When I was a kid, I remember my mom taking me shoe shopping. They’d put my foot on that sizing device that looked like a cross between a scale, a vice, and a skateboard, and tell me how big my foot was. Then my mom would go grab a pair of shoes one size larger. Wait… what? Why? The skateboard just said I’m a 7 and you grab an 8? What’s that about?
So, I stuck my foot into the size 8 shoe and my mom knelt down by my feet. You know the drill: she turned her thumb sideways and mashed it down, trying to gauge how much space was between my big toe and the end of the shoe. Seeing that there was about as much space as the width of her thumb, she smiled. “It’s OK; you’ll grow into it.” Now there’s a woman who knew the value of a dollar. Almost everything I ever wore started out as something that was just a bit too big so it lasted longer while I was growing.
So what does this have to do with music, or singing, or anything other than clothes? I will suggest that we as singers, teachers, directors often go for what “fits” now. And that’s a shame, because it feels good in the short term, but is limiting in the long term. Let’s look at this mindset from several angles.
As a Singer
Younger singers often struggle with some of what trained vocalists consider “the basics,” such as dropping the jaw, raising the soft palate, and shaping the mouth to create pure vowels. In the beginning, singers tend to sing like they talk. That leads to wide, bright, compressed singing at best, or soft, under-supported singing at worst. I once heard a great phrase: “You don’t sing like you talk, and you don’t dance like you walk.”
Inexperienced singers sing with “their voice.” Many of them even think “so-and-so sounds good because she has a good voice. I don’t have a good voice like so-and-so.” They don’t consider that singing even HAS a technique. They just sing with “their voice.” I challenge that notion. I say “Don’t sing with your voice. Sing with the voice you plan to have in the future.”
Do you get what I mean here? Young athletes take this mindset all the time. How many young basketball players tried to dunk a ball when they clearly could not, tongue hanging out like Michael Jordan for great effect? They just keep trying to dunk, year after year, until they are finally big enough to actually put the ball through the hoop. Like these athletes, singers must emulate voices that are more mature, more developed. It’s a form of imitation.
Imagine track runners. Olympians sprint. So do collegiate runners. The high school track team sprints. So does the middle school team. Every runner at every level is striving to develop an efficient gait and is striving towards a personal best at every run. In my experience, singers don’t do that. If runners were like the singers I encounter, then Olympians would sprint, and collegiate runners would run. The high school team would jog and the middle school team would walk. When pushed to start running faster, they would say “I’ll run faster when I know the course better,” or “I’ll run when everyone else runs with me,” or even “I just don’t have fast legs.”
So how do we fix this mindset? Instead of singing with the voice we have, we should sing with our future voice. We should push on our technique to do things we haven’t done before, understanding that while it is new and unusual, we will grow into it.
As a Professional
What are you doing with your program or in your own career to stretch and grow? You have to create an environment where growth is not only possible but desired. Plants will slow their growth when they reach the limits of their pot. Put a goldfish in a larger bowl and what happens? It grows proportionately. It grows after it gets a bigger bowl, not before. It makes sense. Growing when there’s no room only makes for one uncomfortable fish! When is the last time you re-potted yourself, started swimming in a larger bowl? You must engineer the environment you need to stretch and grow.
Take, for example, the Kettering National A Cappella Festival. In 2013, 54 groups from eight states converged on Kettering to share a weekend of a cappella. Seven years prior, what was that festival? A buddy concert with one other local group and an inexpensive, visiting headliner. We had been hosting a professional group for years on our own, and it was great. We had fun and usually made a little money. But it was always the same – and comfortably so. But we wondered how we could improve, so we added a group. Then we invited 5 groups and made a small festival. Then 13, 19, 25, 31, and then 54. Every year, there were those who said we should just lock in – keep doing the same formula and size every year. I’m not quite wired that way, though. Remember those shoes? I wanted something to grow into.
The way we grew was simply to expand our offerings and the quality of our headliner in advance of a growth in groups. Remember that “Field of Dreams” quote, “If you build it, they will come?” That’s so true. The quote isn’t “after they all come, then build it.” Whether you’re working on a festival, a competition, a musical, whatever – you must consider stretching out. Make plans AS IF you are operating on a higher level and give yourself (and your students) little choice but to grow into it.
I had a guideline for my Symphonic Chorale that illustrates the “grow into it” philosophy. Whenever we qualified for State Contest and earned the highest score, I immediately told the choir that next year we would be in the next-highest class. We went from B to A to AA and then onto the OMEA State Conference in three years with this plan. Never mind that the feeders were the same. Forget that the level of singers each year, with turnover, was roughly the same. They knew my philosophy: better to reach for new heights than cover the same ground. They had no option; they would simply have to grow into it.
None of this is to say, however, that you should be cavalier or take risks that could be potentially damaging. If you wear a size 7 shoe, you can’t just go around trying to make a size 12 work. Too much too soon can be disastrous! It is simply that we should condition ourselves and our students to focus on staying one step ahead of ourselves, swimming just beyond where our feet can touch. Achievable challenge keeps complacency at bay. We need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. That person should be our future, better self and those shoes should be one size too big. It’s OK; we’ll grow into it.