Singing can Heal
Four years ago, Karl came to see me for the first time. A practitioner who had been treating him for a stomach ailment had suggested that Karl’s breathing technique could be at the root of his problem. I was not at all convinced that I could help him, but Karl’s love of singing persuaded me to give it a try.
To begin with his voice was just loud, too loud, due to too much pressure. So Karl was ‘put on a diet’ and made to do all the exercises pianissimo. For quite a long time it was possible to hear accompanying noises when he sang; these noises were still due to too much pressure being asserted, which resulted in the vocal chords being unable to close properly. But Karl was a very persistent and conscientious student and was prepared to repeat the same subtle exercises over and over again. Practising the ‘Support’ was also done in a gentle, meditative way. After a while Karl learnt to sing the louder notes as though he were inhaling.
When Karl began singing songs, he still had the tendency to use his voice too violently, but with time, patience and practice he learned to overcome this. Loew’s dramatic ballad ‘Archibald Douglas’, which is a favourite practice piece of Karl’s, helped him enormously. At present he is singing Mendelssohn duets together with a soprano – he sings with great verve and élan and sounds really good. Some time ago I asked him how his stomach problem was. “My stomach?” was his reply “oh yes, that’s been o.k. for quite some time now.”
This example deals with healing on a physical level – a healing that seems to take place almost incidentally. Karl had a stressful job and singing has given him the desired equilibrium. Another important aspect is that Karl, ‘the doer’ experienced the power of surrendering to a higher will and of no longer having ‘to do’.
The following example indicates clearly how closely knitted the processes of healing and voice training are:
I met Isabel in Freiburg where I was teaching. She was 20 years old at the time and had a pleasant soprano voice, which however sounded breathy when she sang high notes. Isabel suffered from asthma. I had great hopes that singing would help her with her illness and these hopes were soon fulfilled. The more Isabel practised the breathing exercises, the less asthma attacks she had. Through intensive training and learning to “inalare la voce”, Isabel’s voice achieved enormous clarity in due time.
I worked with Isabel over a period of approximately three years. Her voice developed beautifully and grew in strength during that time. She is now studying at college to become an opera singer.
Shortly after Gudrun had taken part in one of my weekend workshops, she phoned me and asked if I thought learning to sing could help her overcome a health problem. She told me that she had sleeping difficulties; at night her breathing would suddenly stop and she would wake up in a panic, gasping for breath.
Gudrun’s doctor had suggested that she wear an oxygen mask at night. This mask was intended to stop the muscles in the throat from over-relaxing and becoming too slack, which was apparently the cause of the problem. Gudrun was depressed at the thought of having to spend the rest of her nights (she was 60 years old at the time) wired up to an electrically-powered mask, that would only possibly ease the situation but certainly not cure it.
This was completely new territory for me, but it seemed a good and logical idea to attempt strengthening the muscles used in breathing and those in the throat and larynx.
Indeed Gudrun’s speaking voice was extremely quiet and lacked strength and her singing voice was hushed and fragile. The physical aspects of the illness were clear, but what lay behind that? I soon had an idea: underlying the tiredness that was plainly due to lack of sleep was a deep-seated exhaustion on an emotional level, the reasons for which I knew nothing about. I had hopes that singing would enable Gudrun to experience more élan, and so I began working with her.
We had no special therapeutic exercises, but worked together using the normal exercises for voice development.
Even after a short period of time both Gudrun’s speaking voice and singing voice grew stronger and led to the discovery of a youthful soprano voice. She sang Handel’s ‘German Arias’ with amazing warmth, her face began to lose some of its worry lines and to relax and glow, she dyed her hair red and took part in a seminar for clowns! She slept better and her night time breathing became more reliable.
After about three months Gudrun had an experience that shook her to the core. She had bought herself a recording of Handel’s ‘German Arias’. The singer was not well known, but Gudrun liked the way she interpreted the arias. Reading through the CD booklet, Gudrun discovered a photo of the singer. With tears in her eyes, Gudrun showed me the photo and explained “she’s the spitting image of my daughter, who died seven years ago”. There was no denying the likeness.
Guided by fate, Gudrun had been presented with exactly the experience she needed in order to make a break with her sad past and move onwards into a bright future.
A year later her sleeping difficulties were virtually cured. Just for the sheer joy of it, Gudrun now sings with a young female organist in her church – as yet there is no admission to the public!
Singing can heal! What better example could there be to show the enormity of the spiritual depths we can reach with the aid of singing – even as far as experiencing
so-called coincidences, prepared for us under the loving guidance of our higher spiritual self.
I sing, therefore I am
Verena’s first words to me were “I’m not sure that this is the right place for me”. She had just arrived for her first singing lesson and had heard the previous student – ‘a proper singer’ - delivering the final notes of a song.
Verena had a small, gentle soprano voice at that time and although she longed to express herself in song, she was too scared to do so.
She dedicatedly practised the quiet “ng” sounds, but it was impossible to get her to sing louder, even though her voice was totally healthy. Verena had to work at her own pace in order to develop faith in her own capabilities.
Over a period of time she managed to overcome her inhibitions and false modesty. Her voice grew in size and strength and developed a sort of glow. Verena herself had a glow about her. She discovered the joy of singing for other people and sharing her enormous energy with them.
This energy was particularly necessary when she and Karl sang duets together. At first Karl’s powerful voice posed a threat for Verena; the challenge did her good and she developed more courage. Karl also benefited from this situation; he discovered a gentle side to his nature. These two opposites often practised together and with time they developed a sound that was both delightful and harmonious.
Verena is just one of many, for whom singing has come to represent a medium for self-expression. She has learned to take herself seriously and, in her new-found strength, to play a more active role in life.
Corinna was fifteen years old when she first came to me for a singing lesson. Her posture was typical of that of many teenagers – the shape of a question mark, with hanging shoulders, the pelvis thrust forward and ‘an empty hole’ where the stomach should be. Her parents were continually begging her to stand up straight, but because Corinna’s problem was of an emotional nature, the result was solely that she became more and more uncomfortable with herself.
The problem seemed to lie in the ‘empty hole’ in her centre. At Corinna’s age, many young people are in turmoil, seeking a centre in themselves and being torn between the dictates of emotions on the one hand and cognitive processes on the other. As already mentioned, the energy centre in the area of the stomach and the solar plexus, is both emotionally and physically the centre of our balance. Centred here, we take possession of our body and experience our true selves.
It was, therefore, of the utmost importance for Corinna to find her ‘Support’; the body needed the guidance of the soul. A person who is centred and balanced can stand as though rooted to the ground and at the same time can open up towards the heavens. The stance should be as follows: the pelvis is tilted slightly forward, the lower back is straight. One has the sense that the spine has grown downwards to develop a third leg. The pelvis thus becomes a vessel for the created sound. At the same time, the thorax expands outwards from its centre, with the idea of inhaling divine breath. Only then is the human being perfectly balanced between heaven and earth. The task of the younger generation is to discover this harmony, whilst the older generation is in a constant struggle to retain it.
Corinna is now 17 years old and stands tall. The teenage voice that was once overly breathy now sounds fuller and at the same time more mature. It is fascinating being able to watch and accompany her in her development and to see where her talent will eventually take her.
Not only bad posture in the sense of slack muscle tonus is a hindrance to the singer, but also the exact opposite. A rigid military posture disrupts the balance of the voice. Corinna’s problems had to do with her emotional development.
The next example shows clearly the difficulties that can arise as a result of a systematically trained rigid posture, unfortunately a posture that is all too often recommended for singers. Paul Lohmann’s preferred stance is that of an animal preparing to flee.
The rigidity in Martina’s shoulders and thorax lent a hard metallic sound to the voice and made it impossible for her to find her own individual sound - a sound that always has a natural silkiness and elasticity to it. There is, of course, a reason for the military command ‘stomach in, chest out’ - no one is able to stay centred in this posture – hence there is no contact with the higher self. In this posture all sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses sound alike; they lose their individuality.
It was a delight to be able to witness the speed at which, through practising the exercises, Martina found herself in the right balance of mind and body and therefore able to reveal the true identity both of her voice and her personality.
I met Angela whilst giving a public teaching demonstration. I had asked whether anyone in the audience would like to sing and have me correct them. Angela had a wonderfully vital and well-trained voice; it was however a soprano voice, disguised as a mezzo-soprano. The lower middle range sounded as though it were being manipulated into producing darker hues and the higher range sounded heavy and lacked brilliance. And finally, the strong lower register could almost fool one into believing that she was a mezzo-soprano.
Every dramatic soprano voice needs strength in the lower register – not only because composers demand it, but because it gives the voice a solid foundation. The lower register sung by a soprano will of course never sound as satiny and smooth as when sung by a contralto. A mezzo-soprano is in reality a contralto; one who has managed over the years to increase the range of her voice. A mezzo-soprano voice is therefore one with an enormous range. It is NOT a voice that can neither reach the heights nor the depths! Indeed many so-called mezzo-sopranos have turned up on my doorstep over the years and most of them wanted to explain to me that they could neither sing high nor low notes!
Angela didn’t fit in to this category. But her voice was still somehow restrained and lacked expression when she sang high notes. This was due on the one hand to the compact, mechanical ‘Support’ that she created with muscle power and on the other hand to an over-darkened middle range, which always leads (also for contraltos) to a bulky and unwieldy virtuosity in the higher range.
Each lightening or darkening of the voice that is ‘fabricated’, will cause a disruption in the balance of the voice as a whole. The cure for this wonderful voice was therefore simply to gain a relaxed ‘Support’ (as already described) and to allow the true nature of the voice to unfold: a radiant soprano voice with dramatic character.
For Angela herself, the most amazing development was that she could now sing high notes with incredible ease.
Udo’s case was a similar one. Although he looked like the typical tenor – of relatively small stature and compact, his previous vocal training had not lead to a definite classification of his voice. This was indeed a difficult task; the lower register was exaggeratedly darkened in an attempt to copy the satiny hue of a baritone.
Udo’s voice wasn’t properly anchored in his body; the higher notes sounded ‘girly’ and false. There was no indication of the wonderful ‘precious-metal’ sound of a good tenor voice. Once Udo had found his ‘Support’, it was then only a short step to discovering the true nature of his voice: a tenor of definitive dramatic character (which explains the dexterity of the voice in the lower register and the full sound in the middle register).
Quite recently, during a singing lesson, Udo’s rendition of ‘The Grail’ (Lohengrin) was interrupted. An elderly passer-by on the street knocked on the window of the music room and commented “wonderful, quite wonderful” .
Brigitte sounded like an alto: her voice had volume and warm dark hues to it; however she had undeniable difficulties with intonation. There was also a lack of flexibility in the voice. This seemingly alto voice was in fact a soprano of great range and, as often in such cases, of dramatic structure. The dark, heavy character of such voices can often cause difficulties with high notes, which then of course results in a preference of the middle and lower registers.
In order to complete the picture of a contralto, the voice is often artificially darkened, which can then lead to a total loss of vocal balance.
This is one of the main reasons for the difficulties singers have with intonation, very seldom has the problem anything to do with the singers’ musical hearing. And this problem cannot be solved by concentrating on the hearing, but has to be corrected on a physical level: The singer must acquire the ability to recognise unerringly whether he is centred emotionally and physically, because only in this state, is the supported voice able to intone with purity.
A lack of flexibility in the singing voice, especially where voluminous voices are concerned, is also the result of not being centred. If the voice is not anchored safely in the body, then it is unable to achieve the sense of freedom that is necessary to sing colaratura.
This also means: lightness of the voice requires a solid physical basis. Only when the singer has the sense of being in the centre of his strength, will the notes he sings be entirely free. This can be compared to the good horse rider, who sits calmly in the saddle whilst his horse is in full gallop.
Difficulties with singing ‘piano’ are also a result of not being centred. Dramatic singers often live in fear of singing ‘piano’, because they tend to lose the centring in the body and experience a narrowing of the throat. But the tautness of the muscles required for singing ‘piano’ is the same as when singing ‘forte’ (the only difference is in the vocal chords) – the subjective feeling however, is of even greater tension. At the same time, the energy of the voice has to be controlled and not allowed a direct escape, which makes the quiet notes especially troublesome for dramatic voices.
l I suggested that Brigitte practise singing ‘piano’ by using an echo effect (loud and then quiet) in order to get a feeling for the necessary tension. This exercise can only be carried out once the voice has learned to respond lightly, without pressure. Brigitte had achieved this by practising the ‘ng’ sound.
A voluminous dramatic soprano voice, such as Brigitte’s, offers many possibilities and unfortunately just as many problems. It takes a long time for such a voice to become completely balanced. Brigitte needed to grow into her voice both physically and emotionally in order to be able to submit to the demands of such a voice. During this period of growth, Brigitte was subjected to numerous nervous laughing fits as she was brought face to face with the extent of her own power and energy.
When I first listened to Karin’s voice I was shocked: here was a large, wonderfully individual and extremely deep alto voice, that had been systematically distorted through the wrong form of tuition. Karin’s voice barely reached a B in the middle register, the notes sounded cramped and had a horrible vibrato effect. Karin herself seemed to be enclosed in an aura of fear and helplessness.
Experience has taught me that the voice will always recover from such bad treatment; the problem is more an emotional one. Can the singer be totally cured, not only from having lost the feeling for his voice, but also from having lost the sense of his true identity? Karin had to regain the feeling for her own voice and re-find herself.
To begin with, Karin needed to concentrate working with the ‘Support’. The narrow sound of the tones and the annoying vibrato were caused by too much tension in the jaw muscles, which was Karin’s attempt at overcoming the lack of an anchor in her body. Her inability to sing high notes was also due to her not being centred; without an anchor, an enormous voice like hers has no other choice than to produce a narrowing of the throat.
After four years of constant practice with many ups and downs, Karin sang for a professional colleague of mine, who stated: “a technically perfect voice! The chin is a little rigid.”
Anna came to me as a pupil four years ago. She was then 57 years old and full of energy, both emotionally and physically. She had had vocal training for a short period as a young girl – as a soprano. For years now she had been singing with enormous enthusiasm in choirs, but as an alto, as the voice could no longer reach the high notes. When I examined her voice, I heard a powerful, large soprano – quite probably with a dramatic structure. The voice however had no ‘Support’; the lower register sounded coarse and overly dark, the higher middle register was under pressure and the high notes were totally non-existent.
In order to relieve the pressure, the first step was to find the seat of the voice. This she did by practising, without the ‘Support’, the sound ‘ng’ very quietly. After a while the higher register responded and her voice in general developed a nimbleness that eventually allowed it to settle down and find its anchor in the body.
The ‘supported’ notes from the middle range now rang much clearer (the way God intended), and the high notes sounded fuller and more powerful - as only to be expected from a dramatic soprano. Anna now gives occasional recitals in her home town, for example in Homes for the Elderly. When she is rested, Anna’s voice can reach the famous high ‘F’ from Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’.
Here is a good example of disproving the popular opinion – one held both by singers and amateurs alike – that with old age a voice loses its timbre and its ability to reach high notes. In this particular case, the higher register that had lain dormant for so many years could in fact be reawakened. Female singers often tend to blame their problems on hormonal dysfunction during the menopause; the above example (just one of many I have encountered in my work) proves the absurdity of this belief.
Not long ago an elderly lady (70 years old) sang for me; she had enormous talent as a singer, but had chosen to stay hidden within the choir in her church community. I can hardly describe my surprise, when after only a few vocal exercises, her voice soared to the highest notes that a soprano can sing. This amazing lady seemed powered by an enormous inner engine; she had to rush away from her singing lesson as she had promised to cut the hair of the nuns in the nearby convent. She was a trained hairdresser.
Singing is Easy
These examples give a good indication of the close connection between vocal development and inner development. Singing gives us human beings the opportunity to experience a state of the highest emotional and physical balance. Perfect balance would signify a perfection of voice and personality and also of absolute health.
We can all choose to take this path. It is a path involving practice on each of life’s levels; this practice has nothing to do with hour-long singing exercises as is normally understood. Especially with the amateurs amongst my pupils, I often experience vocal ‘miracles’ when they allow themselves to take the step that promotes inner development.
Obviously someone who wishes to become a professional singer needs to exercise in order to have sufficient stamina. But here again it is true that the mind motivates the body! To become singers we must become more and more aware of the essence of humanity. This is a lifelong process. The path is there, our job is to follow that path.
I have deliberately avoided giving practical exercises in this book. Singing needs a holistic approach and attempting exercises without proper guidance can only lead to confusion and mistakes.
Just as an example: practising the ‘Support’ whilst looking upwards is a waste of time, because our attention is not properly focused. We need to be centred in the body and not in the mind. Besides, the mistakes we make and the difficulties we experience are naturally very individual.
Now that you have reached the end of this book, perhaps you feel encouraged to start singing or perhaps to change your previous method of singing. Your next task is to find yourself a good teacher.
I hope that you now feel equipped to judge for yourselves what constitutes good vocal tuition. Here are a few more tips:
A good teacher has as his philosophy an open perception of humanity and spirituality. For him, singing is a basic, vital human resource. The whole concept of singing is taught in an uncomplicated, simple manner, including the treatment of diction.
The ‘Support’ is nothing mechanical. It is a matter of an emotional and physical centring in the body and a devotion to the created sounds.
Breathing is a natural process and is only influenced by inner pictures such as: spaciousness, amazement, surprise ...
He emphasises the necessity of being aware of the body as a whole; he does not work with rigid placements for the pelvis, the lips or the jaw.
And finally, a good teacher is open to the individuality of each voice and has no pre-conceived ideas concerning the way a ‘perfect’ alto, soprano, bass or tenor voice should sound.
A good teacher falls in love with the voice of his student, the first time he hears it. He (the teacher) assists in the process of liberating the voice from its shackles and thus allowing it to manifest its true-self.
With these tips, you should now be in a position to find the ‘right’ teacher. Seen objectively, there are of course both good and bad teachers, but not the one good teacher to suit everyone. Ultimately it is a matter of trust.
Should you have any questions, you can contact me via my publisher.
I wish you much joy in your adventures on the road to discovering your voice!
Werbeck-Svärdström, Valborg: Uncovering the Voice. The Cleansing Power of Song. Rudolf Steiner Press 1980
Paul Lohmann; Die sängerische Einstellung.
Verlag C.F. Kahnt, Frankfurt
Joachim Ernst Behrendt: Nada Brahma – Die Welt ist Klang. Rowohlt Verlag, Reinbek 1985
Louise Hay: You can Heal your Life. Hay House, Inc., Santa Monica, CA 1984
Friedrich Schiller: Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen. Nachw. v. Käte Hamburger. Reclam Verlag, Ditzingen 2000 Hoursse