Mind, heart, and the power of breathing
“It takes a very long time to become young”. — Picasso
You may wonder why I, an opera singer, would quote the painter Picasso. A child will grow and his knowledge will expand. He will come to accept certain rules, to impose certain structures upon his mental development, and, unavoidably, he will lose some spontaneity and freedom in his creativity. The young opera singer will try to act and sing like his idols, to find a perfect sound reflecting his own idea of his voice, which he only hears from within himself. When I was fifteen, I was told that it would take at least ten years of hard work to be an opera singer. I was shocked. Only much later was I able to understand what it truly meant. As one is trying to find a sound and trying to reach some perfect ideal that one has in mind, one misses the essential point.
The sound is already there. The perfection has always been there. The hard work is to allow them, simply, to be.
The path of an opera singer is a quest for truth and a long life of questioning. I was lucky and started my vocal education at the very young age of twelve, with a wonderful, caring teacher. In the following years my teachers were afraid to put undue stress on my voice: they made me sing and understand how to move my ribs and lower back muscles, but did not really teach me the bel canto art. It was quite late for me, and after some years spent in engineering, that I met people able to guide me in using my whole body as an instrument, beyond the natural voice. Along this path I found some of the answers in my quest for truth, just as I often found more questions as well. It is as if one went deeper and deeper within oneself, within one’s mind and soul, which entails a deeper understanding of life itself.
In classical singing, it takes years to learn how to breathe, until one finally realizes that it is as simple as letting one’s whole body, one’s whole self be part of the game. It takes years to learn how to breathe like a baby. Look at a baby crying and shouting: he does it with his full body for hours and hours without damaging his vocal cords. But we, the adults, have lost this ability with pressure, anxiety, and fear brought on by education and society. Real breathing is like real love: full, devoted, trusting, spontaneous. Real love knows exactly where to go and what to do. Real breathing works in the same way.
Real breathing and real love have to be learned or re-learned, as strange as it may seem, and I often think this process might be the very reason of our existence.
From a technical point of view, the beauty of the voice as an instrument resides in the harmonics obtained by the coexistence of chest resonance and a high spot in the cranium. This is quite literally the union of the head and heart through a tiny path made possible by the power of breath. The whole body has to be a soft and flexible mechanism where every single cell of it is breathing.
It reminds me of birds flying in the sky in their coat of feathers: the perfect mix of strength, confidence, and letting go.
If the body has the slightest stiffness, some quality of sound is lost and, more seriously, the emotion and the art lose their interest too. It means that any fear, any doubt will lead to failure in auditions and competitions.
Nobody truly wants a second Maria Callas, Tatiana Troyanos, or Luciano Pavarotti. What they want, rather, is to be surprised. Embracing our uniqueness is the true secret. Those who succeed are fearless, as curious and open, as arrogant as a young child, despite their knowledge. I witnessed famous opera singers talk about the energy emerging from their solar plexus when they perform. They explained the vibrating crown they feel around their head, and the global well-being that singing provides them. I, too, have been feeling this for years now. I needed to let the fear of not being enough at the door of the audition hall. By successes and failures I became the best friend of the child within me: it is always this child who wins when I do well, whereas it is the adult that makes the mistakes. The ability to connect heart and mind means saying “stop” to negative thoughts. This happens through full consciousness, meditation, and breathing.
One’s brain has to serve the heart, as one’s heart has to serve the brain.
The miracle of opera singing lies in the connection between the head and the chest and, concomitantly, between the mind and the heart, by the power of breathing and letting go.