Sunday, December 08, 2013

One unkind word can put you off singing for ever – how to protect yourself

There have been a lot of UK television programmes recently which have involved solo singing auditions: The Voice, X Factor, The Choir. Comments about the standard of singing have sometimes been off-hand, sarcastic, and even cruel.

flamenco singer
photo by keith ellwood

A comment about your singing voice can be taken as a comment on who you are as a person. How can you avoid taking criticism of your singing voice too personally?

what you do versus who you are

If you are lacking skill in, say, juggling or football or cello playing, then you can always go off and practice some more. If someone tells you that you’re not up to scratch, then you probably won’t take it too personally, but realise that you just need to put more time and effort in.

If you’ve been trying for a long time, you may realise that you just haven’t got what it takes to reach the big time and just keep it up as a hobby. Not everyone can be a professional concert pianist or star athlete.

But when it comes to your singing voice there is not so much of a gap between the skill and the person you are. Your singing voice is a reflection of your inner being, a window onto your emotions and vulnerabilities. If someone criticises your singing voice, it can be as if they are criticising you as a person.

voice as instrument

Professional singers and teachers often talk of the voice as an ‘instrument’, but unlike a cello or piano, we can’t simply buy a better one, or put more expensive strings on, or get someone to tune it properly.

Our voice is part of us. We are born with it. Yes, we can train it to be more flexible or learn to use it more effortlessly, but essentially we are our voice.

In the TV programmes I mentioned, comments about people’s singing voices are made as if the voice can be criticised independently of the person who is singing. But you see the look on people’s faces as they are singled out in front of their peers, and you realise that it is far more personal than that.

your voice shows us who you really are

When I used to teach at drama school, I would often ask students to improvise with their bodies and do ‘silly’ dances in our warm ups. They would eagerly throw their bodies around, use the whole space and express themselves freely.

But when I asked them to do the same with their voices, they would clam up and become very inhibited. I knew that technically they had freedom in their voices, but they were too embarrassed to make strange noises in front of their fellow students.

We often feel that we are judged in life by how we look (fat, skinny, toned, tanned, etc.), but these students found it easy to shed their body inhibitions. Why not their voices?

We read a lot into how somebody sounds. It is very hard to lie convincingly using our voice. Our voices betray our emotional state, our health, our level of boredom, where we’re from, our gender, our desires and much more.

We are often asked when singing to become emotionally engaged with the meaning of a song. An audience can spot very quickly if we are being truthful with our emotions.

If we put on a silly voice, it can be very liberating. We don’t feel that we are our ‘selves’ and can be much freer than usual.

Our voices are extraordinarily revealing and often give us away. No wonder we find it difficult to be truly free vocally and take any criticism very personally!

an unkind word can put someone off singing for ever

My choirs and singing workshops are full of people in their 50s and older who remember that particular day at primary school when the teacher told them to “Stand at the back and mime” or “Stop that terrible screeching” or “Sorry, you just can’t sing”. It has stayed with them for years and they might not have sung outside their bathroom since.

Obviously they love singing or they wouldn’t have plucked up the courage to come to the choir after so long. But it does take courage, and they’ve been seriously damaged for a very long time. Just by an unkind word. Not only have they believed for so many years that they can’t sing, but it has often affected their general confidence.

So be very careful when you next comment on someone’s singing voice.

you don’t have to be your voice

In the West we tend to associate ourselves (our ego) with what we express. If we make something and people don’t like it, we get upset. If we put forward an argument and nobody agrees with it, it feels like a personal attack. If we sing and people tell us they don’t like our voice, then we assume they don’t like us.

In many Eastern traditions, there is no such association. If someone carves a sculpture from a piece of wood or stone, they are just using their talent to reveal what is already there. If people don’t like it, that’s nothing to do with them.

In Japan, people effectively put their argument or opinion or idea out there on the table with all the others. People then debate it, criticise it, change it, attack it and so on. Afterwards, people pick up their argument and take it away with them. At no point have they been criticised as an individual, just their argument or opinion or idea.

It is possible to do the same with your voice. You can detach your ego from your singing voice and consider it to be thing in its own right. It can be nurtured, developed, trained, abused, used, stretched and shared. It’s ‘out there’ in its own right and whatever people choose to say about it, they are saying it about your voice, not you.

Have you been put off singing by a comment on your voice? Are you able to separate your singing voice from your self as a person? Do drop by and leave a comment. I’d love to hear of your experiences.

further reading

You might also be interested in:

Does your singing voice reveal the real you?

You are what you sing

Why our singing voices have different accents

How to be a confident singer

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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