I spent the month of July at Vista Maria in Detroit. Since I was given the privilege of some weeks of transition time between the end of my ministry in Danville, Pennsylvania, and the beginning of my new role as Apostolic Province Councilor, I offered to go to Vista Maria and give Voice Lessons to girls who were interested in singing.
Among other reasons, I wanted to have a direct service experience, albeit brief, between my years of mostly administrative duties. Also, there are a couple of positive things about voice lessons for clients. For starters, unlike in learning other instruments, there is no need for introductory basics. Everyone knows how to use their vox humana instrument. There is no frustrating period of trying to hold it right or get your fingers to move properly or learn to read music. People may or may not be able to match a pitch or remember a melody, but they can already “play” (= make sounds with) their voice. So the student can make immediate and sometimes dramatic progress from even just a few lessons.
Also, singing is essentially free – no need to buy or rent an instrument, and for many people, it’s naturally pleasurable. Always good to have cheap hobbies! Finally, there are therapeutic benefits from voice work. Just think of the phrase “finding my voice.” Although that is usually used symbolically, as in, “learning how to speak out and express my opinions,” there is definitely a physical component to “speaking up.” Encouraging a girl to project her voice, not to be afraid to have more volume, to sing with more power, and/or to put her own words into a song are all ways I can promote empowerment.
I was part of Vista Maria’s “Journey to Success” summer enrichment program, and I was assigned, three residents. Each one was vastly different from the other — What a typical Good Shepherd panorama! I have changed the girls’ names in an effort to protect their privacy and honor the agency’s client confidentiality policies.
The first one I met, Kari, is 17 years old, starting her senior year of high school. She was finishing her final months of residency at Vista Maria before going into a supervised independent living situation. Kari has had some good choir training and performance experiences. She was excited by the opportunity for private voice coaching. She showed up for our sessions with her music in hand within 30 seconds of my arrival in the building, all 17 days of my teaching gig.
We didn’t have a keyboard or a studio, so we simply worked a cappella, usually for 45 minutes to an hour. She learned some patriotic songs and hymns, some of which were new to her and others which she had heard before, and she perfected her delivery of a couple of spirituals she had learned from the radio. Kari was able to give a mini-recital for her dorm at the end of the month. Working with her was fairly easy and very gratifying. She said I helped her a lot, with diction, breathing, and especially with voice placement and confidence in her upper range. She said, “I learned I don’t have to belt it out. I can use my head voice.” She had been told she was an alto, but I think I convinced her that she is a good mezzo-soprano. She hopes to be able to be in the top choir in her new high school.
My other students were a little more challenging for me. Jayda is 14 years old and enjoys singing, dancing, and putting movements to her songs. She has an excellent sense of rhythm.
We mostly worked on what I call “performance skills,” things like how to walk into the performance space, make eye contact, introduce yourself, and project your voice. We made up tunes for some of her poems, and wrote verses for a refrain from Sister Act, which states: “If you want to be somebody and if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.”
That really was a good mantra for her. She didn’t have the confidence to want to perform for anyone, but I think she did enjoy the individual attention.
My third student, Brandi, never wanted to sing. She sees herself as a rapper. I don’t have much experience with rap and I struggled to find material that would interest her. She enjoys writing, and she often came to a session with the beginning of a new poem. We sometimes brainstormed about rhymes and I tried to encourage her to create a story arc with development, climax, and conclusion.
We worked on diction, pacing, and tricks for memorization. A particular emphasis was on speaking loudly enough to be heard. She found this challenging, but she did begin to raise her voice above a whisper, so that definitely counts as a success.
The summer at Vista Maria was a deep learning experience for me. In my daydreams about working with the girls, I envisioned myself as a talented and charismatic teacher. I’m a talented singer and a competent and conscientious teacher, but charismatic I am not. It was hard work and none of it came naturally.
I am very grateful for having had the experience – and I’m looking forward to applying myself to administration again this fall.
Sister Mary Carol has a degree in Music Education. Piano was her concentration, but singing is her joy. “The neat thing about the voice,” she says, “is that there is no frustrating trying-to-train-your-fingers beginning period because we all are born with the ability to ‘play’ the vox humana. With Voice, any instruction or practice amounts to progress, sometimes by leaps and bounds.”