Interview with Howard Milner

June 10, 2007


Introduction: this book is about how people remain current, fresh, alive in their professional knowledge. It has come out of my early work on the subject and the fact that there is no literature specific to this. The interviews are to provide stories and snippets to enliven the book allowing readers to quickly see examples and to relate better to the material.


HM: Of how other people work or what their stories are, and how I in my particular specialty go about things, and what works and what doesn’t.


MB: How you manage to keep yourself fresh and current in what you do. Some people use the word “fresh” some people use the word “current.” You tell me the word you’d use.


HM: “Alive.”


MB: I love it! Then we’ll use the word “alive.” So let’s begin then, if you could give me a little background about your area of work so that I have a context from which to talk.


HM: What do I do…I’m a professional singer interested in the excellence required to be a part of the professional world, interested in what is the magic that makes music special and why do people want it? I believe that the profession itself is the greatest proving ground. It’s brutal - it’s not very nice. It brings the worst out of people but it also brings the best out of people, on the basis, where there is gold there is likely to be dross.  


Every individual is unique, and in my world, everyone has their own sound. Diversity is the key. And if you can tap into what makes them unique, and find their own sound, then they will begin to do good work. The going public, the point when you offer it to others is the painful point where it would in your words go from vision to reality.


Music is fundamentally about social cohesion; it’s about dreaming; it’s also about becoming; it’s about change; it’s about movement. So on the basis that evolution is going on all the time, then the sources of aliveness are reached simply by listening, by listening to the imagination, by listening to what people say, by listening to the music. The tunes remain the same but every generation expresses them differently. The difference is the aliveness.


Tradition by nature presupposes the reality that is endured, so on that basis, rediscovering the old chestnuts, rediscovering the truths that have lasted for many generations and centuries actually is often the key to identity. If something at most has been able to stand the tests of time. We live in a world that seems to be getting faster and faster, and the development of the human voice is a very slow process that involves a lot of pain and struggle. We live in a quick fix age, and I don’t believe in it. The sort of time scales I work on are decided by each person’s development. Some people would have 3 lessons in a week and they might move on quite fast. The minimum I would teach would be once every other week. They would go much slower. Probably two a week is ideal, you work on the unconscious, and you work on the conscious. To sing, it’s about the awakening of the conscious mind to the unconscious process. Music itself lives beyond the self in the unconscious. The whole point is to create a highway to let it out.


MB: Why is staying alive important to you?


HM: Well the other alternative is being dead!


MB: You’ve defined a rather broad spectrum of activities. Are there particular areas where you concentrate your efforts to keep your skills very honed, to enhance them perhaps, with knowledge and understanding?


HM: It doesn’t really work like that in music. The principles become simpler, but the understanding of what the words mean deepens. So the story remains the same but what it means, changes. It’s the same ingredients, but it becomes a different dish.  Singing is quite an extraordinary thing. Along with dance and various sexual practices it formed the ritual at the central of the statement of identity of primitive tribes of the jungle. Anthropologists tell us that the things which enable transcendence and transformation are the things which lead us towards meaning. Singing still exists because it fulfills that function, and very well. It is constantly changing and so as your performing grows and changes, you simply understand what the great singers of days gone by mean when they talk, interview, write books, give their recordings. They are great teachers of yesteryear. I was very lucky to have one teacher who was really quite exceptional astoundingly difficult man, but exceptional, a Russian living in NY of limited English, an astonishing presence, who refused to describe much, but would simply give you an event that you would have to try to feel, latch on to, and later label for yourself. So that what you did was that you created your own story and that’s what I aim to do for all of my students. I give them an event, something that hopefully will change their lives, and enable them to sing, which will make them happy and then they can tell themselves their own story. Some people find this easier than others. It’s predicated on the basis of feeling that you’re actually able to feel, and since I believe that is the sine qua non of being human – feeling and imagination, then unless you can do that, you are not actually alive. You’re merely obeying. Obedience is not part of being alive. An obedient child is not a happy child. An exploring difficult child is probably one who is trying to work out what the hell they’re doing here. These won’t be the replies issued by a social worker. These are replies spoken by someone who is fundamentally creative and riding a wave of creative process which is what a concert is.


MB: I’d like to hear a little bit about how you help yourself stay alive and current.

HM: Through my work. Simple as that, really.

MB: Has it changed over the years?


HM: No the principles haven’t changed but my understanding in what they mean has and how I teach them has changed, they change every week. So I’m on an enormous journey. I see myself as a sort of backpacker heading up this rather large mountain called life. And I’ve chosen a route to mark singing. And various people, very kindly, have seemed to like the path that I’m making as I go and are asking to come on it with me, and those are my students.


MB: I’d like for you to think about a time when you yourself were learning extremely well, where you just knew you were picking up new understandings. Tell me a story about this time.


HM: Well the only time I ever felt myself really learning…for me I find learning enormously difficult. For me, it’s like mining coal out of granite…that’s pretty tough! Coal doesn’t live in granite. That’s what it feels like for me to learn, extremely hard. For me the process of learning is pretty brutal. Because it involves acknowledging how wrong you’ve got stuff, and the better you get, the ‘wronger’ it gets. If I listen back to my recordings and look at some of the stuff I’ve done in years gone by, other people seem to like it because they buy it. I can’t imagine why – I hate it! Oh my God I wish I ‘d known what I know now. But I think in my 20s and 30s when I was out there on the road, 48 weeks a year, I was living very much by instinct, and I think that’s the best place to be. I think music is something that is only cluttered by education and part of my work I’ve christened ‘vocal detox’ – I want people to throw away everything they’ve learned and then just start again with listening to themselves and letting their own feelings of rightness and wrongness talk. So , a period of great learning for me – I suppose there were two, actually. My last year at the university was an astounding experience where I really cut myself off from everyday reality and inverted night and day where I would get up at 6 in the evening and work through the night and go to bed when everyone else was getting up on the basis that no one disturbed me so that I could really work hard. I read voraciously and produced some stuff, which I read the other day. And it was pretty good if I say myself, and I realized how actually the subsequent 30 odd years since my last year at uni, have been a working out of what I wrote. I had a fantastic tutor, he was a very wise guy. When he handed back my dissertation, said “Yeah, you’ll probably understand this in about thirty years time.” He was right. So that again is an early indication or my own connection into something which was unconscious which was just coming out through me, about getting out of the way. So learning is accepting, for me, is finding what in you is trying to tell its story and trying to sort that out from the rubbish. There’s a lot of solitude for me in my life, and necessarily so. As I get older, I get less tolerant and probably a lot happier. Learning I don’t find easy, but I work very hard, because that is what makes me stay alive.


I’m particularly interested in language. I’m trained as a linguist. Flobass (?) said something really interesting, “Language is but a cracked kettle upon which we beat out tunes to please the almighty.” In other words, it’s hopeless, and that’s how I feel about language. But it’s all that human beings have unless they spend time hugging which is pretty limited. Words are terribly, terribly important. And so I’m very, very interested in how we communicate. It seems a complete miracle that we do. Language is a big deal for me.


MB: Do colleagues play any role in this scenario?


HM: Yeah, they are the grit in the oyster. We argue, disagree, we talk to each other, we play off each other, and I enjoy that proving ground. My brother plays a very big part in my work. He’s a professor among languages at Manchester University, and he and I talk a lot. I’m very lucky because his specialty is 17th century Renaissance Italy, so he is able to read all of those ancient Italian musical texts for me.  He translates them which is great, because a lot of people don’t have access to that sort of thing. It’s real interesting what he comes up with. And I’m forever remembering what people say. I remember extraordinary, obscure things – like something in 1482 or whatever it was. I’ve always been like that.


MB: Do you teach at the university?


HM: Well, it’s a place called The Royal Academy.


MB: What role does observation play?


HM: Ahh, a major one. In work it’s about observing, hearing, experiencing what your students come up with, working out where they are and then moving them moving forward with their consent.


MB: If you were to use a metaphor to describe your learning, actually I think you’ve already given me one, “Mining coal from granite…” I’ve never heard that one.


HM: That’s me, and I hope I come up with lots you haven’t heard.


MB: Is innovation important to your work?


HM: Very important…what I’d like to leave behind as a legacy is a way of looking at voice which is really current, which can really help people now. And in so doing, help us understand the truths of yesteryear. So, I’m interested in bringing together the insights of science and the insights of ancient myth which I use a lot in my work. One definition of myth is “the facts of the mind and the fiction of matter.” And that’s how I like to look at life – the primacy of the imagination in the feeling world. One of my best friends is a professor of mathematics at the university, and he feels emotion at the resolution of a mathematical problem. That was very, very liberating for me.


MB: Can you tell me why that is liberating to you?

HM: Because I always thought that music was a bit separate. I always thought that feeling emotion was not part of everyday life. I thought that I lived in this strange world that is quite suspended, only to discover that actually it seemed to live at the root of all good work. And now I work with politicians, leaders in business, singers, actors…a range of people… and I am astonished to find an entrepreneur who came to me recently because he had to give some public speeches, and I thought, “This is exactly the way I run my business.” And he was in micro-chips or something. I was really interested in the idea that feelings, observing the feelings, and being able to feel them, tuning in of listening, But the crucial bit about being able to articulate what you hear are beginning to turn it from those feelings that are without words into that which can be delivered to the other. In the singer’s language, through sound, through text, and from speech, through words and intellectual ideas.


MB: Is there any practice you have that challenges yourself to continuously innovate, keep you in that innovative space?


HM: The challenged by the discipline of what you do. The search for excellence is a challenge to innovate. The disciplines I choose are as follows. I do tai chi, I think, I do extreme sports (mountain biking), and I try to bring together those three diverse, and incredibly similar, pursuits. And as I do that, I am shown and driven to new insights. Innovation is the ability to have insight and then deliver it. For me, we are always reinventing the wheel. Each generation manages half a millimeter forward. This is an interesting question. I had a a most shocking thing the other day in an educational institution. People now are dissecting frogs on virtual reality on computer, which is quite acceptable, because we don’t want to kill frongs. But I thought that really, really seriously misses the point. That’s like saying you can listen to a singer and be actually singing. You can’t. You have to do it to whatever level you aspire. You have to do it yourself, because only in doing it and getting it wrong do you learn. So innovation has to be mined out of the granite because otherwise it’s not proven and in the end in singing its proven by (bums on seats) people going to concerts and by belief and commitment on the part of the practitioners. Even if there are great visions, if only two people want to hear, then it dies away.


So we come back to listening. I guess I believe that the unconscious is a dynamic unfolding process that requires to be heard. Mike Long, you might not have heard of him…He wrote a book in 1972 called The Unnatural Scene, and he taught at the university which I attended. He said that Shakespeare articulated scenes and currents that were swilling around in Jacobian society and were previously remained inarticulate. It suddenly dawned on me that there’s so much that’s required to be said that remains hidden. I see my job as mining the coal from the granite, trying to get it said. And that’s innovation, the unconscious itself is evolving all the time. That’s what evolution is.


Theater is really an arena in which the new is made manifest. That’s the point of music; that’s what music is. I saw an astonishing piece about the matter of life and death. It is an incredible piece of physical theater. The language is sort of relevant but not that much, but what they were doing with their bodies, but the degree of expression was just tear-jerking and moving…ladders, ropes, and bicycles, and bizarre things on the stage…yet by the end, there was a coherence . I found it to be incredibly full.


MB: What role does ambiguity play, in this learning to be alive?


HM: [comment about 7 types of ambiguity??] Ambiguity allows the possibility of other. Everything is ambiguous on that basis, nothing is certain. If we’re reaching into the unknown, we’re sticking a ladle into the soup and bringing out stuff and seeing where it can go. Words…ambiguity really applies to language. There’s no ambiguity in experience. If you cut yourself, you bleed. In my world ambiguity relates to the struggle for language; a language which can label an event most accurately.


MB: When you are trying to do that, and let’s say you have this word here, and this word there, and they are both right at that moment, but they don’t fit together…how to do you play with that other?


HM: In singing and in voice if I have two images that would seem to be contradictory, but they’re both about the voice, then at some part, they are parts of the elephant. It’s just a question of fitting the bits of a jigsaw together. I think its important to see the opposition. Things that are opposite don’t necessarily contradict. I think one of the great challenges for anybody teaching voice is the realization that normal logic doesn’t really apply. Singing depends on the logic of conflict, and as we conflict so we pull things together. The power at the top of the wave comes from the bottom. The bottom pulls against the top and the more the pull, the taller the wave. Which is why theatrical and musical productions are so fraught. The skill of the theater director is to draw as much as they can from the actor without destroying that. So all the time you’re playing right at the frontier of what people can manage. My job as a teacher is to work out the times I push, the times I hold back. My teacher had a great phrase, “Your choice - you jump or I push.” And at crystal moments, he always used to do that which were always the signal for the most horrible events. I vowed I’d never do that, but I do sometimes. So if I thought it was in someone’s self-interest, I’d have no compunction about giving one hell of a beating.


MB: What barriers do you contend with as you attempt to remain fresh and current?


HM: Ladies, buying jam, shopping, dealing with the distractions of the boiler breaking down…those things…the everyday infrastructure of life I guess. Intellectually, daring to be open enough and humble enough to abandon yesterday’s hypothesis about which you were so excited and then realize it was a complete cul de sac, and have the courage to move somewhere the day before you argued completely argued against. That’s why I find public engagement very hard. Journalists say “Last time we interviewed you, you said…” To which my reply is, “So what?” And that makes them very cross! And I feel sorry for politicians fresh out of school at 22, and they say something and it’s held against them 30 years later. What a waste of time! I think that another barrier emotionally is that you can only go as far as you are. You cannot be what you’re not. A lot of people try, and I think it is one of the problems. People have images and they try to live up to the image, and there is nothing inside. It is what I call the “can of beans syndrome.” People have very pretty labels but I get pretty pissed off when I go to the supermarket and there are no beans in the can. I’m really interested in the beans, not the pretty label. But there is a barrier of who you are, how talented you are, what you can manage - is a very real barrier. And if you think of Kant. Kant postulated the dove that thought it could fly and complained to God because of the air it had to press against on the basis that if it didn’t have air to press against, then it could fly better. And the reply from the Almighty was, Dear Dove, the air is holding you up. The idea of structure and barrier doesn’t necessarily need to be limiting. So barrier can be seen as something that imposes, that confines, but it can also be something that enables flight. Hopefully I’m going to go on ranting and raving at the door of my cave until I die.


MB: What keeps you going?


HM: I feel like Elijah. The moment he stood at the door of his cave and shouted, “Pick on someone your own size!” I feel a lot of anger, but I’m beginning to forgive a lot of my teachers. Most of them had no idea of what I was talking about. I used to get very cross, even though they gave me astoundingly good marks, most of them gave up and told me I was unteachable. I didn’t want to be unteachable. I was very, very inquiring. I don’t take much notice of status. I’m the sort of guy that if you say, don’t turn right, I immediately turn right.  It means I make a lot of mistakes, so I would characterize my life as recovering from the mistakes I have made. And there are a lot of them. But actually, are they really mistakes. If you want to own an experience, then you’ve got to live it.


Injustice strikes me very hard. I really want to fight for the person who struggles. Although my friends would probably look at me and say “Yeah right.” All I ever wanted to be I think in some way was conventional, but most would laugh when I say that. So perhaps an urge to join.


So what keeps me going? Existential anger and a desire for connection.


My bind is with the way things are. I just try to figure out as much as I can to help other people in a way that I wish it had been said to me. I think music is a really releasing thing. There are people who are fantastically talented naturally, but don’t even touch that talent. It can become a burden for them as they achieve notoriety, fame, clebrity, recognition, money…but they never have any idea when they wake up the next day whether they’re still going to be there. I think I wasn’t prepared to settle for that.


A lot of people are victims of their talent. There is a wonderful journey to be made, and you’re really playing the big league if you take on this journey. And I lived a pretty wild life for 15 years of my professional existence. I got away with a lot because actually I think I was just good at stuff. But that wasn’t enough. When I hit 40, I suddenly had to work out what it was. And that was equally dramatic as well, because I was in rehearsal for something very big, and I just walked out. I walked all the way home, about 5 miles, and I packed a suitcase, got a cab to Heathrow…and I looked up on the flight board, booked a ticket to the first place that looked nice. And in the departure lounge, I rang my agent and said “You better get somebody else to do that. I’m going.” And he said “What do you mean, you’re going?” And I said, “And I don’t know when I’ll be back.” I came back 3 months later to find myself fired from almost every job I had and all sorts of lawsuits against me, and the beginning of a wonderful life that I now have, because I just didn’t see the point anymore. I didn’t like the people, I didn’t like what was going on. I love musicians, I love making the music. But the rest…


MB: If there were 3 wishes that you would tell a young professional in your field about remaining alive & current, what would they be?


HM: Dissatisfaction should be your main state of being. Know that people have got to want to work with you. Remain open. I suppose simply, never stop learning. It’s like the grit in the oyster.


MB: Is there anything else you’d like me to know? Or is there a question you’d like to be asked or to ask me?


HM: I’d just like to reiterate something I’ve already said, which is my belief that theatre and music is by its very nature one of the main ways that the new is made manifest in life.


MB: I find that really very encouraging, I do. It’s one of the least valued areas in western society.  


HM: In the world of emotion and feeling and insight and awareness, fundamentally it’s about love, and love is the biggest trickster on the planet. We live in a strange Hollywood age thinking that love is candy floss and cuddly pink toys and it comes attached with razor blades and shark teeth. It’s like the search for the holy grail and the meaning of the grail. The grail is the broken wooden cup on the floor, not the chalice with the diamonds. I tell my students, “Bacon & eggs, and eggs & bacon.”


MB: Thank you!


HM: My pleasure.



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