I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later.
I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body.
“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.”
I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.”
In classical Italian singing, resonance is the precedent of any vocalist, with little concern for pushing the voice out through force to obtain volume. Deep breaths are taken from the diaphragm, sustaining the sound as it is gently released into the air. If the breath is there, the sound will come, making its own way into the world with no further action needed on the part of the singer.
As someone who is quite fond of exerting energy to assert her worth in the world, this is counterintuitive. It goes against my impulses. Beautiful sound, as it turns out, cannot be an act of my will. It arrives through my trust, and through my release. My pushing the sound out will only collapse it, resulting in a noise that both sounds pained and is painful to hear.
Years ago at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, pastoral counselor Dr. Tom Schemper of the Replogle Center for Counseling offered the following four steps to the pastoral staff for “sure success in life” at a meeting. In this order: 1) Show up, 2) Be on time, 3) Listen, and 4) Let go of the outcome.
The first two were simple enough, but then the tasks became increasingly difficult to accomplish. Listen? That would mean standing still, letting something else speak that wasn’t my will, my desire, or my need to justify, please, explain, etc. I’d have to be in the right mood for it and would certainly need a lot of practice.
LET GO OF THE OUTCOME?! This is when the advice went from difficult to downright sacrilegious. I remember several discernable “oofs” from the room, also coming from my mouth. Though Reformed theology would kindly remind me that sovereignty exclusively belongs to the Triune God, I don’t always lovingly embrace this tenet of my tradition. I resonate often with the disciple Peter at the Transfiguration, alarmed at the presence of Elijah, Moses, and Jesus all hanging out in their dazzling glory, shining like prophetic disco balls on the mountain. “I’m helpful! I can be useful too!” I imagine the poor Peter proclaiming. “Tents! I can build tents! I do belong up here somehow!” I hear you, dear Peter. I suspect a lot of my colleagues do, too. It’s hard to stand in the face of mystery, and live fully into a sense of smallness. Vocation has this effect on people, too.
We who serve in professions that seek to transform mind, heart, and spirit can be haunted by this word “outcome.” We are instructed to create learning outcomes, rubrics, instruments of measurement to quantify our contributions, to evaluate our performance, or justify our existence in an increasingly endangered liberal arts setting. Because of this external pressure from the larger world to validate our work, it is of little wonder that we can confuse vocation with “outcome,” or think the task of vocation is to push into the world, ensuring success if enough pressure is applied.
I certainly thought this last semester when I taught a writing intensive course to first year students, both remote and in person. I braced myself for a challenge, but no matter how many emails, videos, texts, or passenger pigeons I sent out, the response was lackluster. My colleagues on faculty expressed similar frustrations: why can’t we cajole our students into reading Octavia Butler? Why are they so unresponsive? I often felt exhausted and overworked, and seldom useful or competent. Life was a series of those high Gs at the end of the aria, pushed out like a train whistle, lacking in grace. I’ve found myself cringing at the noise on occasion, feeling that tightening in the throat when I’m anxious over a higher note.
Mercifully on the singing front, my exhaustion has worked in my favor. Particularly when I have come to my lessons fatigued, with no energy for pushing, the sound of my voice has been with less tension, larynx softened. This has greatly diminished the threat of any “G” or note nearly an octave above it, providing I sing without fanfare, as if humming over a sink of dirty dishes. The beauty of the sound is in spite of me, made possible by a leap into trust that my supporting breath will in fact be enough. It is my self-forgetfulness that summons a songbird, a voice of serenity that comes from a source both outside and inside of me.
Perhaps in terms of vocation we might trust that our deep breath will be enough, our smallness made resonant by the One who would call us into our work in the first place. Our task is to show up and to do so promptly, but with a deep ear for listening and a deeper heart for release.
In Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, the ninth chapter reads:
Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will be blunt.
Chase after money and security, and your heart will never unclench.
Care about other people’s approval, and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, and then step back. The only path to serenity.
Take a deep breath, release the sound, and get out of the way. Do not push, thinking that the sound will not carry. The resonance of your work will fill the room with beauty all on its own.
The photo of the choir above is of the Madison-Ohio Valley Community Chorus and was taken by the Madison Courier. The chorus performs Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season in collaboration with the Music Department at Hanover College. Catherine Knott is pictured bottom left. Photo supplied by the author.
Rev. Dr. Catherine Knott is a Presbyterian (USA) minister serving as the Ball Family Chaplain at Hanover College in Hanover, IN. She also teaches in the English Department, and enjoys collaborating with students to help them better live out their belief system(s) in varying roles on campus. She lives with her spouse and three rowdy but affectionate terriers, and loves walking in the woods. Click here for other posts by Catherine Knott.