A few weeks ago I had a voice lesson with a beloved teacher with whom I haven’t taken a lesson for about ten years. It was a little bit like hanging out with one’s parents after ostensibly becoming a “grown up;” everything is familiar but a little different somehow, and while the furniture might seem a bit smaller, there is the occasional wince at something that’s absolutely true but that one might have dismissed before, perhaps even with the roll of an eye. Almost in passing, my teacher made a technical suggestion: to imagine, especially when singing in Italian, that one has formed the vowel of a word before making the initial consonant sound, rather than only thinking of a word’s initial consonant sound as the “launching pad” for the vowel . I stopped, asked her to “say that again,” tried it a few times, and looked at her in amazement. “That changes everything!” I said. “Does everyone know this?” She was far too gracious to tell me that, well, this is pretty basic and she was quite sure that not only had she probably told me this dozens of times, but it was likely that every other singer with whom I’ve studied over the last twenty years had said something along very similar lines. She didn’t need to say anything; I knew. This was information I’d likely heard at least thirty times, but I heard it – actually heard it – for the first time. Just to be sure, I checked out the “epiphany” with a few other singers – yup, everyone knew this, it’s not exactly revolutionary, and of course I’d heard it before, or, I should say, I must have been in earshot of the person who said it many times before.
In many ways, I think that the greatest pleasures I’ve had in creating music for my violin and voice are similar to the almost rueful joy of this recent discovery. While mastery of singing, composing, or playing the violin is more than a little bit elusive and certainly more than one life’s work, it is after setting aside notions of perfection that I’ve found pleasure in discovering something that in some ways, I almost might have known all along: that this harmony, or this re-imagining of an aria, or this way of holding the violin to allow for greatest ease of singing, has been in earshot all along; it’s only now that I’m actually hearing it. There is some kind of happiness that comes both in finding the unexpected in the familiar and in finding a touchstone in the new, whether it’s in music or anything else. It is in uncovering what I’ve always almost known that the joy of the work proceeds.