Monday, June 23, 2014

Singing – the more you do it, the worse you get!

You work on a song in choir week after week, but slowly things seem to get worse. You worry about getting the words right, you can’t seem to remember the second part of the melody, your voice stops hitting the high notes.

head in hands
photo by Alex Proimos

What’s going on? Here’s what I think ...

When we first start to learn a new song everything is fresh and unknown, we have no expectations, what comes next is a mystery. It’s all very exciting.

Then gradually we become more familiar with the song and our head starts to get in the way asking awkward questions like:

  • what if I forget the words?
  • will I hit that high note this time?
  • do I really know my part that well?
  • will the other singers notice if I make a mistake?
  • is the choirmaster looking at me?

And that’s when things can go wrong.

The very act of worrying if we’re going to hit that high note is guaranteed to stop us from getting there. Thinking that we won’t remember the words will make us forget the lyrics.

It’s a bit like asking someone how they walk. As soon as we start to think about something that is normally automatic and unconscious, our thoughts get in the way and we grind to a halt.

learning fast vs. spreading the load

I run two six-week projects each year called Singing Safaris (we go on an imaginary journey around the world collecting exotic songs). Over six two-hour sessions I manage to teach about eight songs, all in three- or four-part harmony. That’s a lot of songs to learn by ear in a short time, and many with foreign lyrics.

But each time the end performance is fantastic, the standard high and the audience enthusiastic.

I believe this is because the project goes so fast that nobody has any time to start worrying about whether they know what they’re doing. People are so focused on learning song after song that they take it in their stride. It’s only when the project is over they realise that it was a real challenge and they’ve done amazing work.

However, with a regular choir that meets week after week you can afford to take your time. We do a little bit more of the song each week, tweaking and fine-tuning it here and there. Plenty of opportunities for the little worrier in our head to start doubting.

what you can do to avoid your inner doubts

It’s easier said than done to stop listening to your inner doubter. Here are a few tricks you can try:

  • be in the moment – always stay focused on the task at hand. Be totally there whilst learning and performing a song, even when it’s not your turn to sing.
  • focus, focus, focus – if you give your full attention to something outside yourself you will have no space for inner doubts. Change your focus each time to keep things varied: the audience, the singer next to you, the harmonies, the conductor, etc.
  • use your ‘beginner’s mind’ – this is a concept from Zen: always behave as if you’re doing something for the first time. This applies to warm ups, singing an old favourite, learning a new song, etc. It’s a brilliant technique. It avoids you switching off and being habitual when that old familiar thing comes along.
  • behave as if you know what you’re doing – even if you don’t. It’s a simple game, but pretend you’re that person who learns songs easily and always gets them right. The more you practice this, the more it will become your reality.
  • don’t listen to others – it only takes one person to start doubting (“Are you sure we got our part right?”) and it spreads like wildfire. It’s like gossip, just don’t pay attention to it.
  • trust the process – you’ve learnt loads of songs in the past and you’ll get this one right too even though it might feel difficult at first. Trust yourself, your fellow singers and the person teaching you the song.

Do you find things going pear-shaped the longer you work at them? I’d love to hear your ideas for combating your inner doubts.

other posts you might like

First choir rehearsal is great then it’s all downhill from there!

Instant choir – just add people

The only thing stopping you from being a better singer is ...

Trust me – you know it makes sense

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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