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Keeping your voice

June 7, 2012

I have just watched a few bits of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert. I had heard a bit of banter about Sir Elton John’s performance around, so I thought I’d have a listen for myself. Predictably, his piano prowess is standing up considerably better than his vocal stamina. I say ‘predictably’ because singers have long lamented that instrumentalists can be mostly dead and still crank the music out – but a singer’s physical condition in every way constitutes their very instrument, and is vulnerable to any physical variation.

There is no secret that Sir Elton has punished his body over the years with the obligatory substance abuses of stardom. And while cosmetic surgery, a hairpiece, and a damn fine wardrobe department can roll back a few visual years, a voice betrays every moment of a singer’s rugged life.

When I was a student in opera school boot camp, I found the control oppressive. Diet, exercise, social limitations and channeling, dress protocols, cloistering musical activity except for the sanctioned performances. Some of this was manipulaitve and abusive, designed to create a protege culture of dependence. But the physical regimes were valid. Opera school boot camp was run with an iron fist in a pure white kid glove by Dame Joan Hammond. She was about 74, and had the constitution of an ox, and still the voice of an angel. Not a rasp, or a flutter, a croak, never even a hint of thickness. I began to learn to respect both the capacities and limitations of my physicality. A singer must build their own instrument, maintain and service their instrument, as well as develop their artistic use of the instrument.

These days opera school boot camp is long behind me, but I am still fascinated by voice. Of course, now I have a much broader vision of what is encompassed in this theme of voice – thus the banner of this blog is Multivocality as I continue to reflect on the many ways ‘voice’ is exercised in our lives, and not the least being how the voice of God occurs.

I watched Elton John with his frenzied fingers flamboyantly frolicking up and down the grand as if they were spring lambs, and simultaneously heard his voice bleat out, almost toneless and colourless, with slurred articulation, such a limited range, barely able to make to 3 millimetre projection required to hit the microphone. EJ never meant to despise his voice. I bet he loves his voice the way all singers do, with the incredible wonder and joy that it brings us, as if it is a gift from somewhere else (and it truly is), and yet it belongs so intimately, so personally to us and is a very part of our being. Tragically then,  the demise of EJ’s voice is the unintentional collateral damage of the general hard slog of life on his person.

This is true for those of us who use our voices in other ways too. We must take care of how we live, how we exercise our whole person in order to maintain our voice, lest it become dulled, or weakened or flattened or broken or muted.

I am not just talking about the occupational hazard of preachers, who lose their voice through physiological ignorance and poor speaking technique (though if we are going to have preaching, those who do it should have speech therapy as part of their basic training). I mean the integration of our lifestyle with the things that we have to say and the voice that we have to say it with. When our lives are disordered our voice is distorted; when our lives are strained our voice is strangled; when our lives are gutless, our voice is gone.

So, may we sing from our guts.

For those of us who have a vision for our voices- voices of advocacy for the marginalised, voices of goodnews bearing, voices of compassion and hope, voices of truthtelling – may Sir Elton be a prophetic voice to us, to attend to the whole of the lives that we live, in order not to compromise the vitality of our voices into the years, not for pride or vanity, but for the sake of those we serve.

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