Can you imagine a room full of non-singers trying to sing, all together, completely improvised?
You’re probably imagining total unmusical chaos, right? You might be surprised by what’s possible…
Today we’re talking with Davin Youngs, founder of Davin Youngs Voice, Chicago Circle Singing and the VOXUS Experience. Davin is a remarkable singing educator and although (as you’ll hear in this episode) he doesn’t much care about pedagogy for the sake of pedagogy, he does actually have a fascinating, unusual and in my opinion wonderful approach to helping people learn to sing and express themselves with their voice.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How group improvised singing can work even if the participants aren’t trained to improvise – or sing!
- Why focusing on what “sounds good” is not necessarily the right way to improve as a singer.
- How someone who grew up as a natural singer ended up specialising in helping those who don’t feel natural at all to find their authentic voice and start expressing themselves through singing.
We were really happy to have the chance to speak with Davin and learn more about his innovative projects. There were a ton of useful insights and ideas in this conversation, whether you consider yourself “a singer” or not.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Davin. Thank you for joining us today.
Davin: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Christopher: So can we begin with a little bit about your own background story in music? How did you first get started singing?
Davin: Well, that’s kind of a tricky question, because it feels like it’s something I’ve always done, and honestly, I think a lot of people who associate themselves as singers feel that way. It’s kind of a part of their identity, a part of their existence, whether they do it in front of people, or not. But I grew up with the ability to use my voice routinely in a church setting, and so from a very, very young age I was in front of people singing, specifically at church, but then early on in voice lessons and then at school and musical productions and choir and so forth.
So singing, specifically, has — as long as I can remember, it’s been a part of what I do and who I am. But would say some of the most, some of the most influential parts of that were leading people and singing in front of my small town, rural church experience and then some of the opportunities I got in school choir just participating in making music with what became some my closest friends and the choir director at the time, who was an incredible mentor to me.
So it’s really an essential and identity-associated part of my story and something that’s always been a part of who I am.
Christopher: And, was that something that was in your household growing up, too? Do you come from a musical family?
Davin: Yeah. My whole family participates in music in one way or the other and my mom, specifically, probably has the least natural ability out of any of us, but she was the great support system and the person who would drive us to music lessons and attend all of our concerts and take way too many pictures and hold the tape recorder up when we used tapes to record my lessons, etcetera. So it was something that was very much supported in the community around me, and my family didn’t pursue it. No one in my family pursued it to the level that I have, but they’ve all participated and continued to participate in music in one way, shape or form.
Christopher: So it sounds like it definitely came naturally from an early age. Was it clear to you throughout that you were destined to be a singer?
Davin: Well, yes. (Laughs) And I can’t say that it hasn’t been, you know, filled with all sorts of existential crises along the way. But you know, I really — where I am in life right now, I don’t look at being a singer as vocation. I look at it as more of a, kind of grand calling, a human identity, and when I can think about singing like that I know that that’s always been my calling. It’s always been — from my earliest age, it’s always been part of what I was supposed to do, to use my voice beyond the spoken word and so it seems like that when I can understand singing like that, it is part of what’s always supposed to have been for me.
But when I look at it as a vocation, you know, when I was quite young I landed in a private voice lesson setting where I studied classical singing styles really early on. I started at the age of 11 and I had a lot of success doing that. I was a naturally gifted operatic baritone when I was very young and I had success winning competitions and I received a lot of affirmation for singing in this, sort of, heroic style and I pursued that in college with the intention of beginning an opera singer, and that’s when you can, like, cue existential crisis number one as happens to many of us in college.
Davin: (Laughs) I landed in a fantastic conservatory and was able to study with a premier pedagogue and I just walked away feeling like I didn’t want to be an opera singer, and it was a really difficult time in that I had put all these years and all this effort into learning specifically classical singing and that’s when I started to really question, like, “What am I actually supposed to do with my voice?”
Christopher: Hm. That’s fascinating, because I think up until that point, your story sounds like the background story of someone who just became a professional singer, and I don’t mean just in the sense of diminishing the importance of that with the grand career you can have as a singer, but you are someone who now aside from singing also is a very influential educator in the world of singing, and I think it’s unusual to hear from someone who was on such a — I suppose — such a singing-focused path who is now so broad in how they help others to sing. I’d love to hear how that existential crisis resolved and led you to this different direction for your calling.
Davin: Well, it hasn’t resolved, but that was just the first of many.
Christopher: Let’s say “how it developed”.
Davin: No, I think that — yeah, sure. No, I think that — so I think for a lot of people who participate in music in maybe a hobby-like setting and then they look at people who do it professionally, who earn money — and when I say professionally, I strictly mean, like, make some money making music. There are an incredible amount of variations in terms of professionalism in making music, and by the way, it doesn’t always have to do with skill, either. That’s an important thing to note. There are a lot of people that make money doing music that aren’t necessarily the most skilled musicians and there are a lot of people who are incredibly skilled who never make a dime.
So there are a lot of systems in place, especially around music education that point — can tend to point — a person in a specific direction. So in the western musical tradition, especially the academic tradition, most institutions are based in musical theater and classical singing styles and some jazz. You’ll find jazz. There are very, very few institutions that educate on any sort of other styles, whether that be popular music or world music — I use that term begrudgingly, but, you know, styles that come from different ethnic groups around the world — and so it — the path that I took is a very natural path in terms of our educational systems, but in hindsight, what I realized is that although I don’t regret any of that, as it led to where I am today, I wish the systems would have enabled me to explore vocally more because — and I don’t know that I would have, quite honestly, because I was having a lot of success doing what I was doing, but when I think about singing as a means or as a way of exploring my identity, I’m so much more than that one style of music and so I think that was the first time I really encountered that when I — as one does when they’re 21 years old, was in college when I started to go, “Okay. What’s the life I want to create for myself if it involves music and singing?” and, specifically, the path of classical singer wasn’t what I wanted to do and so I think if you look at any professional musician, there are key moments in their lives like that, and if they haven’t had those, they probably haven’t developed much as an artist, because it’s a essential part of becoming a more realized human being but a fully capable artist, is to really question your education, question your path, what you’ve been doing. So it has not in any way been a direct path, and I still feel like it’s a zig-zag all the time.
Christopher: I’m sure that’s reassuring to a lot of our listeners to hear. So when you realized that the classical path maybe wasn’t right for you, how did you go about exploring and zig-zagging and broadening, from there?
Davin: Well, it’s, of course, a long story, and I won’t dig into the external stuff as much, but just to say that I actually went and worked in an office. I worked non-profit arts administration work. I didn’t pursue professional singing. I did little bits. I sang in professional choirs on the side and I taught, because I had a degree that, you know, allowed me to say I could do that, but if you fast-forward a number of years, I was introduced to — I returned to the Oberlin Conservatory for a symposium on contemporary commercial music and it was — and that was very, very unique for Oberlin, which was a strictly strictly classically driven vocal school.
There’s a jazz program there, but that’s it, and so at that symposium I met a woman named Jeanie Lovetri, who has been a pedagogue for many years who’s operated within these systems that are so classically oriented and kind of been a voice of questioning throughout, saying, you know, a lot of people look at these teaching methods or these methodologies as superior, but we also know that we have artists throughout time who have created years and years of music healthfully and with much success and we don’t know how they’re doing what they’re doing — or, that’s not actually true. She’s saying we actually do know how they’re doing what they’re doing, but a lot of us aren’t teaching to that. Scientists told us we — there is enough contemporary science to know.
And so that experience was super transformative for me, because I realized that physiologically my technique, a lot of the stuff I had been working so hard on for so many years was actually why I felt so confused as a singer. I wasn’t able to functionally make some of the sounds that made, that felt more authentic to me as a singer.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. So can you give us an example of the kind of insight or breakthrough you had after discovering there was this other way to think about learning to sing?
Davin: Yeah. I mean, the bottom line is, is that a lot of teachers teach singing in terms of sound, and they teach singing in terms of what they think sounds good and that — honestly, a lot of systems have supported that, and a lot of people don’t even know that they’re doing it, but the problem with what sounds good is it’s not always what’s functionally most free for the singer, and so that really — that seems basic. When you say to most people, when people go into my private studio space and I say to them, “You know, I’m really listening for what’s going on in your throat when you make sound,” people kind of look at me like, “Duh.”
Davin: But I’m — what I’m saying is, is that not everyone does that, and they don’t always know that they don’t do it, but when we make sounds, there is actual physical manifestation of a sound. There’s something happening in your throat and when we can learn to hear the function of it we can respond to the sound with exercises that would encourage the singer to sing with more physical freedom, and physical freedom always translates into a more beautiful sound, always, because it’s the body that makes the sound.
So meeting Jeanie was really the first time I had ever heard anyone say that, and it was the first time I ever heard anyone do exercises that didn’t sound good and I started to understand more fully that the exercise is the stimulus and the way in which the person sings aftwerwards is the response. But the stimulus is so essential, and so if we’re doing sounds all the time that we think sound good, it might be an improper stimulus. Does that make sense?
Christopher: It does make sense. I wonder, could you give us an example from your own experience or with a student of a particular thing, where you could hear, you know, their throat wasn’t quite working right and you could do an exercise to help them free that up.
Davin: Yeah. So in somatic voice work and in functional vocal training, the paramount piece is what we call, “register,” and register for a singer is typically — and this is probably pretty common terminology — is chest register and head register, and in men’s voice sometimes we call it falsetto, and there are people that would argue that head register and falsetto are two different things, but for right now, I’m just going to use them interchangeably.
And then the way in which those registers are able to work together is mix, mixing the voice. So if you were to google, you know, singing technique, especially around any sort of commercial styles, you would probably hear something along those lines. The thing is, is you’d probably also hear a lot about breath and resonance and a lot of other stuff and all of that is potentially important, but it’s not as important as register, because register refers to the ways in which the vocal chords actually close. They come together and that’s the manifestation of the sound. That’s where the sound begins.
So if I’m able to hear that a singer comes in and there’s an imbalance in registration– and that imbalance usually looks like one of three things: too much chest, too much head, or caught in a mix. That’s what most of us experience, myself included, and this is after years of working with Jeanie, where I was actually — I used to sing with a very chest-dominant sound. It was super heavy, it would get really woofy on top, dark, and it’s what people liked, it’s what they were impressed by, but it didn’t feel good when I made the sound, and especially when I sang more contemporary pop, it just wasn’t appropriate. It sounded, you know, like an opera singer trying to sing pop music.
And so in working with Jeanie I really was able to create a better, lighter mix and now I sing much more successfully with a contemporary pop sound in a light, what I would call a light chest mix and I like to sing R&B and pop and rock and so that’s, those are the dominant sounds that you hear. So specifically, in terms of exercise, I — there are a million options, but the exercises need to encourage the singer to go one of those different directions and the most exciting part is, is that the journey never ends, because we’re always out of balance, you know, we’re always trying to create some better balance in terms of the way in which our voice functions, and so for me, I haven’t been feeling very well, lately. I’ve had some illness floating around and so my voice feels so out of whack, right now, but the good news is, is that when I get healthy I have a series of exercises that I can go through to kind of bring things back into balance.
Christopher: Hm. What I love about that is that it’s very, kind of, step-by-step and practical, and I think singing, maybe more than any other instrument, is so wrapped up in myths and confusion, and this idea that, you know, you’ve just got to do it naturally and if it doesn’t come naturally, you’re not a singer, and, you know, a lot of people can feel like, you know, learning to sing is beyond them, and it’s, kind of, this mystical thing that you’ve got to have a gift to even begin, and, from what you’ve described there, it sounds a lot more, kind of, scientific and analytical, and, you know, if there’s a problem, we’ll address it and we’ve got exercises to help us do that.
Davin: Totally, and that takes all the pressure off the singers. That’s the beauty of working with a teacher who can listen functionally, is that the objective is to help you make the sound with more freedom. Now, that is not to discount the fact that singing is an incredibly vulnerable act and it takes a lot of bravery just to stand up in front of someone and use your voice. It doesn’t discount the fact that there’s a lot of psychological and spiritual and emotional baggage that comes up when you sing, but it takes the pressure off of necessarily fixing all that first, because that’s going to naturally come forth.
It happens with anything we do with the body, whether that be yoga, athletics — you know, there’s all this stuff that we carry around with us that’s a part of our story. A lot of it gets trapped in our throat. That’s really an important component, but you know what? I’m not a therapist. I’m a teacher of singing, and so my first objective is to lead you into the experience of making as free and as easy a sound in as most efficient a way possible, and from there we can see what comes up, but I love that about functional training, because I used to teach with a lot of metaphor, you know, asking people to sing like a tree. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you do hear that a lot, and it doesn’t mean anything. It potentially means something to someone, potentially. Potentially I could tell you to sing like a tree and you could have a positive experience, but it doesn’t mean something specific for your throat, and that’s what functional training does, is, it allows a singer into a specific experience of making a specific type of sound as well as they’re able to.
Christopher: So we were introduced by Meagan Nixon, a former guest on the show, and I’m so thankful to her for making the introduction, because when I looked at your websites, I just found it so refreshing and enlightening, because you have this quite pragmatic, analytical, down-to-earth, let’s-figure-out-the-problem-and-solve-it kind of approach to teaching singing, but at the same time, you’re not a boring scientist in a lab. You actually talk, at the same time, a lot about the spiritual side of things and having an authentic voice and how people can have a very deep and meaningful experience through singing, and, you know, that’s not a combination you often find out there.
Davin: Well, it’s so important to me. I literally was just in exchange with a fellow voice teacher yesterday, and I kind of facetiously asked her if she cared about pedagogy and she responded, “You know, I don’t think I actually do,” and I responded, “You know what? Good, because I don’t think I do, either.”
The thing is, I only care about it as a means to an end. I only care about it as an opportunity to lead a human into a more fully realized experience of themselves.
There are other people who really love pedagogy for the sake of pedagogy, and I don’t discount — that has — I mean, we have to have those people, that’s how we learn, but I think me, specifically, the reason I sing is to feel more alive, to feel more human, and so from a teaching and leading and coaching standpoint, the thing that’s most important to me is to bring, draw people into that act, and fortunately, I have some understanding of pedagogy that allows me to do that, as well.
Christopher: You have a fascinating project called, “The Chicago Singing Circle,” which is maybe a great example of your work in that area. It’s been running, I think, monthly for two years, now, and you welcome anybody to come along and take part in improvised group singing. Now, improvisation and singing are two things that I know a lot of people in our audience are probably feeling, even just at the mention of them, they’re probably feeling a bit nervous.
You know, improvisation in music is putting yourself out there. It’s scary if you don’t know how to do it. Singing is something that, as we touched on before, a lot of people feel like they’ve either got a natural flair for it and it comes easily, or they aren’t a natural singer and they’re just not gonna do it. How does that work? Is this something for advanced singers, only, that they can show up and take part in improvised group singing?
Davin: No, absolutely. I mean, literally anyone, regardless of whether they feel successful as a singer in any way, we encourage them and welcome them into our group. You know, after I met Jeanie and worked and studied somatic voice work, I think, for about two years, I had this urge to kind of explore my own voice with this newfound functional freedom, and so I learned about a workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York with the famous musician, Bobby McFerrin that was all about improvised singing, and that’s kind of his, uh, his, he has spent years working at his successful improvisation, and so I attended this workshop over a week, and you literally just improvise and sing for a week and the workshop starts with about 180 singers and it slowly gets smaller throughout the week, but this was an incredibly pivotal point for me, because as someone who felt stylistically confused, I realized that I had all of these sounds and all of this opportunity at the ready and I just needed the freedom to be able to explore that, and so I left that workshop learning these methods of improvisation and brought that back to Chicago and happened to have a friend that had just moved here who is an expert at this, as well,and we started these, servicing the gatherings, these monthly gatherings, and essentially what happens is, we lead people into a space through exercises, through games that are traditional games of improvisation, but applied to using our voice, and really just making up sounds. There’s no right or wrong sound in this setting, and we give you the tools to feel safe being silly and making stuff up, but essentially what we do is, we make up sounds and we create patterns that then lead us into an orchestra of voices, and you realize how quickly we can create, together as a group, create something that is quite meaningful and spontaneous.
Christopher: So I think from your description just there, our listeners might be imagining a kind of music therapy session where everyone gets in a room and they just make noise until they feel better and probably to anyone walking past the room it sounds like a cacophony and no one would call it music, but I’ll — let’s put in a little clip of what your Chicago circle singing can sound like.
[Inserted clip at [00:22:59]
Christopher: So that is far from a cacophony. That is what anyone would call great sounding music. How does that come from a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily musically trained getting together and improvising sounds?
Davin: So it’s all based in pattern. You know, the thing is, is it’s a difficult thing to describe to people, but one of the closest things that you might be able to correlate with what we do is a drum circle. So in a drum circle, which, you know, has a million connotations for a lot of people, but you could imagine a drum circle where someone originates a beat and then people add in various rhythms.
We do that with the voices, but there are some tools and patterns that we can draw people into the experience quickly, helping them explore the different parts of their voice. They might the different types of sounds, simple things like consonants.
A lot of what we do is nonsense syllables, but the goal is to quickly and efficiently make patterns so that the group can build upon the pattern, and quite honestly, that’s the key to songwriting. We look for, we try to quickly gain access to melody, pattern, groove, rhythm, and from there you try to create something a little bit more complex, but it always starts with that really simple formula, and for me, you know, I never felt like a songwriter in my whole life, and one of the things that improvisation has allowed me is a way in to songwriting. I do write songs now, and it all started with me just making stuff up along the way, but we also use words.
We encourage people to use words, if that feels right to them at the time. It is remarkably quick for most people, and that is the surprise of it all, and it has a lot to do with the success of the facilitation, but also just the human spirit and the ability to, kind of, like, know what it is to make something in the moment with a group of people that makes sense. That’s really the greater lesson is, is that we can so quickly, based on our experiences, we can so quickly land on something collectively, and that’s a big blessing for me, outside of music-making.
Christopher: That’s really interesting. I think what captures my imagination with this is that you’re not talking about people getting together in a room and thinking about, “Okay. We’re gonna sing a 1-4-5 progression. You do the arpeggios, I’m gonna throw in a major seventh, so it sounds kind of snazzy.” You’re talking about people who don’t have that kind of formal training, who aren’t kind of thinking through music theory, who haven’t spent years practicing improvisation, who haven’t even spent years training their voice, but you’re somehow tapping into an instinct for music, I suppose.
Davin: Well, and I always say — you know, most people, when you say improvisation, their first fear is that they’re gonna have to make something up, and while there is an element of making it up, there is also a much greater element of drawing on your experience, and the bottom line is, unless you, you know, can’t hear, you’ve had a lot of experience listening to music. There’s a lot of context in your head, already, and one of — the reason that circle singing, specifically, as an improvisational tool and singing tool spoke to me is for years, as someone who had a teaching studio, I would think, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get people singing to sing together?” but I work with such a diverse clientele, you know, from gospel singers to attorneys to rock singers to doctors to, you know, waiters, I mean, massage therapists, I could name — you know, I’ve worked with literally every type of person you could possibly imagine, and it never ceases to amaze me, and I’ve never known, what do all of those people sing together? Is it folk music, is it church music, is it — you know, they don’t have the same context, so the beauty of improvisation is it allows us to enter the space with our diverse set of experiences and stories and create something spontaneous that speaks to the experience in the moment and brings our stories into the picture.
I can’t think of anything else that would do that, especially so quickly, and there’s science around specifically doing it with your voice that leads people into a close connection more quickly than anything else, that they would feel a closeness more quickly using their voices than they would with an instrument, than they would playing sports, doing other artistic acts, you know, those are all social bonding things, but there’s something about the vulnerability of using your voice with others that leaves you walking away feeling changed, having spent that time with other people.
Christopher: I think that definitely comes across in the video on the Chicago Singing Circle website, and we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. I’d encourage listeners to go take a look and get a feel for how, kind of, viscerally connected these people seem to be in the moment when it works, but Davin, you touched on something interesting, there, when you said, facilitator, and how important the facilitator can be. When we talk about improvisation at Musical U, we try and explain to people, you know, it is a matter of balance between drawing on frameworks and patterns that make it kind of easy and safe and also giving yourself enough space to be creative and expressive and come up with new musical ideas, and I imagine that’s part of the challenge as a facilitator, you know, trying to draw people away from bland, safe, repetitive choices in music that just sounds very samey for minutes or hours at a time, and everyone just going off in a completely random direction and, you know, creating sounds that just don’t gel well with the rest of the group. How do you approach that challenge as the facilitator?
Davin: Well, I mean, we leave space for all of it, so there are times when we make sounds that don’t gel, you know, or allow that to happen, because if — quite honestly, when you let that, like, sit, it eventually coagulates, and sometimes our traditional understanding of what gels isn’t exactly a full understanding. It doesn’t provide us access to the full spectrum, so there are times where we let people really be uncomfortable with the crunchiness of the sounds that they might be making, and then, you know, what you’re saying is true.
So most people’s instinct, when you talk about improvisation and singing, is to resort to tradition scat syllables, so whether that be (Sings) “Bah-doo-bah-doo-bah-zee-bah-doo-bah,” that’s most people’s instinct, because when they think about improvised singing, that’s the first thing that comes to mind, so that’s why we’ll take people through exercises that allow them to explore, like, different consonants, like, what would it be if I only sang on “cuh,” you know? What if I made a whole song just going, (Sings) “Cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh?” Maybe it’s not any good, I don’t know, but what happens? What does it feel like in my mouth? What do I find in my body when I make that sound?
So you have to have explored the farthest reaches to come back to a more comfortable middle, and most of us, most of us, myself included, are afraid to really go there, most of the time. So in the facilitation, the exercises typically point people in one direction or another, but I count my success as a facilitator in my ability to be free while having the context of having studied music for a long time. You know, I have an understanding of harmonic structures. I have an understanding of rhythm, and I think that that’s necessary to feel skilled in this, but I don’t think it’s necessary to find your way in to this.
Christopher: Hm. So speaking of finding your way in, the Chicago Circle Singing is something where you invite anyone to come along and so the people who show up have a certain willingness to put themselves in that vulnerable situation and, you know, give this whole improvised group singing thing a try, but you actually take that a whole step further with another project which is your Voxus experience, which is where you don’t just invite people to volunteer to come along, you’re actually putting on corporate workshops where huge groups of people don’t even necessarily know in advance they’re going to be getting into this, and you show up and you lead them through this kind of improvised group singing. Could you tell us a bit about that, and how it works, or if it works?
Davin: Yeah. So it works, I promise. That’s the first thing I’ll say. It’s never not worked. So I have — I had the opportunity to teach some private voice lessons, or our group voice class at Google here in Chicago, and I left that experience feeling a little bit dissatisfied. It just felt slow, like, I felt like I wasn’t able to lead the Google employees into an experience of singing in the way that I wanted them to experience as quickly as I wanted to, and although they learned a lot about their voices, I just felt like — because, there just wasn’t enough time, and so when I encountered this improvisation, I thought, “Oh, this is how I can get into the corporate arena and help people into the experience of singing quickly,” and that’s when I came up with the idea for Voxus, which is a company that specifically targets groups.
You know, we’ve kind of angled ourselves toward corporate groups, but we can really work — I’ve done, you know, church groups, we’ve done non-profit schools, really any group of people, quite honestly, who were to gather, I can lead them into an experience, somewhat unexpectedly, of making music and singing, and I have to say that whenever you have a group of people, there will be a critical mass of people that are game and are willing, because most of us have singing as a part of our story in one way, shape, or form. For some people it might be traumatic. It might have been a bad part of their story. For a lot of people, it’s something that they do commonly privately, you know, I mean, in the shower or in the car, but especially when you’re in a group of people, chances are, there’s someone who loves karaoke, there’s someone who has a band outside of work, there’s someone who sang in high school choir, there’s someone who majored in music and has since left it. So there are always people that are ready and game and willing, and the other people just, kind of, end up coming along by default, because when you do something collectively, something so visceral, something so fully present, it’s difficult not to participate, and the beauty of it is, is that no one gets hurt.
Davin: It’s singing. It’s not that big of a deal, you know, I don’t understate the value that it has for some people, but I always joke, I mean, no small animals are going to be hurt as a result of us singing together. In fact, I can promise that as a result of singing together, you will be physiologically changed. The hormonal structure of your brain will change because you made sounds.
So that’s why it works. That’s why it works, is because by its very nature, singing creates change, and so that’s been really, really, fear-inducing for me to enter into those spaces and be like, “Man, I hope this happens,” but also I have enough experience now to just be confident that it will happen.
Christopher: Amazing, and I would highly encourage anyone listening to go and check out the video on the Voxus website. We’ll put a link in the shownotes so that you can see this in action. It’s really quite inspiring.
I have to ask the devil’s advocate question, though. We recently on the show had Casey McCann from Eclectic Music, and one of the things we were talking about was the unfortunate state of adult singing ability. She was talking particularly in the United States, but she was giving the example of when you’re at a restaurant and a group sings, “Happy Birthday,” a lot of the people can’t actually sing it in tune , and I think you and I would both agree that’s not any, you know, fundamental failing on their part. It’s not anything physical or fundamental that holds them back, it’s just that we don’t necessarily train people to sing in tune very well in our culture in the U.S., in the U.K., around the world.
When you go in to those big groups where people haven’t even self-selected as being up for singing, do you have any trouble that half of them just sing out of tune and whatever you do, it doesn’t quite sound musical, or do you somehow find a way to draw on everyone’s level of ability that makes it work?
Davin: Well, we certainly can draw on everyone’s level of ability. Look, I mean, you might not feel like you can use your actual voice, but you certainly can make some vocal percussion or bang on your body or something like that. There’s a way in for everyone to participate in the music, but, I have to say that, as a teacher singing — and this is my personal opinion, and I don’t know t there’s literature on this — but as a teacher singing, when we feel fear that has a physical implication, so if I feel self-conscious in making sound, that shows up in my body, and the infrequency of people doing that collectively, I think, has a big part, or, is a big part of their lack of skill around it. They don’t feel physically in their bodies when they make the sound, because it’s not something they ever do. Why would they? You know, they don’t do that in front of people, so suddenly you’re at a restaurant and you’re supposed to sing, “Happy Birthday,” and there’s actually no one in the group that can carry the tune, you know, and then there’s an overall self-consciousness that covers the whole experience, and then the tune gets worse, and it’s terrible.
So I think one of the things that we do in the setting is, quite honestly, lead people into an energized version of their physical self, I mean, they’re physically participating, which automatically makes them better singers, you know, the body is what is making the sound. The body is what is making the sound. A lot of times in life, in contemporary culture, we feel disconnected from our bodies. It’s impossible to sing and be disconnected from your body — to sing well, especially, and so I don’t think that people, I don’t think that people lack skill. I think people lack experience and I think that the overall pervasive feeling of self-consciousness or fear around using our voices publicly plays into some of those patterns that we see.
Christopher: So Davin, a lot of people in our audience are a bit later in life and, you know, at Musical U, we’re constantly having people join with a real concern that because they’re coming to it in retirement, or because they didn’t have music education early on, maybe it’s too late for them, and, you know, they can still enjoy a bit of music learning, but they’re maybe past the point of really getting the hang of it.
What’s your own opinion of that, particularly when it comes to singing? Is there a point where it’s just too late for people to really get into being a singer?
Davin: No, and I have a specific story that — well, no, it’s never too late, and I have a story to tell you that will resonate for a lot of people. There was a woman who came to me. She had come to an event at my studio where we were actually singing Christmas carols, and she came to me, and I don’t know her exact age, but I’m gonna guess that she was in her early sixties at the time that we met, and she had believed all of her life that she was, quote-end-quote, tone deaf, and, you know, science tells us that that’s not really a thing, that when someone struggles to sing in tune, it’s actually an issue of coordination, and so in working with her, when she came and she started voice lessons together, it was a struggle, to say the least. I mean, we spent a lot of voice lessons really working on just getting her to even use her voice with any sort of level of physical comfort, because it had been so many years of fear around the sound, but I’m happy to report, now — and this is no small commitment. I think it’s been four, almost five years, but she sings songs completely in tune the whole time, and she’s participating in a choir, and those two things at times can seem insignificant to her, because she’s thinking, “Why is this taking so long?” but for me, I’m thinking, in the context of your life, after all of these years of avoiding this task, this is an incredibly short amount of time to make your way into doing it successfully.
Now, she is not the most naturally gifted singer that I’ve worked with, but that’s not the point. The point is that it brings her joy to use her voice, and as a means of learning and consistency and hard work, she has been able to bring herself into the music-making process with success. In this case, the success is just showing up and being able to sing in tune, and that story, for me, is always a great reminder, and I have to say, most people don’t stick it out. Most people aren’t willing to put in the amount of time that it’s going to take, and I’m always very honest, but this specific client has stuck it out for the appropriate amount of time and it has a result. She’s yielding the results.
Christopher: That’s wonderful, and I think it’s a beautiful counterpart to your circle singing, where, you know, anyone can walk up and be part of music making immediately. At the same time, if you want to be a confident solo singer and sing perfectly in tune, and you’re willing to put in a few years, there’s no reason you can’t get there, whatever stage you’re at in life.
Davin: Yes, absolutely. The last thing I want to say about this is that — specifically, to singing — as we get older, the body changes, and so there are new challenges that are presented, specifically for women who go through menopause. They experience, you know, the hormonal changes that may make things like warming up their voice seem like they take longer, and that is true. It’s a fact, so there are changes that we experience physically that can make things feel challenging in a different way, but the only way to get through that is to do it, to use it, and I know from working with a number of people past 60 and even into their seventies, that the more consistent they are, the more able they are to maintain muscle tone and coordination in terms of making the sound, and they can find just as much success as someone quite a bit younger.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I hope anyone who is listening to this and has felt that self-conscious fear about singing or worried that there isn’t a route into singing for them is feeling inspired, right now, and if you need any further inspiration, I would definitely recommend checking out Davin’s website, particularly chicagosingingcircle.com and voxusexperience.com, V-O-X-U-S. We will have links to those and davinyoungsvoice.com in the shownotes.
Do head to those websites, watch the videos, and I guarantee you will come away with a new inspiration and confidence that singing might be for you, after all.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Davin.
Davin: Thank you for having me. It was a real pleasure to speak.
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