Singing as a skill

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I’ve always had a misconception that singing was a talent and not a skill. 

That misconception was erased at one of my first summer sleepaway camps. It was a survivalist camp where we lived in an isolated area and built our own tree beds. With not much to do, we campers spent a lot of time talking to each other. One of the girls was telling me that they recently started opera lessons and classical voice training.

It intrigued me, so I asked her to sing me a tidbit. All I remember is how angelic and awe-inspiring it sounded. It sounded so legitimate and professional, and to my surprise, she made this much progress after only four months of lessons.

She told me that anyone can learn to sing, and I kept that in mind for the future.

A lot of my early experiences with singing are rooted in being a summer camp counselor. Singing was a regular activity: We sang during campfires to give thanks to the kitchen staff or just to pass the time. At our daily opening and closing ceremonies, we used fast songs to get people pumped up and energized. Then, at night, we sang slow and sentimental pieces while in each other’s company.

I always loved singing at camp because it was one of the best ways to be with one another.

One of my absolute favorite things that we did was songline during meals. When we ate at the central camp kitchen, staff would be served after campers. While we waited for our turn, we formed two lines and pumped up the atmosphere by singing catchy, interactive songs. The songs often featured callouts to one another and a lot of movement. I loved being able to release this level of energy daily. 

Outside of these camp experiences, I loved going to musical performances, including watching my school choir. When I started college, I went to musical shows right and left because I love supporting our student groups. The a cappella groups always recruit after the annual showcase, sending flyers out to anyone and everyone. I told them I didn’t know how to sing, especially not at the level to join an a cappella group. They said it didn’t matter and told me to come audition anyway because it would be fun. 

In spring 2019, I was chanting at a meditation center, and someone walked up to me, saying, “Hey, you have a really loud and distinct voice. Have you considered learning how to sing?”

It both flattered and surprised me. But I was reminded that my summer camp peers also pointed out how easy it was to identify when I was singing or not. I wondered, was I that good at projecting? It must have been all the Toastmasters practice.

It was buried in the back of my head for a while. I knew I needed to act on this advice, especially because I secretly did want to sing well.

I sent out an open call to my friends, asking for singing teacher recommendations. Luckily, one of my friend’s older sisters happened to be a professional singer who then became my singing teacher.

I did not know what I was getting myself into since I’d never learned the technicalities of singing. The biggest surprise to me was that most of what we do in singing lessons is not actual singing but rather strengthening the fundamentals of voice creation.

First, posture. Maintaining a straight and aligned posture elongates our vocal tracts, creating more support for our voice and allowing for better breath control. In addition, working on my posture has given me increased spatial awareness and helped me better control my singing muscles.

Another big part of my singing practice is breathing. Breath affects the tone, pitch, volume of our voice and how long we can sustain certain sounds. I’ve been working on being more controlled with my breathwork, controlling the speed, length and stability of my inhale and exhale. I’ve also done exercises like panting like a dog to practice taking rapid, shallow breaths. 

“Did you take a good breath?” My teacher would remind me rhetorically.  Singing is just strategic breathing, she said. I think about how important breath is to so many activities in life, from pure existence to athletics to the arts. Breath is also consistent and happens all the time.

There are a lot of other elements we practice, such as pitch, rhythm and movement. But most importantly, the past five months of singing lessons affirmed to me that art is practice.

Art is not a constant novelty. Art is dedication — day after day of practicing the fundamentals so that you can then use them to wield your artistic tools the way you want.

I often hear statements such as, “Oh, I’m not creative. I’m not artistic. I can’t [insert creative activity].” In response, I say these are skills that you can learn. You just haven’t learned and practiced yet. Wait until I invite you to my first singing recital. You’ll see all the progress I’ve made in a short time.

Singing is about breath. It’s about posture. Singing, like life, is about the small things you do day after day for yourself so that one day, you can use your amazing voice to connect with others. 

Shuge Luo writes the Wednesday column on creativity and belonging. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.