Singing Into the Next Instant
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
"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
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
We discussed E. F. Schumacher's provocative article "The Nature of
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
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
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.
Written in 1988 shortly after the experiences
it recounts, but not heretofore published.
E. F. Schumacher, "The Nature of Problems," Quest Magazine
(Sept/Oct 1977) 77-88.
Rephrasing of ideas taken from Schumacher, "Nature," 77.
Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis. New York:
Random House, 1974.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
New York: Bantam,
Schumacher, "Nature," 88. Bantam, 1974.
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.
Charles Malik, "Leadership," BYU Studies 16 (4) 541-51; partially
reprinted in The New Era, (June 1977) 10.