The first time that I traveled to Italy, in the Summer of 2000, I often went to morning mass and/or evening vespers at one of the local churches in Parma. One evening I arrived at San Giovanni Evangelista and parked myself in a pew just as the church ladies were handing out hymnbooks. One old woman in purple approached me and held the hymnal just out of arms reach as she said something to me in Italian I would never forget. It translated roughly to: “Are you going to sing? Then really sing!”
When I tuned in for Kennedy’s wake last weekend, I did not expect the most memorable quote of the evening to come from Brian Stokes Mitchell. Before he started singing “The Impossible Dream”, he told the group assembled that he would miss Ted Kennedy’s voice because of the joy and intensity he brought to his singing. “Singing notes is easy”, Mitchell stated. “Singing from your heart is hard.”
Anyone who tries to ‘make it’ as a singer knows that is an understatement. Even though we all know that the performances that thrill us are the ones that have something to say, it is so tempting just to play it safe. We don’t want to offend with our passion or our message, we don’t want to wear our heart on our sleeve, so we stick with the somewhat bland interpretations that we think will sell.
One of the common quips that you hear when someone is spending too much time practicing and not enough living is that “they don’t write a lot of operas about the inside of a practice room”. Perfect technique and hours of practice only get us so far, and eventually we have to bring our lives and our message to that technique and figure out how to say what we want to say.
I didn’t really understand that idea of a message until very recently, when I had one that informed my singing and that I finally thought was too important to ignore. Still, it’s scary to take a stand and to say something, especially in our society where opinions are a dime a dozen about things that don’t seem to matter (the quality of Jon and Kate’s parenting, ‘death panels’ in the health care bill that don’t actually exist), but holding fast to a belief in a more serious area (the sanctity of the human body, the importance of a worshipping community) can be like stepping on the third rail.
To go back to Kennedy, listening to reflections on his life I think that was one of his most attractive qualities: he stuck to a politically liberal message that emphasized care for the poor. He happened to be savvy enough to craft that message into something that would get him elected, but just having such a clear message caused him to stand out in contemporary politics.
In music and in life, singing from your heart is hard. I’m convinced it’s the only way to “really sing” as my elderly friend in purple admonished me nine years ago. Life’s too short to be bland, or to hide what we have to say because our message might cause people not to like us. If we are not honest about who we are what does the admiration of people mean? Just that we are crafty enough to fool people, and that we believe the truth is not admirable.