A Bald (Mezzo) Soprano

BaldIt all started with an appliance — an electric hair buzzer introduced into the household by someone wishing to economize on trips to the barber. Seeing it, I was struck by an old curiosity: what would it be like to shave my head? Some watts later, the deed was done, and if you’ve wondered why I utterly fell off the blogging wagon, it’s because I’ve been busy… being bald.

I don’t remember my bald baby days, or the grown-ups who gleefully snuffled my wee head. When I embarked on my bald adventures, I had no memory of the sensation of direct touch on the skin of my scalp — that touch was always mediated by my hair.

And wow, it’s different! Becoming suddenly bald was a bit like being given a new body part, and I wanted to take it everywhere (not that I really had any choice in the matter). I loved experiencing sensations like sun on my skin, rain, the temperature contrast between my hand and my head, the breeze, the breeze on my sweating head, the feeling of the pillowcase at night, or of my scalp moving under my hat when I’d wiggle my eyebrows.

There are downsides, of course. In the summer, the bald head is an irresistible canvas for the mosquito. Now that it’s cold, let me just say that it’s a good thing I’ve been knitting hats all these years.

I think that artistic growth (whether technical or expressive) comes when we are both ready and able to experience something in a novel way, with “happy new ears,” as John Cage would say. There is so much pleasure, discovery, and growth to be had in such novelty; you don’t even have to shave your head or grow a new limb to have the experience (but aren’t you just a little bit curious?). The novelty of my sudden baldness was not unlike the experiences I’ve had studying movement and anatomy; thinking, for instance, about my hip joint in a new way, or being able to visualize the workings of my shoulder, my jaw, the joint between the top of my spine and my skull.

For musicians, including singers, technical challenges are often movement challenges. The more advanced the skill level, the more likely you are to run into a limit caused by an excess of tension somewhere, a snag in the fabric of your structure that’s causing something to hang up. Sometimes, we even protect these snags; we get attached to them because we’ve worked hard to create them, and untangling them can seem like a threat to our hard-won expertise. If only shaving one’s head would solve these problems!

Happily, we all have our imaginations to hand, and can always put them to work helping us transform the way we occupy our own bodies (to paraphrase John Cage: She has an imagination; let her use it)1. In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about some of the ways I’ve used imagery to work with my own voice. I hope you’ll join me.

In the meantime, Happy New Ears!

  1. In Cage’s words: “What is the crux of the matter as far as a listener is concerned? It is this: he has ears; let him use them.” —John Cage (1963). A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings, p. 30.