Brian E Pearson
Instrument of the Soul
None of us likes the sound of our own voice. It never returns to our ears the way we hear it in our heads. Listening through all the cavities and corridors of our bodies, our voice has a natural resonance. But through earbuds or on tape it loses all its low end and becomes thin, tinny, insubstantial, which is pretty much what we fear about ourselves as well.
The only good news is that this is the same for everyone. We all sound thinner in the air than we do in our heads. And we all fear that we're not as substantial as we want to be. So, it's almost universally true that, when it comes to singing, most of us would rather hear someone else's voice than our own.
It's interesting what we hear in the voice of another, though. We can hear beyond the imperfections, as we do when we listen to Bob Dylan or Neil Young, or to any number of untrained pop singers, because something is coming through other than good singing technique. It might be an honesty or a vulnerability, a defiance or a strength. But we're hearing something that is deeply and authentically human and we resonate with it.
I loved Leonard Cohen's voice and how it deepened through the years. When he was first recording he pitched it high, in the range of other folk singers. I did the same when I started to perform my own songs in public. One demo tape I sent out came back with a rejection letter that said I sounded too much like John Denver. I had thought that was a good thing.
As Cohen's voice dropped, there seemed to be no bottom to it. In the end it was more like a rumble or perhaps, on a good day, a purr. Something about those depths resonated within me and opened me up like a dungeon door to hear the echoes of his prophetic words. My own voice never reached those depths. But I can't sing the songs I wrote in my early days without dropping them down a key, or several, to where my own depths begin. I'm more relaxed now, and more comfortable with my voice. So, my singing has come home to me.
Still, not long after I'd started the podcast I realized I was getting myself into trouble. I was pushing my voice too hard whenever I hit the Record button. If I tried to edit the recording afterward, cutting something from the end to paste it nearer the beginning, it was all too evident that my voice had tired in the interim. Sometimes I'd lose the lower register altogether and I'd begin sounding rough and reedy, like maybe there’d been too much whiskey the night before.
I reached out to an old friend, Jennifer Mason, who'd trained as an opera singer and who coached people on the use of their voice. What she told me I should already have known, but didn't, or I knew it but didn't fully understand it. The voice is driven by the breath. So stop straining and start breathing. Relax into your body and allow your words to proceed from the depths. Also, I learned a recording studio trick. I turned up the volume in my earphones so I'd overcompensate ... by speaking softer. And there it was: my voice. Suddenly, I could go on for hours, though this would have been a bad idea.
Recently I reached out again to Jennifer. She's in the process of re-mastering and re-releasing "Mothers of the World," her cross-cultural collection of lullabies. When it first came out, the album was greeted with critical acclaim. But at exactly the same time her rheumatoid arthritis flared up, badly, and her singing career had to be sidelined. She learned to move at a new pace, she diversified her artistic impulses to include the visual arts, and she kept singing.
Now, Jennifer has a new reverence for how life unfolds, having to do with our openness and pliability in the face of whatever is. She also regards the human voice from what we might call a soulful perspective. Not only can it be soothing to the soul to listen to, but it is an instrument of the soul--for all of us. Every voice is unique, she says, and every voice is beautiful, for it is through the voice that the soul, uniquely and beautifully, makes its way out into the world.
Jennifer Mason is my guest on this episode of The Mystic Cave. We discuss her album, and hear clips from those haunting songs. But we also explore the soulful depths of the human voice, and how we can no more reject our own voice than we can our soul. They are almost one and the same.
To listen to our conversation please press the Play button below. To learn more about Jennifer's album and her other work, please press the Information button, which will take you to the show notes.