Monday, July 06, 2015

The curse of confusion: why thinking is bad for singing

I teach a song by ear in less than an hour at a workshop. Everyone picks it up really quickly and then they sing it brilliantly.


We’ve been working on the same song with my very accomplished weekly choir for quite some time. They really struggle and it’s like plodding through mud. What’s going on here? It’s all about your head getting in the way.

no time to worry

Twice a year I create a choir from scratch in just six two-hour rehearsals (see Instant choir – just add people). There are no auditions and everyone is welcome. We tackle eight or more songs, all taught by ear and all in four-part harmony.

The project goes at breakneck speed: people lap up the songs, nail their parts, learn the (often foreign) words, have fun and then perform to a high standard.

When it’s all over the singers often realise that some of the songs were quite hard and they’ve learnt a huge amount in a really short time.

There has been no time or space for people to think: what’s the next word? do I really know verse two? does it go up at the end of the line or down?

doubt creeps in week by week

I teach a song to my weekly choir and they pick it up really quickly. We sing it through at the end of the rehearsal and it sounds fantastic. Maybe a few tweaks are needed here and there, but we’ll go over it the following week and it should be fine.

The next week comes. We go over the song and it’s awful. Nobody seems to remember their part. Sections stumble and come to a halt. Frowns appear and singers look at each other questioningly. Confusion reigns.

The fact that we have plenty of time to work on a song means that there is ample scope for people to think: how many times do we repeat the second section? do the altos come in at the start or only the second verse? what if my voice cracks when I go for that high note?

the virus of doubt

I’m used to seeing frowns on singers’ faces (see Why the singers in your choir still love you even though they look bored), but when people start to shoot desperate glances at each other and some singers just stop singing, I know there is something wrong.

Often a whole section can become infected with the virus of doubt. A miasma of confusion hangs over their heads like a thick cloud. Once doubt has infected a part it’s very hard to instil confidence again.

When there is time to think, there is space created for doubt. None of us is ever 100% sure of what we’re doing, but given time, doubts build upon doubts and things just get worse.

You might be a bit hesitant about your part. You sing quietly and hesitantly then suddenly realise the singer next to you is singing something slightly different. You glance at them quickly in confusion.

You’re doing quite well, but suddenly the singer next to you glances at you looking very confused. Maybe you’ve done something wrong? Maybe you’re singing your part incorrectly and so you begin to wonder that you don’t know it as well as you thought. You start to sing quietly and hesitantly, very aware of the singer next to you.

You notice that all the singers around you are singing more quietly and rather hesitantly. Maybe you missed the conductor’s instruction or maybe nobody in your section really knows their part. You don’t want to be the odd one out, so you too start to sing more quietly and begin to doubt whether you actually know what you’re doing.

Slowly a whole section can grind to a halt and begin to doubt that they ever knew the song in the first place. Peer pressure and time for thought has allowed the virus of doubt to spread.

behave as if you know what you’re doing

What can you do about this? Is it possible to avoid falling into the doubt trap?


It’s not enough just to tell people to stop thinking too much, but it is possible to encourage people to have more trust (see also Four powerful ideas guaranteed to help you learn to sing better).

Trust that they know more than they think; trust that they’re perfectly capable of singing the song; trust that making a mistake doesn’t mean the end of the world; trust in your fellow singers; trust that your choir leader will help (see also Trust me – you know it makes sense).

Given that trust, you then simply have to behave as if you know what you’re doing (because 99.9% of the time you do) and everything will be fine (see also Two big ideas to create the perfect choir or singing experience).

Don’t think, just sing!

Chris Rowbury



Monthly Music Roundup:

Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: