How Singers Get in Their Own Way


In my early days in college, I began to notice how singers managed to get in their own way and hinder their growth and development, eventually ending the possibility of a performance career for them.  Some of them simply gave up singing, because it conflicted with a deeply-held belief, need or dependence.  I have continued to observe people being stopped by these barriers through grad school, workshops, friends and acquaintances, in myself and my voice students.  The problem is that classical singing requires tremendous personal flexibility, the ability to adapt and change and also a great deal of sacrifice.  We have to be willing to mold ourselves into the best singers in every way.  When we start out, we are not aware of that fact and think that we can simply be ourselves and sing.  It is absolutely true that we need to maintain our own sense of self, individuality, and expression, but there are certain forms and conventions required by the necessary physical discipline, the vocal training process, rehearsal and performance situations, etc. that we need to learn and abide by for the benefit of our own voices.  I will discuss some of these topics below and other topics in subsequent blogs.

Physical Discipline

Being a serious classical singer is like being an athlete.  You have to be cognizant of what you do with your body, since it is your instrument.  If you treat it badly, your voice will suffer from it eventually.  Yes, there have been exceptions to the rule, like the fabulous Fritz Wunderlich, who was an alcoholic and still sang gorgeously after drinking binges.  But most of us can’t do that.

I have known singers who were unwilling to give up certain habits that got in the way of possible careers.  Specifically, I remember two men in college who drank a great deal.  They didn’t see anything wrong with it, though they both seemed to onlookers to be out of control of the situation.  One of them dropped out of college, aided by the fatigue of dealing with an abusive, ineffective voice teacher.  The other hung in there, but did not understand what good vocal technique was and ended up in the Army choir, where a perfect technique isn’t necessary.  Alcohol is very bad for the body and particularly for the voice.  Serious singers should only imbibe it in moderation when they don’t have a performance coming up the next day or two, so there is time to rehydrate.  Drugs are, of course, terrible for the body and aren’t for serious singers.

Willingness to learn and conform to a certain type of fashion choice on stage is another hurdle for some singers.  I remember a wonderful young soprano in college.  I always enjoyed hearing her sing, even though she had some technical issues, including a very fast vibrato.  But she loved wearing funky, metal-studded clothes and didn’t really change her look when performing, except at concerts and recitals.  Clearly, her fashion choice would not have been looked upon well in any audition situation and didn’t represent who she was as a performer.  She looked like a member of a rock band, not a classical singer.  Classical singers should dress more conservatively, so that they as performers are seen and their clothes just form a backdrop.  She also ended up dropping out, unable to conform to the expected standards, which was a real shame.

Singers don’t need to be bodybuilders, but should do moderate exercise like walking on a regular basis.  Singing requires energy from the body and exercise reinforces the type of body engagement needed for singing.  Unwillingness to do some type of aerobic exercise that will activate the body, be it yoga, tai chi, energetic housework, rowing,swimming, kick boxing, dancing, etc., will hinder your ability to be in touch with your body and detrimentally effect technical vocal development.

Vocal Training

It is absolutely crucial that singers study voice consistently until they are at an advanced level technically and understand exactly how to maintain their own techniques.  This is an expensive process, as we all know.  But it is virtually impossible for singers to monitor themselves and make appropriate technical changes, so external ears and sage guidance are necessary.  This is one of the instances of great sacrifice.  For singers who want professional careers, money needs to be allocated to lessons three to four times per month, even if other expenses have to go by the wayside.  It is something that I myself did, along with friends and colleagues.  We had no vacations, bought very few clothes and books, made meals at home, but we took weekly lessons.  Studying technique has to be a priority.  If it isn’t, it will almost assuredly hold you back.  A young mezzo came to me several months ago for one lesson to prepare for an audition.  When I did a few vocalises with her and she was singing more healthily, I could hear that she was really a soprano and had been manufacturing color and weight to pass as a mezzo.  She had not been studying with anyone for financial reasons.  I hope her audition went well, but it’s difficult to see how it would, as she was singing arias of the wrong fach and manipulating her voice.  She needs regular lessons to develop her natural, beautiful soprano instrument.

In the same vein, the singer needs to have the ability to adapt to changes in his/her voice and take in the guidance an informed teacher with a good pair of ears can provide.  I can’t overstate the importance of this!  The whole process of training the voice means that there will be changes that the singer needs to accept.  Your voice will start sounding different inside of your head and feeling different.  Your vocal fach can even change, as in the example above.  Some people can find this very unsettling, almost threatening to their sense of their voice and themselves.  The emotions are very closely tied with the voice, so change can bring up strong emotional reactions.  I have had singers leave my studio when they started singing better.  They couldn’t stand the change.  Clearly, this lack of ability to accept positive technical changes in their voices will hold them back from successful performance careers.  When you are singing well, you can’t really hear yourself, but the audience can.  As a dramatic soprano, I don’t hear the color and weight of my voice.  Inside my head, I sound like a lyric soprano.  But the audience can hear the weight, color and freedom in my voice.  Conversely, if you hear yourself very well, the same sound isn’t travelling out to the audience, but is muffled and held.  If you are addicted to hearing a beautiful, colorful sound inside your head, you won’t have a successful performance career.  Many talented singers have fallen into that trap.

It is fundamental that singers practice consistently and intelligently on their own.  The goal is to recreate the changes experienced in the voice lesson by using the vocalises and instructions given by the teacher.  If you are unable to practice consistently, you either have emotional blockages from old beliefs that are holding you back or you simply aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become a professional singer.  If you can make changes in the voice studio, but have difficulty making them in the practice room, you need to learn how to learn.  See my recent blog on that process here.  A friend of mine suffered from a lack of understanding how to work on his own voice.  Blessed with a fabulous instrument with a unique color, he was unable to maintain technical changes on his own, so his voice reverted back to his old ways after each voice lesson.  Gradually over time, the new habits began to predominate, but the process took much longer than it should have, simply because he didn’t know how to teach himself to reinforce new, good habits in the practice room.  It was something he had never been taught to do, which is a true shame.  Every singer needs to become an expert on his/her own voice!  Otherwise, it will be very difficult to attain and maintain a professional career.

If you research, you will find that most of the greatest singers led disciplined lives to preserve a healthy, beautiful voice.  Everyone is different, so learning what is good for your body is crucial.  Below are some things to consider.

Food and Water

Some people need more water than others to stay hydrated and you can’t always rely on thirst as a warning signal.  Make sure you are drinking enough water.  The vocal cords constantly have air blowing by them with every inhalation and exhalation, so they are the first things to get dehydrated.  Remember, singers always carry water bottles around with them for a reason!

How much should you eat before a performance?  Some people can’t sing well on an empty stomach.  They suffer a loss of energy.  Other people can’t breathe into the lower lobes of the lung with a full stomach, because it feels uncomfortable.  Experiment and see what works for you.

What you should eat before a performance is up to individual preference, but you need to experiment and see how you react to foods.  If you are allergic to dairy, make sure you have something available to eat besides pizza.  If you eat salad and are distracted by hunger one hour later, know that you should eat something more substantial.  If green peppers make you belch, you know to avoid those.  Once you find the foods that help versus hinder your performances, stick with those.  One famous soprano used to eat hot dogs before her performances, while many other singers didn’t eat dinner until after the performance was over.  I have known singers who were unable to find the right balance of foods and/or refused to give up a food they loved that they were allergic to and therefore gave up trying for a performance career.

Finding ways to stay healthy

It is every singer’s responsibility to do what it takes to stay healthy and singing.  This isn’t always possible, but it is much better to make the effort instead of canceling gigs left and right.  Getting enough sleep is an important part of the equation.  Staying up late partying isn’t good for your body or your voice.  Singers more interested in having fun than taking care of themselves won’t last long in professional situations.  See health professionals when necessary and try experimenting with alternative medicine.  There are other options besides drugs, like herbs, naturopathy, homeopathy, vitamins, etc.  I personally love acupuncture and TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).  TCM treatments have helped me a great deal in the past with bad colds and bronchitis.  TCM can also be very helpful for allergies.  The inability to control bad allergies and other health issues has certainly hindered the career aspirations of many a talented singer.

The Speaking Voice

Learning how to use your voice healthily while speaking is crucial for singers.  Shouting, speaking over loud background noises, not supporting the speaking voice and bad speaking habits can all affect the singing voice drastically.  Usually, as the singing voice gets more technically advanced, the speaking voice also develops healthier habits, but this is not always the case.  Sometimes special attention needs to be paid to develop healthy speaking habit.  Since your vocal cords need to be healthy and rested to sing your best, make sure to note how you use your speaking voice and make changes where necessary.  Birgit Nilsson, a dramatic soprano, used to speak in a high-pitched, smallish, well-placed voice.  She said it helped her singing voice.  I don’t advocate it for everyone, but it certainly worked for her.  Experiment intelligently and find out what works for you.

The Stage

Stage deportment can be very uncomfortable for some people to learn and execute, especially men.   For those who are not naturally graceful, being cognizant of exactly how you walk and every gesture you make is painful and seemingly impossible to change.  These rules of walking gracefully with your head up, smiling at the audience, standing still with hands by your side when singing, bowing and gesturing graciously to the accompanist, etc., all have to be practiced and become second nature or your discomfort is transmitted to the audience.  The accepted forms of interpreting art song and opera in concert can feel constraining to some people, along with the different opinions that teachers, adjudicators and audience members have.

Basically in interpretation, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t!  I remember getting feedback from a faculty member on an undergrad recital that I had made every song in a song cycle different, like its own little world.  That was precisely my goal, so I felt I had succeeded.  However, he saw that as a negative.  He wanted continuity of interpretation and mood.  But he had sung “Winterreise” in concert previously with basically no overt interpretation at all and no differentiation between the various songs.  That was what he liked and I was penalized for having a different opinion on interpretation.  It can be very frustrating for singers to continually hear dissenting opinions and some people just give up.  In the end, you won’t be able to please everyone, so find your style and do it with all the conviction you can muster.  That conviction and intention will transmit to the audience and help make your choice a success.

Stage deportment and acting in staged operatic performances also has strict requirements.  Opera isn’t completely stylized, but it also is in a way.  Singers always need to carry themselves well (unless required otherwise by a character), move gracefully on stage and be aware of their bodies at all times.  Individual gestures have to be controlled and be often slower than in real life.  Mastering stagecraft has its own set of challenges.  All of this can be a steep learning curve for some people and the inability to catch on and become comfortable with stage deportment has frustrated some singers and made them give up.

I remember visiting the Metropolitan Opera when I was young and hearing a performance of Il Tabarro.  The tenor had a wonderful voice and gave a great performance vocally, but barely moved on stage, except in jerky, robotic movements.  Several days later, I went on a backstage tour and saw acting coaches working with this tenor.  He was still moving like a robot, despite their best efforts.  He never reached stardom, though his voice would have merited it.  I’m sure his lack of anything approaching decent movement on stage held him back.

Stage fright

Stage fright is a serious issue for many singers.  It affects the quality of sound and the ability of the singer to enjoy the performance experience.  It is helpful to remember that even some of the great singers have suffered from stage fright and still been able to sing wonderfully and build stellar careers.  Franco Corelli, tenor extraordinaire, was known for having terrible stage fright, but came out and wowed audiences consistently.  Many singers have quit performing because of the pressure and bad stage fright.  Since this is such a crucial topic for so many singers, I will address it in detail in a later article.

What singers think and believe about themselves plays a major role in whether they succeed or not.  Some singers who go through bad experiences simply give up, while others keep on working and trying.  There are many different layers of belief that we all have and we need to acknowledge them.  They can be extremely painful to address, but awareness is the first step toward healing.  In all of my years in music, I have yet to meet one singer who never had to deal with at least a couple of these issues.

Childhood issues

Many singers did not have blissfully happy childhoods.  Singing is a mode of self-expression available to children and teenagers when other modes aren’t available or safe.  So, a lot of people with unresolved emotional issues are drawn to singing.  Music is incredibly soothing and balancing, making it helpful in healing the emotions, but music is not enough.  I would encourage singers, who are often needy and rarely shy about talking about their livesanyway, to find a likable therapist while still in school and start exploring their belief systems and working on any unresolved issues.  Talking things out and getting rid of unnecessary baggage will be a tremendous asset, because you will have fewer distractions later on and can deal more healthily and appropriately with the present.  Continue with therapy until you no longer feel the need.  With insurance the co-pay is usually reasonable and it is a great investment for your mental health and your future career.  There are also Bach Flower Remedies, an alternative medicine system that can help release emotional blocks.  I will write in detail about these at a future date.

Getting Outside Feedback

Singers can’t hear their own voices and it makes them neurotic – period.  It is frustrating in the extreme that we are not able to monitor ourselves like other musicians can.  But that is the way it is and we have to accept it.  As a consequence, it is very difficult for us to develop a good sense of exactly how accomplished we are technically and what we need to work on and develop more.  This is a huge pitfall that has ruined the chances of many a talented young singer.  Singers feel they are ready for professional work, when in reality they should be working on technique in the studio.  Also, some careful singers remain in the studio far longer than necessary, when they need to be out auditioning.

If we can’t hear ourselves, how are we supposed to assess our level?  We need reliable ears to hear us and give us helpful, constructive feedback.  Teachers aren’t enough.  We need coaches and colleagues with highly-trained ears in our lives, we need to sing for them regularly and we need to train our ears ourselves.  After all, if we don’t understand the qualities of the best classical singers, how can focus our goals or expect others to understand?  We need to take that responsibility upon ourselves.  Once we know what makes singers “great”, it is easy to check someone else’s ears by asking just a few questions.  “Who are your favorite singers?  Why?”  You might be surprised at the answers!  Identify the people who like the great singers for the right reasons and ask for their feedback on your voice.  But always remember that it should be constructive!  With the right instruction, it is possible to train good, healthy qualities into most voices, but non-voice teachers might not know that.  Take everything with a grain of salt.

Developing good relationships with colleagues who have wonderful ears and a similar technical approach is a tremendous help.  Firstly, you don’t have to pay them to listen to you, a big bonus.  Secondly, they understand the challenges of training and together you can develop compassion for the other person’s process.  But it is a difficult tightrope to walk.  Colleagues don’t like to give negative feedback and singers don’t like receiving it.  Being dishonest can be safer.  However, there are constructive ways to be found.  For advanced singers, strengths can be mentioned first and areas of improvement later.  It will be important for you to identify what technical work needs to be done to accomplish the change.  If the colleague works the same way technically, s/he might say, “I thought your breath locked up on the run to the high note and your jaw looked tight.  Maybe you need a little more flexibility in your support.”  Then you have something to experiment with on your own.

Once you feel you have a lot of technical achievement, use the great singers as a benchmark and get help from your teacher, coach and colleague to see if you are starting to measure up.  Your voice might not be as large or mature, but the same wonderful qualities that are required for classical singing need to be present.  (For more information on those qualities, see my previous blog posts starting with “What are the qualities of a professional singing voice?” all the way through “Interpretation in the Professional Singing Voice”.)  You want to have most of those qualities in your voice for auditioning in the real world.

Consistently negative feedback from one source needs to be viewed as a warning sign.  There are teachers and coaches who don’t have the best interests of singers at heart and misuse their power, damaging the fragile egos of singer often for their lifetimes.  There is always another teacher or coach for you out there – you just have to find that right person.  Persevere through the bad teachers and coaches and see their negativity for what it is.  It isn’t about the singer, but a reflection of how the teachers and coaches feel about themselves.  Pity them and move on as unscathed as possible.  If you do develop emotional issues from an abusive teacher or coach, go to therapy and do your best to work it out.  I am in no way condoning this behavior.  I suffered from abusive teachers myself.  Negativity has no place in the teaching studio.  But it is a reality and singers need to understand that they are not to blame in the situation – the teacher is.

Self-confidence – Under-confidence vs. Over-confidence

Given that singers are neurotic by nature and it can be challenging to get appropriate feedback, it is easy to see why it is difficult to strike a balance in the right amount of self-confidence.  Many singers have a marked lack of self-confidence in their native talent and in the efficacy of their vocal techniques, usually related to childhood issues or bad voice teaching experiences in the past, and often try to cover that up with bravado and boasting.  This lack of self-confidence hinders singers from taking risks and being heard, so as to gain performance opportunities, and eventually prevents them from professional success.  When they do perform, it make the process unnecessarily painful and usually just reinforces their feelings of inferiority.  Other singers have an over-arching belief that they are among the talented elite, naturally have a wonderful voice and technique and don’t really need to work as hard as other singers.  They ignore bad feedback and reviews, instead of trying to understand why they are getting bad reviews and fixing the problems.  A need for additional vocal technical work is almost always the solution, but some singers refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong.  Both of these extremes are more examples of singers getting in their own way.

Fixing the self-confidence issue is difficult, because it is about our personal belief system.  Therapy helps.  Getting constructive, honest feedback helps.  Developing a solid, reliable, wonderful vocal technique helps.  But it really comes down to what beliefs we have learned and the constant, inner monologue of self-talk that we bombard ourselves with on a daily basis.  If you don’t believe you can be a successful performer, you will end up holding yourself back, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Snide comments, judgments, replaying negative incidents from the past, etc. are not conducive to building a balanced sense of self-confidence.  These old beliefs and habits of thinking are probably the biggest manner in which singers get in their own way.  They never figure out that their thinking is really the impediment.  Singers need to be willing to take an honest look at their most deeply-held beliefs and what they are saying to themselves throughout the day – no small order.  Because this is such an important issue that many people are no consciously aware of, I will write more in detail later about negative habits of mind and how to change them.


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