I Can’t

When a singer says to me “I can’t” I believe her.

If I go to a dance class, and I tell the dance teacher, “I can’t lift my leg high enough to put it on the bar,” and she tells me, “Oh yes you can, you’re just not trying. Here, let me show you how much it can move,” and she grabs my leg and tries to lift it up and put it on the bar, I will definitely yell, “Ouch! You are hurting me!” If I were to run in a race and not be able to finish (I am much overweight and out of shape) and the running coach were to tell me, “You should be able to finish this race, you are a quitter!” I would look at the coach and say, “Are you kidding me? I should never have been in this race in the first place! I didn’t have enough training or conditioning to even participate. Why did I listen to you?” I wasn’t always this self-confident.

But if I were a singer, I could be in a session with a teacher, a coach, a conductor or even a friend, and say, “I can’t sing that phrase. The notes are just too high.” I could be told, “You absolutely should be able to sing that note. You are a soprano, for heaven’s sake. You aren’t using enough/correct breath support!” or maybe, “You can definitely sing that phrase, but you will have to bring your resonance more forward to do it,” or perhaps, “You are just being resistant and blocked. You need to let go more and stop holding back.”And, if I insisted that my throat was just closing and that I couldn’t get the notes out, I might just be told that I can’t sing and should give up. I could walk away thinking “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do what they say?”

The game of blaming the singer is real. So many singers are blamed for what they can’t do, yet the purpose of lessons is to learn to go beyond what you can’t do until you can do it. The way to get past your limitations is not to be browbeaten by your teacher, or to force your throat, or manipulate some other body part or intellectualize the process, but that is what a lot of people think and that is what they are taught. The instructors know only that singing is about “doing something” and if that something doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work because the singer is just too untalented or too stupid or too resistant (or all of those) to make it work.

Yes, there are times when the student is really at fault. There are people who cannot learn, don’t really want to change and would prefer to do whatever it is they already do even if they think they want to study with or consult a voice expert. I have written about them here. It is not my experience, however, in more than 40 years of teaching, that this is how the majority of singers are. It is my experience that people who pay for lessons want to learn something in those lessons and will try to apply what is being taught to the best of their ability.

In a system in which the teacher can never be wrong, never be questioned, and the student can never ask the teacher why something is not working (without fear), there can be no true learning. The teacher has to be willing to be vulnerable so that the student can also be, and the teacher has to be able to own what she knows and what she does not know, equally. Unless that situation exists all the time, the atmosphere in which the session takes place will not really be safe and all that will take place is that both individuals will do their best not to screw up in front of the other. In that environment, no learning can take place, no education is possible.

If I asked the singer, “When your throat closes, what do you experience? Can you describe your discomfort in more detail?” and actually listened to her answer, I might understand better what technical or functional issue was at the root of her problem. If I asked her “When do you experience this difficulty? Is it all the time, just on certain pieces, or just in certain kinds of repertoire?” I might also get some clues as to the source of her problems. If I approached her as if her experience was real and also valid, I might be able to say, “Oh, I’m sorry. That must be so frustrating. I know how hard it can be when things in your voice aren’t going the way you would like them to. Let’s see if we can investigate a bit and find out what’s going on in there,” I would at least be providing some support and reassurance for the idea that indeed, things can go wrong unintentionally, and that there are remedies that can help, once the problem is dissected and investigated.

I stopped taking lessons at 29, after 14 years of training, because the teacher I had had for 7 years insisted that I was “just being temperamental” when I told him that I could not sing the high notes as he had requested. High notes had always been easy for me but in my work with him my voice got heavier and fuller and heavier and fuller until I could barely sing above the staff. It was an absolute fact that I could not sing high notes easily but he could not and would not listen to me, nor believe me. I stopped studying because no one, ever, had inquired as to how I felt, what I felt or what I heard when I sang, and no one had ever asked me if I felt good about what I was doing. Consequently, I never asked myself those same questions, until that day when I just could not sing up high. When he insisted that I was wrong and he was right, I somehow found the courage not only to leave his studio but to never return to anyone’s studio for technical training. It was, after all, MY throat and my experience and I was telling the truth.

Thankfully, this was a great part of the impetus for me to investigate voice science, without which I would surely have given up singing and gone to find a job in a completely different line of work.

Learning to listen to what a singer has to say, and take it to heart as the truth, is a requirement of a teacher of singing or any other related support profession (coach, conductor, speech pathologist, voice doctor). It is the starting point of transformation, of growth and of compassionate service to another human being who is struggling and striving to be an artist.

If there is an “I can’t,” in a session, and you are a service provider, consider it a gift and handle it with care and deep sincerity. It will tell you how to find the pathway back to “I can.”

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One thought on “I Can’t”

  1. Lately I’ve noticed a lot of the adolescents seem to cringe and apologize when their voice doesn’t do what they intend it to on a particular exercise or song phrase. It finally occurred to me to say to one of them “never apologize for learning”. Thats my new mantra to pair with the “wait for the bus” wisdom.

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