Singing Into the Next Instant 1

I like to see things happen quickly, so I pour a lot of energy into voice lessons. When I first started teaching I figured I could get consistent beauty to come in two years of study. I was overly optimistic. But we only have undergraduates for eight semesters. This is usually all of the vocal training they will get in life and I hunger for them all to sound really beautiful when they leave. But I wasn't getting it to happen as fast as I felt I should be able to. I needed a concept breakthrough in my voice studio. Sarah helped me find it. At the end of one of her voice lessons I fumbled for words to tell her something I knew would cause her pain, but still needed to be said. I assured her that she had been a very willing student. Everything I suggested she had practiced and tried to put into her voice. I had enjoyed teaching her and had learned a lot from her. However, we both had to face the fact that her voice just wasn't moving fast enough toward the natural beauty buried there to make it as a performance major.

"I don't think you'll be able to pass your jury to the next level. The veil over the beauty in your voice is just not lifting like we hoped it would. Are you sure you shouldn't consider a major which would use one of your stronger talents?"

Sarah began to cry and I handed her a Kleenex. It was one of those hard moments and I had to search for what to say.

My mind fell upon a metaphor. We talked about how talents are like lovely toys, beautifully wrapped under the Christmas tree. We don't know which ones we have received until we try to unwrap them. Sometimes other people have to help us untie the knots. Sometimes the wrapping gets stuck and we need to move to the next package for a while. And sometimes the toy that we find under the wrapping isn't the one we had hoped for. Frustrating as it may be, other people often seem to get the toys we wanted. Sometimes they are just sitting open under their tree. They don't even have to unwrap them. Or they hoard their toys selfishly, or destroy them with foolishness, or let them gather dust, or use them as taunts or clubs to harm the neighborhood children, rather than as shared gifts to bring mutual delight.

"Brother Robison, I try really hard, but I know I don't sound very good. I don't know why it isn't working. Two years ago I sang the lead in my high school musical. I was singing really well then."

That response took me by surprise. Sarah had a good ear. She should know a beautiful sound when she heard it. Was it possible that two years worth of committed work by both Sarah and three presumably capable college voice teachers at two reputable colleges could have in fact been wrapping her gift back up again or, worse still, destroying it somehow? Since I hadn't been there when she sang in high school, I figured that it was just Sarah's appreciation for the relative beauty of voices that had been immature - in all probability she had sung even less well at seventeen, but just didn't yet know the difference between beautiful and not-so-beautiful singing.

My conclusion held until Sarah came to my office door the following Wednesday and said, "Brother Robison, I have a tape I would like you to listen to. Here is a recording of me singing the aria from Menotti's The Telephone [GULP!] at a competition when I was a freshman in college."

What I heard shocked me. She sounded truly exceptional on the recording. We would have immediately given that recorded voice a performance scholarship at BYU, whereas we would not have given Sarah's current singing even a second hearing. The obvious conclusion was frightening. We were making her sing worse. Had I been an unwitting party to her vocal deterioration? I used to complain about incompetent teachers. Was I one of them?

We traced the arc of her regression. In her characteristically thorough manner she had carefully documented it on cassette tape. Right after the Telephone excerpt was recorded she was challenged by the low tessitura of the role of Mrs. Malloy in her junior college production of Hello Dolly. We could hear in the tape of that performance that she had received some competent help in breath management so that she could at least find the low notes the role demanded. But the seeds of her current problems were already appearing. Was it possible that in the very act of improving her breath - which is for me the sure-fire jump-start unwrapper of most singing toys - she was in fact setting up those tensions which would only wrap her voice tightly back up again? It appeared so as we listened to each succeeding excerpt. Increased technical understanding seemed to be systematically wringing the natural beauty out of her voice.

Then she triggered for me the first flash in a sequence of mind warps that were to follow in quick succession. "Sarah, aren't you angry at us, your voice teachers, for so carefully supervising these backward steps?" I asked.

With her always intelligent guilelessness she replied, "Oh no. It's been obvious all along that you've all loved me and have done your very best to help me. How can I be angry with you?"

That evening in studio class with all of my students, Sarah sang much better than usual, apparently recalling how it had felt to do the Telephone aria at eighteen. After she sang, we explained her whole story to the students and concluded with the warning that education is precarious.

We discussed E. F. Schumacher's provocative article "The Nature of Problems."2 which one of the members of my church choir had just shown me. Schumacher sees two kinds of problems in life. The easy, less important kind are problems that eventually converge upon a single ideal solution. If you need a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation you will eventually solve it by inventing a bicycle. Scientists seem to be headed toward solving an infinite number of those kinds of problems. They will continue to make our lives easier and our work ever more efficient.

But the more important problems in life seem to lead toward divergent and irreconcilably opposite solutions. How we can best educate one another is one of those problems. It defies a single reasonable solution. The major viewpoints on what may be the best kind of educational environment diverge dramatically. On the one hand, some insist that education is simple. There is one who knows and another who doesn't yet know, and to get the best education we merely place the two in the closest possible juxtaposition so that the one can pour knowledge into the other. Thus, reductio ad absurdum, the ideal educational environment would resemble a prison. "Please sit still. As your teacher, I am here to make sure you obey all the correct laws of learning."

On the opposite hand, others also insist that education is simple. It is like growing a plant. Provide the learner with soil, air, water, nutrients and some space to grow and she will educate herself into whatever beautiful plant she is destined to become. Thus, reductio ad absurdum, the ideal educational environment would resemble a weed garden. "You may run around wherever and whenever you feel like it. As your teacher I am here to orchestrate the school's resources so that you can discover all of the brilliant things of which you will eventually find yourself to be capable." 3

We tend to be drawn either toward the environment in which we were taught or the one that best suits our personality. Or else - like I seemed to be doing at the time - we careen back and forth between the opposing prongs of that paradox trying to figure out which kind of teacher we are becoming.

I confessed to the class, "If you had been in my voice studio five years ago, you would have chuckled at how close I was to the weed garden paradigm (remember my experience with the tone deaf group in chapter 3?). I was educated in the 1960's. Friends who learned in Montessori schools and lived in hippie communes influenced me. The Inner game of Tennis 4 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance5 were my inspiration, and my students grew in the freedom and exhilarating climate of the garden.

"But often they did not know what it was that they were growing into, nor how to replicate what I was able to get their bodies to do in class. So for five years I have been rebounding toward the prison of technique as an alternative solution, and all of you, including Sarah, are showing some scars from my decision.

"You understand most of the technical things singing requires: active, cooperative resistance between the outer abdominal wall and the central bed of the diaphragm; neck long, back, and free; chest high and flexibly expansive.

"You also understand many of the physiological, aerodynamic and acoustic principles that seem to scientifically support those axioms of good singing. And, for the most part, you are singing technically better than you did before. But your voices just aren't flowering like they should - you aren't finding beauty as much as my former inner game students did. And I fear that underneath the surface of our sensible and friendly relationship I may be coaxing all of you into a predicament like Sarah's. Can you help me?"

Then David quietly set off another flash in this mind warp sequence by commenting, "I heard a teacher say once in a workshop, 'Just conceive of the beautiful tone before you sing it, and your body will call forth all that is needed to produce what you have conceived.'" Of course, I had heard that before. I had even said it before, though not for several years. It was from my inner game days. As I chatted about this with David in the hall after the studio class Dennis joined us. We could see that I needed to reawaken the inner game paradigm, but this time I'd need to do it better.

With David and Dennis there asking hard questions, trying to be helpful, and just being there to listen as I thought aloud, I began to work through some ideas that have become very important both to my teaching and to my understanding about life. To be sure, the faith-filled gardening concept is one key, but the technical parameters of the prison are still important parts of the solution. How do we get these paradoxically divergent solutions to work together in our behalf? How do you cross-fertilize the prison and the weed garden to get a real garden of learning? Schumacher suggests that we are all drawn toward transcending solutions like love to help us get past the pain and anger of such irreconcilable differences. For example, our discomfort with colleagues who hold viewpoints opposite to ours on important issues should bring us to heartfelt conversations. There are good examples of this in chapter 5. Schumacher hints that God may purposefully have placed the tensions of these paradoxes in our way so as to entice us into understanding and loving in order rid ourselves of the discomforts of these battles over ideology. Without destroying our right to choose, He wants us to discover that loving is higher than winning.6

This was a helpful start toward resolution, and one that Sarah's attitude of forgiveness toward her teachers had amply demonstrated. But as the three of us talked, I found I needed to process two additional mind warping flashes. It has taken me a while to work them into practical tools - regrettably longer than Sarah could stay in my studio. I will wait until later in this book to fully explore their practical implications, but had I not made these ideas my own, I doubt I would have fallen upon the more healthy technical understandings and practices that eventually emerged.

First, there was the idea of linear time through which singing (and living) must flow. Reasonable thoughts (including reasonable thoughts about vocal technique) belong either to the past or to the future, whereas the realization of those thoughts must emerge in the present - or is that true? In fact, when you look at it very carefully there is really no present for us at all. The instant of "present" disappears at the moment we try to capture it. For example, your seeing this page at this moment is only either the disappearing recollection of the ideas your eyes just pulled off the page, or the anticipation of what I will have said by the end of this paragraph. We will see that the most distinguishing requirement of a beautiful voice is a natural and even vibrato, but if you try to correct vibrato while it is happening you will foul it up. It is as if God, who hints that he lives in an eternal now7 - without beginning or end - has, in the creation of this earth, erased for us that now in favor of a past and a future only. Our task seems to be to think so reasonably and honestly about our past that we can, instant by instant, enhance our lives (and our singing) through improved ideas about our future. These are the thoughts that will determine our growth. They must constantly emerge out of the forgiving recall of less successful past moments which we can now see simply to have been caused by less adequate ideas.

To stay within the prison of technique is to focus on trying to correct what has just occurred - an impossible task. It has already occurred. Only by lying to ourselves can we correct a recollection. All we can adjust is our thinking about the future. As we live (or sing) it is all too tempting to divert our attention toward what went wrong rather than merely to sense that "wrongness" as the product of earlier less perfect ideas. We should only look back for the purpose of perfecting our thoughts about the very next moments in our lives (or the very next burst of singing). We always stand on the brink of a new person (or a new voice). We must learn to see the technical inadequacies of our less beautiful past only as a way to help us envision a better future.

The test is to see whether we can harness this change of view into an eternal pattern. Only God and the angels have access to the instant of the present and our task is to attend so well to the time that belongs to us - the past and the future - that they are freed to do their job of creating complex miracles like beautiful singing in the time that belongs to them - the present.

The final flash in this sequence was an increased understanding of the subtle paradoxical relationship between confidence and repentance that pervades life. I had already read Charles Malik's little epigram about the leader's need to be "decisive, but with the utmost tentativeness and tenderness"8 and it had attracted me, but I had to begin to pull it into my daily life. It has since become a constant friend. Every new moment requires a confidence in the improved concept - sufficient hope that the new idea will help so that you can be decisive in carrying it out. But paradoxically, once carried out, the scenario instantly changes. We must consider honestly the effects of our decisiveness. Every glance back at that long array of past moments urges us to choose complete and guileless repentance and self-forgiveness so that the coming moments can be approached with fresh hope. One can only bridge this paradox with the choice that we call faith.

This whole illuminating sequence turned out to be very practical. After discussing the ideas with each student, I subtly changed the pattern of my instruction. Rather than saying, "Note, your chest is caving in," or "Your jaw is tight and closed," or "Your diaphragm-abdominal wall balance just got stiff," or "Your legato line was getting disturbed again by that every-other-note-vibrato syndrome," (all of which may have been true, but not helpful, because they focused on an impossible correction of history), I merely said "Let your concept of the next phrase include the feeling of a wonderfully opening chest," or "a very free and open jaw," or "a great liveliness and flexibility in your air flow," or "an uninterruptible legato flowingness." Or, "If something in this next phrase doesn't work out right, don't see it as an error in singing, but merely as an inadequacy in the conception of beauty which elicited that sound. See it as a flag that is waving your attention toward improving your conception of the fragments to come."

When Christ stood before Lazarus's tomb, He was looking into his own perfected conception of the beautiful prospect of Lazarus rising. And Lazarus came forth as envisioned. If we focus upon that which didn't get corrected, upon that which is evil or dead because it is past, and continue to be preoccupied with its imperfect and uncorrected state, we will not experience the miracle of change. It is possible that I would have continued drawing Sarah's attention to so many technical imperfections that she would have continued to sing ever more artificially.

Notwithstanding my inability to elicit more beautiful singing from her, Sarah taught us much. In her goodness, we saw how to draw ourselves toward personal beauty by responding to offense without being offended. To respond always with repentance, forgiveness and love - i.e., with the "utmost tentativeness and tenderness."

We came to call these our singing into the next instant concepts. Once we started to apply them in either a vocalise or a song, they began to work immediately. "Are you curiously watching in the mirror to see what this next phrase is going to look like?" "As you watched, what ideas came to mind that you will want to explore the next time you sing this passage?" I didn't even get any of those quizzical glances that so often signal resistance to a new idea in the studio. The students all seemed to understand and feel exactly what I was talking about. My only task was to alert them when their concentration wavered. Indeed, a tremendous concentration is required of all great artists and all great people. Occasionally, when the students lost sight of what they needed to require of the future, I was able to help them enlarge their vision so as to encompass a technical possibility that might allow more beauty to emerge: "Did you notice what your jaw was doing?" That kind of a teacher made sense to me. I was finally beginning to feel like Timothy Gallwey. I could see myself reconciling the prison and the weed garden in my teaching.

Every lesson seemed to fill up both with more insight and more beautiful singing. Many life-changing ideas were serendipitous fall-outs. These were discussed with excitement. I couldn't sleep very well until I got the experiences of that week down on paper. Our hard work had been too much fun.


1 Written in 1988 shortly after the experiences it recounts, but not heretofore published.

2 E. F. Schumacher, "The Nature of Problems," Quest Magazine (Sept/Oct 1977) 77-88.

3 Rephrasing of ideas taken from Schumacher, "Nature," 77.

4 Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis. New York: Random House, 1974.

5 Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam, 1974.

6 Schumacher, "Nature," 88. Bantam, 1974.

7 The Book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament foresees the end of the world when "there should be time no longer" (Revelation 10:6, emphasis added), and the prophet Alma in the Book of Mormon tells us, "time only is measured unto man" (Alma 40:8). The Judeo-Christian scriptures are replete with God's references to Himself as the beginning and the end - the Alpha and Omega - and the psalmist (Psalms 90:4) sees a "thousand years in [God's] sight are but as yesterday." Schumacher, "Nature," 88. Bantam, 1974.

8 Charles Malik, "Leadership," BYU Studies 16 (4) 541-51; partially reprinted in The New Era, (June 1977) 10.