This case study originally in my upcoming book, The Soul of Voice, was edited out of the final copy. Yet, I felt that it would still make an excellent blog. Just a caveat: my fictional case studies are all based on a conglomeration of client issues that I have encountered over the years.
One of my more unusual clients was Brian (pronounce Bree-an, like the Irish name Ian). He was a landscaper by trade, but in the evening he played guitar and sang in local bars with an Irish band. Brian was strong, tall, with dark hair and beard – he reminded me of the character Paul Bunyan. Actually, he was Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox combined. He sought my help, or so he said, because he was having problems with the band– they wanted him to sing ballads, drinking songs, storytelling fare, and patriotic ditties. Brian was only interested in singing rough masculine songs about women, drink and war.
I was curious as to why he has limited himself to songs of this nature. My first thought was that he was ashamed of his voice and how it sounded while singing slowly. It is true that the voice is most vulnerable while singing a slowly and emotionally. What also crossed my mind was how personally vulnerable he may feel when asked to vocally express himself emotionally. One can easily hide their inner self behind the mask of bravado.
As in most cases I began our session together at the piano testing his voice for pitch intonation, range, and flexibility. As I took him up the keyboard, however, he grew considerably more nervous. Finally, he said, “Excuse me, but I don’t sing up there.”
“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I said. “You have a powerfully strong voice which seems to be getting all the more powerful and stronger as we go up the scale. Do you feel as if you’re straining? Do you feel any tightness in your larynx?”
He looked at me rather confused. “No, I don’t feel any strain or tightness. I just don’t like to sing up there.”
Now I was really curious. This was not a physiological or an organic issue, but obviously one of a more psychical nature. I was hesitant to push the man, especially since this was our first session together, and we had only been vocalizing for the last five minutes. Yet, I decided to ask him one last question.
“You know why you don’t want to sing in your upper register?”
He breathed in deeply and released the air on a sigh. “I sound like a little kid or some kind of fairy.”
Oh my, I thought to myself. This is not going to be easy.
“Do you mean a fairy as in a woodland creature or as a homosexual?” I asked and steeled myself for his answer.
“What’s the difference? It’s not who I am, nor who I want to be. It takes a real man to sing the songs I sing with my band, and I am a real man,” he bellowed.
“So,” I carefully continued, “what you are telling me is that because you are a man you cannot sing ballads or in your upper register. Correct?”
“You got it,” he said.
I really didn’t know where to go from there, but I decided to pursue this situation from a different angle.
“Who’s your favorite male singer? Or which male singer do you enjoy listening to most often?” I asked.
“Sting. I listen to a lot of Sting.” He immediately retorted.
“Ah,” I answered. “He’s one of my favorites too.” I paused. “For a Scotsman,” I added.
Brian looked at me with his intense black eyes. Then the corner of his mouth curled up, and he began to smile.
“That’s right,” he laughed. “That he is!”
“Well, you know,” I pursued, “he is a tenor.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Sting has a high voice for a man. He sings much higher in the scale than where you wanted to stop.” I could see that he was having trouble digesting that curious bit of information.
“No, he doesn’t,” he argued.
“Well,” I ventured. “Let’s listen to this CD and see if you are right.” I pulled out the only CD I own of Sting when he was with the Police and it on the stereo. When Sting got to the chorus, I began to accompany the recording on the piano.
Oh, can’t you see
You belong to me
Now my poor heart aches
With every step you take.
Then when we finished listening and I turned the recording off, I played the whole tune for him and asked Brian to sing along, which he did. When we got to the chorus, I was fully prepared to have him cut out with the same excuse: that the tune was too high–but he didn’t. He sang all the way up to a high B flat in full voice with little or no effort at all. Now I was even more curious about the extent of his range and vocal ability.
Brian was silent a moment after we finished the song.
Then he quietly said, “I sang high, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you sure did,” I answered. “In fact, you sang a whole octave above where you had wanted to stop before during the vocalizing; plus, you sounded great!”
“I didn’t sound like a girl, did I?” he said more as a statement rather than a question.
“What’s this big deal for you about sounding like a girl? Are you questioning your manhood? Or do you have something in general against women or women’s voices? Or what?”
I waited for an answer, but Brian said nothing. Finally I added, “No, you did not sound anything like a girl. You sounded like a virile, passionate man with a hunger for love with a woman who means the world to you.”
Still nothing from Brian.
Then he spoke in a soft voice, “When I was a kid, my dad made fun of my voice. He called me a “powder puff” whenever he heard me laugh or sing loudly at the top of my lungs. I worked very hard, even after my voice changed, to sing down in the low part of my range, always wondering worriedly when my dad would make fun of my “girly” voice. After a while, I just altogether stopped singing.”
“Is your dad still alive?” I asked.
“No, he died about a year ago, just before I started singing in the band.”
“Yet, his voice in your head is as alive as ever. Yes?”
“Oh, yes.” Brian was a smart man and could figure out where I was going with our conversation. Therefore, I decided to take it one step further.
“Brian,” I asked. “Would you do me the favor of singing softly,”like a girl”, on some very high notes that may be in your range? I think we might discover something quite wonderful if you agree.”
He nodded and I took that as a yes. I began by telling him to sing on an “ooo” whatever notes I played, and to connect them together, as if they were a lullaby tune. Then I took him and his angelic voice to the stratosphere.
When he finished, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “That’s the voice of my boyhood that refused to be listened to and approved of.”
“Yes,” I affirmed. “But it is also the voice of your manhood, which begs to be valued and appreciated by you first of all and then perhaps by others as well.”
We returned to singing the entire tune from start to finish, but this time we took it softly, slowly and with the intention of honoring the hurt boy who still lived inside of Brian, and who desired nothing more than to be acknowledged for who he had been and continued to be. Brian sang so tenderly and with so much authentic vocal expression, that he surprised both of us. It was a delicious session in which we both liberally utilized a full box of Kleenex.
In the weeks to come, Brian began to open up emotionally while risking more and more of his upper range. He still sang his raucous Irish tunes, but now they were infused with more quality variances of timbre, dynamics (softs and louds), and emotions. The beauty of his voice coupled with the pure masculine energy of his energy and temperament resulted in a more authentic and honest connection between his voice and who he was in his entirety. Brian was definitely one the road to a life of more integrity as a singer, a performer and as a man.