As in many things in life, when it comes to singing, nothing could be truer. The single thing that stands most in our way in changing the voice for the better is our self-concept.
What is a self-concept? It is everything we think and believe about ourselves. Let us look at negative self-concepts first. Perhaps we think we are slow learners. Perhaps we think we are not attractive. Perhaps we think we don’t deserve success. A hundred “down on myself” ideas may populate our thinking about us. And every one of them interferes with the progress of learning to sing. And – this is really important – every one of them is a habit, a habitual way of looking at ourselves. We get this stuff, I suppose, from our upbringing or our contact with peers, negative feedback which we take in and hold on to. Woody Allen said something intended to be humorous (don’t have the exact quote) about it being a good idea to put yourself down before anyone else has the chance. Others, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc., tell us stuff about ourselves and we believe it. Then we start acting it out, confirming what others think of us, and it becomes habitual thinking.
A side note: It doesn’t have to be negative concepts that hold us back. We can be retarded in our vocal growth by thinking too well of ourselves, being in love with the sound of our voices. This can be as bad, or worse, than not liking them. We might also have so much confidence in our own opinions that we are unable to hear what others say to us.
What can we do about these problems? We must combat habit with extreme will. That is what my principal teacher taught. And that is what we have to bring to the process of learning to sing. My students will all quote me, as follows, “You are not allowed to say, “I’m sorry.” You are not allowed to say, “That stank.” You are not allowed to criticize your singing in any way.” I do allow my students to ask for “overs.” They may try something again. They may recognize that what they have just sung is not the ideal. But they may not make negative remarks about their singing because 1) these remarks become part of a belief system that stands between them and change, and 2) their minds are busy with the negative self-talk, what I call “editorializing,” and are not concentrating on what needs to be done to change. A colleague says to his students, “Sing first. Then we’ll analyze it.” I think this is a good approach. I also think that we need to fill up our minds to overflowing with the best concept of the sound-we-want-to-make that we possibly can.
In the beginning, we may not know what sound we want to make. We must go with the best idea we have and allow our concept to grow. American philosopher, Mark Nepo, has said this:
“To listen is to continually give up all expectation
and to give our attention, completely and freshly,
to what is before us, not really knowing
what we will hear or what that will mean.
In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in,
softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”
And this, to me, is the starting point……listening. We try to conceive the sound by focusing on its elements, pitch, vowel, and dynamic. We try to listen to these things, to focus on them intently, with a “willingness to change.” Then we take the breath and see what happens. And, by so doing, we learn. We sing, and then we analyze what we heard and, gradually, little by little, we discover a new sound. As we hear difference, it comes into our experience and our listening becomes more acute. One student some time ago got rather upset over my constantly saying, “Listen before you sing.” She said angrily that she did not know what she was supposed to be listening to. My reply was simple, “That’s okay. Listen anyway.”
Listen to the pitch. Hear it in your head. Conceive the vowel. Imagine the volume, the intensity level you have chosen. Now, breathe and let this sound – the one you are hearing – come into existence. I realize this makes it sound so easy, and it is not. Remember we are struggling against the old concept and against our brain’s tendency to want the status quo. That is why a teacher who understands this approach is so important. He or she will help you judge if you have been successful at realizing the concept in your head. A good teacher will also help you set up the conditions for change through the instructions she or he gives you.
Then your part is to try to accept the change. It’s hard to do. Our brains recognize the sound we make the way they recognize our faces. Changing the sound is like changing the face – a bit unnerving. But change we must. No one is a perfect singer. No one. Some function at a higher level than others, but we all have room for growth and improvement. I’m sure every well-known singer before the public today would agree with this statement.