We enter life with a cry, we go out with a sigh. Sound is our pathway, coming in and leaving.
In a human being who is free to express, emotions often come with sounds, released spontaneously. Laughter, tears, screams, shouts, grunts. This is the universal language of humanity. Laughter and crying are the same in all languages. We all understand the sound of someone giggling. A scream can be one of joy or pain, one of surprise or one of anguish. Moans, too, can be ones of pleasure or of pain. It is interesting that some of the sounds we make that are wordless are not as clear cut as others.
If singing is a magnification of speech, if it is an expression that combines both words and music, then it is a bridge between the mundane day to day world and the one in which our emotional life is amplified. If it brings together the same kind of freely released sustained sound as that of spontaneous expressions of life, then it is a special kind of sound making that is in itself unique.
Much of what we hear today as vocal music is lifeless. Canned, electronically manipulated, distorted, messed around with. Where, really, can you hear live music that isn’t affected by the machinery available to us? How are we to know about this special magical thing called singing if few of us are exposed to it in a live, immediate way? And what of the people who have those amazing, one-of-a-kind voices that can only be experienced in person? How do you describe what it is to hear Luciano Pavarotti live, unamplified to someone who has only heard that great voice over a piece of machinery?
I recently sang in front of one of the younger groups of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus in a teaching session with them. I was demonstrating my range, explaining how it is that some people can sing higher than others. Mind you, I do not have an impressive voice, and I have no delusions that what I do is “world class” in any way. Rather, it is just a well-trained light classical lyric soprano and I am fortunately enough to still sing, at 61, rather easily above high C. I was amused to see the expressions on the young faces in front of me, and it made me realize that a good percentage of these kids, probably most of them, have never been in the presence of a trained voice, standing in close proximity to their ears, singing without help from a microphone or speakers. Their faces were a delight to see and their reactions (“Cool!” “Wow!”) were even more delightful. I had forgotten what it was like to hear a trained classical voice right in front of me for the first time. It was an unforgettable experience and I was not a child, but a young adult. Prior to that, all of my teachers both in school and privately were either musicians (pianists) or retired teachers who no longer sang. The teacher I had in New York was in the prime of his life and still performing as an operatic tenor. Hearing him sing in my lessons, from 5 feet away, was thrilling. Yes, I had been to many performances, and had heard many recordings by then, but the distance between me and the stage was just enough to make the sound rather less intense than it was in a small voice studio.
Someone with a trained, distinctive, unique voice, fully connected to emotion and a clear intention, singing beautiful music live, without amplification, is doing something special. Some people never experience hearing and seeing such an event. In fact, I would venture to say that MOST people do not get to have that experience, or the one of hearing well trained children singing together live, without any outside help (except maybe being conducted).
We have all these experiences in living. Simple sighs, everyday sounds of laughter or tears, and the magnified sounds of trained voices expressing powerful feelings. The smallest and the greatest, the alpha and omega of what it means to be a sound making human being. Something to contemplate and to appreciate all year long.