There are a number of wonderful resolutions that singers can choose to pledge for 2014, which are far too numerous to list here. But what about pledging to watch any self-defeating thoughts that arise around singing and change them to something more constructive and helpful to you?
Singers are always, and I mean always, their own worse critics. The number of students who walk into my studio, desperate for help but with a laundry list of their known vocal issues, has astonished me. Before they even have a chance to sing one single note, they tell me everything that is wrong with their voice according to other teachers, their family, their friends and their own assessment. Some of them are even reluctant to sing a couple of phrases of a simple song as an example, so I can get an idea of where they are technically and start them off with an appropriate exercise. Don’t singers come to voice lessons to sing, work on singing and learn to sing better? Are vocaleses going to transform a voice so radically that it goes from being terrible to acceptable instantaneously? What would make someone so reluctant to do what they are paying a teacher to help them with? The answers, my friends, to the last question are fear of being judged by others and overly-harsh self-judgment.
A good, constructive voice teacher is not sitting in judgment of any singer and his or her potential. The teacher merely wants to figure out how to help the student from the place s/he is at the moment. Our day and age is such that various levels of innate vocal “talent” have platforms available for them to perform. No longer can only the most talented singers expect to get a shot. My experience with singers is that they always have many more positive aspects about their voice going for them than they are aware of. But fear of being judged and self-judgment are barriers that I have seen time and time again in singers, including many of the most talented ones and they are the ones that stop singers not only from reaching their potential, but from being willing to experiment and try to improve.
Singers don’t start out with this type of attitude – it is learned. I have worked with a few wonderful child singers, who are open, confident and willing to learn, take some risks in singing and try new things. They don’t judge their own voices harshly. By the time the teenage years are reached, singers are more guarded and judgmental about their own voices and abilities. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t improve with adulthood, because singers have bad experiences with inept voice teachers who often blame their inability to help the student on the student’s voice and technical issues. Not only is this wrong, but it is cruel and unfair. Doctors don’t blame patients and refuse medical treatment based on a patient’s state of health and neither should a voice teacher. But so many singers believe that the problem stems from their own lack of talent or complex technical issues and start blaming themselves.
In 2013 I had two striking examples of singers with over-the-top self-judgment issues. The first was a young teenage woman, a mezzo. She wanted to work on technique to improve her vocal health, but was extremely uncomfortable singing in front of people and was barely able to sing in her lesson at all. Every vocalese, suggestion or idea I proffered was met with, “I can’t do that” and an explanation as to why she couldn’t. After one lesson of this, I suggested she change her, “I can’t” automatic response to “I can” and see what would happen. Her eyes got large in surprise at this radical concept, but she made an effort and found out – surprise, surprise! – that she was able to do the things she previously thought she couldn’t. Her self-judgment issues at a young age were quite extreme, but illustrate the type of negativity most singers learn over time and then live with on a daily basis, putting up additional roadblocks for everything involving singing.
The second example was that of a mature dramatic baritone with a phenomenal instrument, but no real idea of the nature of his talent or the fact that he was not far from his goal of a healthy, beautiful voice. Like so many students, he had tried a few voice teachers, but had only found limited help from them, incorrect fach labeling and no assistant at all with his fatigue issues. In fact, he had quite a decent, natural technique with just a few issues and in only one lesson was able to experience significantly more ease and freedom when singing, as well as having his tone improve in resonance, warmth and size. Unfortunately, because of his previous experiences, he believed it was his own fault he had technical problems and started every voice lesson by repeating the same litany of problems and how much he wanted to solve them. He had great difficulty trusting the process during the voice lesson, got upset when he didn’t do a vocalese exactly right (even though I assured him they were difficult at the beginning for everyone) and was defensive and distrustful. Because I recognized all of these signs as a committed singer who had had his ego badly bruised, there was no need for me to take his behavior personally. I continued on calmly teaching him healthy vocal coordination and experience. After a few lessons in a positive, supportive environment, he learned to relax and trust that he was finally improving in exactly the ways he had always wanted.
Being a singer is very, very challenging on a number of levels. It takes a special kind of courage to put yourself in front of an audience and perform with nothing to hide behind. It also takes a great deal of courage to take voice lessons, listen to guidance in the form of novel and sometime strange ideas, be willing to experiment and try new things, have those new things feel uncomfortable initially and still stick with them anyway. All of these things involve risk, which can make singers feel quite vulnerable. Singers need and deserve a safe, comfortable, non-judgmental environment in which to relax and learn. They also need to make sure that they shed any negative, self-defeating attitudes that can be unconsciously absorbed along the way.
As you embark on your New Year’s Resolutions for 2014, consider adding a healthy resolution of observing your own attitudes about your voice and change the negative ones to positive ones. Obsessing over your perceived technical issues can be changed into appreciation of your innate talent, passion for singing and past technical achievements. Unhelpful perfectionism can be changed into an understanding and acceptance of the gradual, linear progression of vocal technical development. And very importantly, “I can’t” in regards to your singing can be changed into “I can”.
For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com