Singing isn’t easy. It’s often downright exhausting, depending on the length of my rehearsal or performance, and the space in which I’ve been asked to perform. I generally need some time afterwards to decompress, and use that time to think about how the singing went, what I can do to improve the next time. After one such hour of intensive one-on-one work with my vocal instructor, I sit down in a coffee shop with my tablet and begin to write out some of the important issues that arose during the day’s efforts.
My notes from that lesson look roughly as follows:
1.) E-vowel needs to be adjusted for full, open sound. Start with ah-ooh-ee to get lip positioning, use y to slide through. ”Ah”s need to be brighter, but careful not to go too bright. Avoid the nasal, lift the soft palate, open the mouth fully.
2.) Significance of pronunciation does not need to be hyper-realized, can be understood even if consonants are not so harsh, don’t cut off your air to over-emphasize the text. Ride the breath, get the sense of up and over the note, place the voice on it, keep it out of the throat, and don’t let it fall down when shifting between vowels.
3.) Too much mental focus on the minute things I’m singing, and how I’m singing them. Intonation stays stable when I stop thinking and just let myself go after establishing the initial intent.
Set is present across the table from me, sipping the coffee I offered as per usual when we go to this cafe. He watches me write, lets me mentally run some of the concepts past Him with the occasional nod, but looks progressively more and more amused as I poke and prod at each idea individually and consider how to improve upon it.
“You do realize you are writing yourself a how-to regarding spoken heka, right?”
I raise a mental eye-brow. “It’s 17th and 18th century opera, Father. I know I’ve written about heka and music before, but this is fairly specific to an Italian, Baroque cultural frame work.”
“Think about it when you next practice.”
“…You’re pulling your ‘Great of Voice’ title on me again.”
So I humored Him, having learned that my Father is not one to be deterred from nearly any matter He brings up, and came back to the list with a fresh eye a few days later. I explored the ideas I’d written out through my vocal practice that day, and realized that maybe there was something to His initial suggestion. In three main areas — pronunciation, breath, and intent — there genuinely seemed to be some significant cross-over. Lessons from my vocal training could, perhaps, also be of use in my study of heka.
I struggle with pronunciation at times in my voice lessons. My vowels retain traces of my heritage, a “Balmer” Maryland nasality touched with the extra “r”s of Midwesterners who “warsh” their hands. I practice for hours to appropriately open my vowel sounds for romance languages or to fluidly combine them for German vowels with umlauts and schwas. The accuracy of pronunciation matters a great deal to me. It must be correct if I am to effectively convey the language I am trying to sing, if I am going to accurately share with my audience the meaning behind the text, and if I am going to prove myself a knowledgeable and worthwhile singer to those listening who may fluently speak the language I am trying to share.
With this in mind, it was fairly intriguing to me that in her book on Magic in Ancient Egypt, Geraldine Pinch writes:
Spells had to be distinguished from everyday speech, so they were usually chanted or sung rather than simply spoken. The exact pronunciation of many of the words was important, particularly cryptically written words that claimed to be the secret names of gods and demons. This knowledge was presumably passed down in oral tradition. The Graeco-Egyptian papyri sometimes mention the tone of voice in which divine names are to be pronounced. In one Hermetic text, the deified Imhotep explains that ‘the very quality of the sounds and the intonation of the Egyptian words contains in itself the force of the things said.’ (68)
I had to laugh as I related this to my own singing experiences: of course intonation and quality of sound conveys a force! On the one hand, careful pronunciation presents the force of the meaning of the words I seek to share with my voice: accurate intonation is key in the transfer of information, the successful portrayal of words and their associated content. On the other hand, that pronunciation extends beyond the words into emotive, connective power.
An impassioned speech or a beautiful song serves as a tool of connection, emotionally asking us to experience sound in a wholly different manner than something that is simply recited aloud. It has a force to it that is difficult to put into words, but which many of us have likely experienced, establishing a connection between performer and audience, or a communal group of singers. This connection has been studied extensively on both socially experiential levels (see Victor Turner’s concept of communitas) and biological manners (note an article relating to the synchronization of heartbeat amongst choral groups.) In my experience, this communion of feeling and power can be experienced between two or more people, but also between us and the divine. I have lost myself as I sang for Netjer before my shrine, connecting to them in a way no words could describe as I sang, enunciated sacred texts and personal prayer in the profound way that melody necessitates.
When I pronounce my lyrics well, in such a manner that I am able to convey both textual and emotional meaning successfully, I feel incredibly powerful through my singing. Yet over-pronunciation during vocal lessons can result in a serious issue with the success of my performance: cutting off my breath. An over-emphasized consonant closes my throat, keeps my mouth shut for too long. The constant flow of sound comes to a halt as I physically lose the vibrations which previously rode along the air. Falling, the resonance shifts down into my throat where things strain, crack and come to a painful halt. Supported breath, an uninterrupted stream of air maintained through the strength of the diaphragm and stomach, is the vital force behind singing. Without that support there will be little reason to worry about the details of the mouth’s position and the knowledge of pronunciation, as the sound will never come to be. Both are equally necessary in one’s efforts to successfully, and powerfully, sing.
As I wrote about in my prior post about music and heka, I noted that the latter has been described as a “pneumatic exhalation,” an “occult force that infuses the world of things” (Te Velde 1970, 170). This invisible power, controlled through the breath, and indeed existing as breath itself, was also given a physical, internal aspect. In multiple texts, heka was described as a bodily aspect which could be swallowed or eaten, and thus resided in the abdomen. “When [heka] was transmitted, it was transmitted, as the nature of the information passed on required, from the entrails of the one who possessed it to those of the one receiving it. Consequently, the malignant forces ranged against the gods preferred to attack their hearts and viscera in order to gain complete mastery over the powers their victims possessed. To penetrate … the belly of a god was an easy way to establish oneself in the most intimate part of his being and acquire a position of domination there” (Meeks 1996, 96).
If “dominating the belly,” controlling the stomach and the breath the stomach powered, was viewed such a significant way of controlling one’s magical force, so too is control over the stomach a necessary means of controlling vocal power. Air creates the vibrations between the vocal cords, within the mouth, and one’s subsequent control over the air, moving it forward firmly, smoothly, but without pressing too hard, allows for a ringing tone. An unsupported breath becomes a dull, lifeless sound that does not carry. Breathing from the gut and using the stomach to hold that air? The resultant sound rings throughout a room, layered with overtones that the human ear will not perceive as pitch, but which change the timbre of the voice to something undeniably rich, vibrant, and resonant.
It can be challenging to balance the many critiques of my vocal instructor, shifting back and forth in my mind between the exacting shapes of my lips and tongue while simultaneously trying to breathe appropriately and keep the production of my sound above that ongoing current of air. I have found over time that I am often far more successful in practicing one component at a time, then bringing them together in preparation, and finally just “letting go” and completing trusting the intent behind what, and how, I am going to sing. If I am confident, the many little details of my lessons will come together, my voice is powerful, supported, and accurate in pronunciation and pitch. If I hesitate, something falls awry as my micromanaging one detail leads me to neglect another.
So too does this confidence become vitally necessary when I step from the lesson into performance. I must be self assured before my audience: a nervous performer is recognized as such from the instant they step on stage, their posture and expression give them away and are subsequently contagious. The audience expects those nerves to present issues for the musician, becomes nervous themselves. A confident performer puts an audience at ease, and indeed shares that confidence with them. They are not distracted from anything but the musical utterance, and so that opportunity to communicate, the chance to share the power of song, is not obscured by the obstacle of concern.
Writing of one particular magical utterance, Robert Ritner notes that, in one particular spell, “…the magician himself acts as the ‘fighter’ and claims to be able to turn the enemy’s head and feet back to front and make all its limbs weak. Concentration of the will must have been an important part of making such assertions. The magician’s confidence would then be passed on to the client” (1993, 72). The magician and the musician must concentrate on their will, their intent, and then fully trust in their intentions, if they are to successfully connect with their client or listener.
Performing Musical and Magical Utterance
Combining pronunciation, breath, and intent requires a careful balance between a deeply embodied, physical awareness and a highly mental and emotional action. I cannot sing if I am physically ill, if my vocal cords are injured, if my attempts to breathe result in a coughing spasm rather than firm, bodily control from my gut. I cannot sing if I am mentally ill, if my mind cannot focus on memory, if my self-confidence has been beleaguered to the point that I cannot trust in my own ability to do what I intend with my music.
Yet singing can become heka unto itself in those moments of illness: I have sung long enough at this point to gain control over my breath when I am sick, having stopped asthmatic spasms in their tracks with a breathing exercise from a vocal lesson. So too have I fought depression off with song: standing erect for an hour, forcing my body upright so as to properly create a strong, powerful, sound, I have turned my mood around for the better. Mind follows body, body follows mind, and in singing, with its natural balance between the two, I can help myself attain better health. It is physiological and psychological. It feels like magic, and in truth: it is.
Robert Ritner writes of Aset (in this case, using the Greek form of Her name: Isis) and what makes Her so powerful, what gives Her such control over the magic that She is known for. He quotes the Metternich Stela where Aset speaks, saying:
I am Isis the goddess, the possessor of magic, who performs magic, effective of speech, excellent of words. (34)
Ritner then notes that, “The preceding statement of Isis is also of value for its clear declaration of the tripartite nature of magic, being viewed as an inherent quality or property to be “possessed,” an activity or rite to be “performed,” and as words or spells to be “spoken” (35).
Aset’s magic, Her heka, is possessed within Her body. She performs it aloud, breathing and then chanting, or perhaps even singing, words of power. She pronounces, with excellence in confidence and command, the significance of those words. She is the master of magical utterance, and perhaps, in Her own way, a prima donna of musical utterance as well.
Dua Aset in Her year! Great Magician, I greet you, and am glad to find a similarity between us. May it lead to greater understanding.
Dua Set for leading me to this realization. Thank you for helping me to better know your sister and myself.
Meeks, Dmitiri and Christine Favard-Meeks. 1996. Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Pinch, Geraldine. 1994. Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.
Ritner, Robert. 1993. The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Te Velde, Herman. “The God Heka in Egyptian Theology.” Jaarbericht van het Voorsaiatisch-Egyptish Genootshap. Ex Oriente Lux 21.