Impulse: The Origin of Vocal Sound
By Jean McClelland
The howl of a wolf, the cry of a baby, the roar of a lion, all are a manifestation of “impulse,” an extraordinary energy that exists in all of nature.
The great singer, and my teacher, Olga Averino, taught her students to sing “on impulse.” To get us to experience this energy, she would sit at the piano (a brilliant musician, she would accompany all her students) and laugh, cough, or whine like a puppy. She had us put our hands on her waist so that we could feel how her diaphragm engaged as she made these spontaneous sounds. She felt that in order to sing one needed an abundance of impulse. In her book, Principles and Art of Singing, she writes:
I am speaking of subtle, elusive, and all-powerful energy which is present and functions in everyone and everything alive. The French call it l’elan vital. The Hindus call it prana. In the arts and in medicine, it is referred to as ‘impulse.’…During performances by great artists, musicians or actors, and during poetic readings or inspired speeches, one becomes aware of the absorbed attention of the audience—that stillness which sometimes continues for a few moments after the performance has ended. Such energy is extremely communicable and, what is more, it has a very long-lasting effect. It is brought home and remembered for a long time. Impulse is present in everybody, but some people seem to be filled with it; they are vital..this energy is the origin of vocal sound.
Placido Domingo sings on impulse as does Paul McCartney. Ella Fitzgerald’s body was so alive with rhythm and music when she sang that she looked as though she could barely contain it. That is impulse. When one performs on impulse both the performer and the audience feel totally focused, uplifted, and energized. Dr. Martin Luther King was filled with impulse which is why he inspired a whole generation. Sometimes acting teachers recommend that their students listen to Dr. King to hear what it means to speak with such great authenticity and intention. Impulse is also seen in great athletes. “Where there is intense concentration, there is also a powerful influx of this energy,” writes Averino.
Often I talk about impulse as a great “need to express.” Sometimes my students will ask me, “but what am I trying to express?” I explain to them that what I am talking about is not “trying to express something,” but rather what we hear in a baby’s cry. It is a sound of pure “need.” There is no thought process preparing that cry. It is instinctive and spontaneous. Haven’t you seen parents in a quandary trying to figure out why a baby is crying? Is it hungry? Or wet? Without words to communicate what is needed, it is just simply “need” or “want.” Impulse is the energy that fuels breath and sound. It acts like a motor which engages the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm, stimulating a continual upward flow of breath which vibrates the vocal cords and creates sound. Impulse makes a voice expressive and compelling. It also ensures that our voices are produced from breath rather than throat tension. When we speak or sing on impulse we are technically “rooting” our voices in the diaphragm and to the ground of our being. “Love Dogs” is a beautiful and evocative poem by Rumi that exquisitely depicts this powerful connection that runs through all of nature.
Take a moment now to sense within yourself the urgency that fuels the baby’s cry. Impulse arises from deep within your abdomen, a sort of “fire” in your belly. Sometimes people feel somewhat shy or self conscious when they try to experience impulse. It is very natural to feel this way initially, for we are truly connecting to a powerful place in ourselves. We may also feel vulnerable and somewhat “exposed,” but only temporarily. Soon we feel strong and energized. In the 1996 film Gotta Make This Journey, a documentary about the female a cappella singing group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” one of the group’s members beautifully described her experience of impulse. She was explaining that singing in church had always made her feel especially vulnerable, but when she felt that way, she said she reached deep inside herself and just “poured it on.” The more you desire to uncover and connect to impulse, the more it grows in you, and the worries and fears drop away.
When I was uncovering impulse in myself, I would work for hours imagining what it could be. Mme. Averino had made a point of saying that it wasn’t emotion or excitement, but something that created the “urge” in you to sing, a “spark” that lit the ignition. It seemed very mysterious and confusing. But then at one point during my work, I got the tiniest insight into what it could be. I felt a stirring within, a sensation that I remembered from childhood when I anticipated something wonderful happening. Through the years my experience of impulse has deepened and become more real and reliable in me, but I tell you this story as a way of encouraging you to take the time to use your imagination to uncover this energy in yourself. Olga Averino called it impulse, actors often call it “intention,” some people say they are “in the flow.” It is all impulse. Impulse does not burst fully formed in us; it is hidden, and it’s up to us and our imaginations to uncover and grow it.
Monday, March 4
Awakening Your True Voice
Free Intro on Monday, March 4 at 6:00 pm
Class starts on March 11 and ends on April 15
6:00 – 7:30 pm
Members $160/ Nonmembers $200