with courage, with clearheadedness, with forgiveness and patience. I am not always successful, but I remind myself that, quite like returning to the breath while meditating, I can return my attention to my intention and begin again. 

I see light!

I see light glowing from underneath a crack in the door of the head voice room, and I know that she has been waiting there for a number of years, patiently and calmly. 

I have the feeling when I come inside to sit down for awhile, she’ll have a steaming cup of tea, a comfortable couch and a few words waiting for me, something like: “Hi, Lauren. I knew you’d come eventually."

And we’ll sit together for a while and just breathe and be. 


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