“The human voice is the organ of the soul.”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Mama always told people that when I was born I came out singing. I certainly don’t remember it, but I would like to think that my birth cries were at least a little bit musical! Today’s church services and the choice of operatic soprano Renee’ Fleming to sing the Star Spangled Banner for the 2014 BIG FOOTBALL GAME (which, apparently cannot be called by its more “super” moniker unless one has permission to do so) have gotten me thinking about the human voice, mine and other people’s.
I’ve been singing pretty much all my life, from the time I was a small child. It was just how I expressed myself and the thing I loved most to do in the world. Those things are still true. I took voice lessons beginning in the 8th grade and continued through college, earning a Bachelor of Music in Applied Voice (it’s called Vocal Performance now).
As a voice student and musician, my fascination with the human voice led me into many other areas of study. Classically trained singers, for example, need to have at least a shallow working knowledge of several foreign languages. My first ever voice teacher started me with “the singer’s language”, Italian, a language of pure vowels and the art of bel canto, which means “beautiful singing”. Singing in a foreign language made me feel very grown-up, but it also gave me a desire to learn how to make my foreign language diction as convincing as possible. The ultimate goal is for listeners to think whatever language I am singing is my native tongue.
Singers also need to know certain things about how the human body is put together and how it functions, more than the average person generally needs to know. Our bodies are our instruments and we have to understand how they work. The voice doesn’t start in the throat. It starts deep in the abdomen with the diaphragm, a muscle which we spend years strengthening in order to breathe deeply and efficiently, and to control the expulsion of air in long phrases. We are trained to imagine filling our lungs up from the bottom in order to maximize their capacity. Once the air is in, it is all about controlling how it comes out, but we have to be able to relax certain muscles even as we exercise this control. The air passes through the vocal cords, two of the tiniest and strongest muscles in the human body, producing vocalizations of all kinds…singing, speech, laughter.
In college one of the classes I took and enjoyed was Physics of Musical Sound. It fascinated me when my professor showed us an oscilloscope, an instrument that measures the human voice and other sounds, producing a sort of “sound print” of what it has recorded. And much like fingerprints, these sound prints are unique. I remember thinking how much I would love to have a picture of my very own voice print. Now, with modern technology, one of our computers here at home has an oscilloscope, and I can capture my voice print!
I spent a number of years working in radio, primarily as an on-air announcer and commercial copywriter/producer. My musical training kept me mindful that I needed to be careful with my voice. Even though it was not singing, radio work was also a very specialized use of the voice, and I knew both radio people and singers who developed voice trouble due to improper technique and bad habits. My radio years were a lot of fun, and I think they gave me a different appreciation for the communication that is only possible with the human voice.
I still do a bit of occasional voice-over work for a friend’s radio stations, but my first love will always be to sing. I let my singing go for a long time, making the excuses we all make about not having enough time or energy to commit to music… something I would not allow to happen if I could have a do-over. As it is, though, I sing as often as I have the opportunity. Singing is, for me, a way to express the feelings for which there are no words, a way to thank and praise the God Who spoke the universe into being with His Voice. I will hope to sing for as long as l am able, expressing, thanking and praising with my own vox humana.
“I will sing unto the LORD, for He hath dealt bountifully with me.”