January 7, 2018

Why Singers Need to Sing Scales

I can't tell you how many singers just want to sing. Yeah. Just that. Nothing else. "Just let me sing!" they fairly cry in lessons with their eyes. "Why are you making me sing scales?!"

Mind you, I didn't sing scales either when I was young. Didn't want to do them, and didn't think I needed to do them. Shocked? Don't be. I really didn't know what the hell I was doing until I met Margaret Harshaw at the age of 27. Then I got it. In one lesson no less—and that's because I witnessed the transforming power of a 5-note scale in my own voice. Sure, you have to know what you are doing—and why you are doing it—while singing a five-note scale. That's why you have to have a teacher who knows what they are doing—and boy, did she know what she was doing. 

Which begs the point. There are singers who sing scales very, very badly, going through the motion of doing them with their minds somewhere else. No one has taught them to listen to what they are doing (insert the word feel for listen if you like—it's the same thing in my book since feeling is the vestibular function of listening in the ear—and is why Mandy Harvey can sing), and they tend to think of scale work as a mechanical process—which it isn't. Why so many have this shoot-first-aim-later approach is beyond me. But many do. They want to just get the whole thing over with so that they go back to singing, which amounts to driving with your eyes closed. They even think of scale work as pushing a button or tightening a screw. "There! I did it. Now I don't have to do anything else." (Yes, I am mixing my metaphors, but you get my drift.) 

But the mind is not blind. If you aren't sure how you sound, you don't sound very good. And the technical journey singers endure means learning how to maintain a high level of skill, of awareness of what it means to sing—both the feeling and the sound; what tears at it, what enables it, and how to stay at the top of your game. Which brings me back to scales, a nifty article at the Bulletproof Musician making my point. 

It seems that progressively difficult scales lead to actual ease, the kind of ease that singers desire in the first place. And let's be really, really clear here to those of you who think you are so gifted that you can just sing and don't need to work on your technique by singing scales. You are fooling yourself big time, if only because life is going to knock you on your ass at some point, and you aren't going to know how to get back up. Your colleague, however, who is less gifted than you and but has a lot more training will be able to stay in the game. 

At some point, you have to sacrifice your ego to the work. And it is work. Never ending relentless work. Work that becomes a real joy, something that you can rely upon, and is a great comfort. Scales aren't meant to break you, but to reveal yourself to yourself.

My 97- year-old baritone neighbor Charles sings his scales every morning, and can still sing high G and F and sounds really good. He hasn't given up. He's still a singer. 

Get interested in the work, the craft, and the art of singing‚ which includes scales. They are your friend, not your enemy.

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