The Vocal Big Bang

Just after midnight on January 1, 2000, my husband ran into our music room, grabbed a 30-inch brass gong and its mallet, and held them high as he opened the back door, then raised his arm for a massive hit. BANG! The gong’s rich, metallic vibes joined a cacophony of  car horns, shouting, and rattling pots and pans as our neighborhood celebrated the new Millennium.

Sounds mark moments in time. Alarm clocks, church bells, sports whistles, military bugles, courtroom gavels, and the chirps and beeps of “notifications”— all announce “NOW!” A baby’s first cry heralds its arrival as a new, independent life. Physicists describe the beginning of time itself as The Big Bang. When something comes out of nothing, it makes noise.

Star birth.David A.

Sound waves have an intimate relationship with time. Our brains recognize speed as pitch, and localize sounds by comparing their arrival times to each ear.

Vocal scientists and artists alike pay great attention to the moment when our sounds begin. In the latest Journal of Singing, Temple University music professor Lawrence Indik delineates twelve subtle variations in how this (formally termed) vocal onset can be coordinated; there are probably more.

Whether breathy or belted, vowel or consonant: all voice techniques involve precise positioning of the vocal fold edges just-in-time to meet a stream of rising airflow, combined with some internal need or intent. In that moment, invisible breath and semi-conscious muscle actions merge with the personal desire to communicate; the inside of the human body turns itself a vibrating instrument of sound.

Just as the cosmological Big Bang represents Creation, this human sound constantly recreates the miracle of our being, our individual “incarnation” as both animal and spiritual creatures. Non-corporeal feelings and ideas fuse with our physical, breath-pumping flesh to create an undeniable, audible vibration that ripples outward through time. Thought is action! Potential is manifest! Mind, body, and soul are united, and that union is happening now, and now, and NOW.

It’s no wonder that words and names are often treated as magical, powerful, holy. Poet Longfellow wrote, “The soul of man is audible, not visible.” Only the deeper reality beyond our universe—what yoga philosophy calls undifferentiated or sleeping consciousness, and what physicists describe as having infinite dimensions and possibilities—this mystery alone remains silent, without vibration, unnamed and unheard.

My life path working with the voice began at an unforgettable moment in time, more than 50 years ago. At an audition for a children’s play, the director said a few simple words, and something changed inside my being. A bigger voice came out of me, and I didn’t know how it happened. The world became new. (We were outdoors, and I still remember the color of the sky.)

That socks-knocked-off moment of discovery led me to study voice seriously as both a musician and an actor, then to create songs and recreate them for audiences and recordings, and finally to help other people create sound easily and effectively. I’m still learning, from every possible direction, about how the instrument works. The years that I’ve recently spent in formal, medical environments have not diminished my sense of wonder at the powerful, intimate, simultaneously-private-and-public act of creating vocal sound.

So it’s January: a new year, a new NOW. Hit that gong of mindfulness! Make something happen! Make your moment sound, make it magic, and make it matter.

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