“A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.” -Abraham Maslow
Maslow’s quote above illuminates a very important point. Many of us in our rush to fulfill the obligations that others have set out for us, fail to point ourselves in the direction of the thing that is most vital and integral to our identity. When that happens, we become miserable. And if you are reading this right now, you most likely identify some part of yourself as that of a singer – or at least you want to be.
Normally I write about matters that are directly related to the function of the voice – because it is so widely misunderstood, and also, because really, the degree to which you’ve mastered your technical ability is the same degree to which you will be able to express yourself. If your technical ability is limited, so will be your artistic output. But I feel it timely on the turn of a New Year (HAPPY NEW YEAR 2010!!!) to address an extremely sensitive issue for singers – especially singers who haven’t reached their technical or artistic potential yet – and let’s face it, that’s most of us! It is my intention with this article to address the seemingly trivial idea of a singers sense of safety and self-esteem. I want to help you begin to eradicate whatever is clogging up your ability to feel that you can, that you have a right to, and that you have a responsibility to reach your vocal and artistic potential.
Singers come in all shapes and sizes across a vastly wide arc of development that spans from the shyest, fresh seemingly incapable beginner, to the most vibrant and wildly emotional and advanced vocalist. Wherever you are on the spectrum doesn’t matter. If you are reading this article, chances are, you feel the seeds of a singer somewhere in the seat of your individuality. The fact will remain the same – you ARE a singer.
You have a right and an obligation to fully become your potential. If you didn’t have that right, you wouldn’t feel the urge you feel to become it. Not everyone will be a Whitney Houston or Freddie Mercury, but they have already existed anyway, so no one would care all that much even if you were their incarnation. We’ve already had them. But if you are drawn to singing, whatever becomes of your interest in singing, fame or fortune are irrelevant. What matters is that you sing – because that is your bliss, and that is a part of who you are.
The challenge with all art is to master the craft, and weave your personal identity through it. It involves a triple ongoing life process of working with a mentor you trust, identifying and learning from your heroes, and learning about your identity. The rest inevitably works itself out as it should.
Let’s explore this idea of safety and self-esteem further – but I’m going to come at it sideways. Have you heard about the 7 year old prodigy painter Kieron Williamson in England? Start here. At 7 years old, he is already being compared to Picasso. Instinctively sensing his own greatness, he swore to his parents that he would be very good at something – he just didn’t know what it would be. After trying a few different things, he found painting. His parents, a former electrician and a nutritional therapist with no artistic ability between them thought it was a phase:
- “He was passionate about trains when he was little and that passed. Then it was dinosaurs and that passed. This artwork thing he’s stuck at for 18 months. He asks questions Keith and I wouldn’t have a clue about, the difference between watercolour, oil and pastel technique. We put him in touch with artists who can answer his questions. Other than that and a six-month local workshop in 2009, Kierson has taught himself shading, depth, proportion and coloring in three media. Once school resumes next Tuesday, he’ll revert to his old painting hours: “I paint in the morning until half past eight and from half past three in the afternoon. Four or five hours a day.”
For some reason, as singers, very few of us receive this kind of support from our surroundings – so we often get a bit of a detour around what we love. But even more importantly, we pick up lots of dialogue that works completely against ourselves, trapping us into shame about what makes us blissful, and locking up our voices metaphorically, and physically.
We normally have 2 voices in our head: The free child-like creative flow, just like the story above, that loves to find new relationships, meanings and experiences. The “child” knows
no limits, only boundless potential. Moving through life’s continual stream of roadblocks is acceptable, exciting, and routine. But then we have the critic – the voice that takes it all apart, and makes us rational – sometimes violently. Both have their purpose, but the critic can be deadly in the early stages of raw, tender but fertile creative development.
We love to bludgeon ourselves with negative criticisms: “I’m not gifted enough/not clever enough/not original enough/not young enough”. Pick one – or all. They come easy don’t they? Self, meet your critic.
The following exercise will seem silly and redundant, but I implore you to try it anyway. There’s a profound gem in it, especially for us as singers. I’ve borrowed it from Julia Cameron’s famous book “The Artists Way”. Buy it here.
Pick an affirmation. Get out a piece of paper and a pen (no typing), and write this down on it: “I, (your name), am a brilliant and prolific singer”.
Did the ears of your censor perk up yet? What did it say? Write down what the critic said on the bottom.
Continue to write the same affirmation above again on paper: “I, (your name), am a brilliant and prolific singer” – except this time, write it 10 times. And stay alert.
Something amazing will happen. Your censor will begin to object – probably many times. Objections will fall out everywhere. You will be amazed at the rotten things teething under such a harmless exercise. Write them down. Write them ALL down as they come to you in your writing of the affirmation. In their nasty claws lies the psychological freedom of your vocal potential and creativity.
Become a detective. Where did those blurts come from? Scan your past… Was it something someone said? Mom? Dad? Sister? Once you put your finger on the monsters originations, you can start to work with it.
Counter it with your own affirmations that give it equal measure in a supportive direction. These are your own, unique personal affirmations – and nobody has to see them but you. It may feel awkward at first, but if you use your new affirmations regularly, daily, you will sow new artistic seeds, change your outlook, and put yourself firmly on the path to your true potential.
This exercise is immensely revealing (and healing), if you can get over the seeming embarrassment of having to say good things to yourself. But you have to choose wisely what tapes you want to play in your mind. One leads to misery, the other to your bliss.
Do we really say all these things to ourselves? Yes, I believe the vast majority of us do. Critical thinking is vital to our survival as animals, but murder to our fragile creativity, especially as singers where we are so dependent upon the healthy exuberance of our nervous systems. Only when the nervous system is optimally prime, can our voices be in a state of balance. When it’s not, the voice is the first thing to go. As a singer, having a psychologically balanced state of mind will allow you the emotional endurance for the often long road to developing technical mastery.
Our throat is the potentially blissful creative valve that turns the air we breath, into the sound that marks and gives us our unique expression. But it is also a tender soft spot where we can be silenced and/or dramatically inhibited, so incredibly easily. When we tell ourselves how bad we are/how much we don’t deserve it/that we’ll never amount to anything, our nervous systems responds obligingly through and into our throats in all kinds of nasty and unwanted ways. Whatever we tell ourselves we are, is what becomes of our biology.
But what if you were to wake tomorrow and have no memory of the negative criticisms you’ve accumulated, and the only sense you had was of your own boundless potential for the thing you loved – your voice?
That would change everything wouldn’t it? You would MAKE time to practice your singing because having no right reason to deny it to yourself – you find yourself free to dazzle in it, like the child above.
Put the critic in it’s place – he/she has no right to overcrowd and kill your fertile space. Don’t get caught in a terrible self-inflicted story that keeps you creatively stuck and trapped in fear. Re-write the story. As a singer, you are providing the soundtrack to people’s lives – even if only at karaoke. Be open. Be creative. Be a conduit. Allow yourself to just be.
You can claim your potential as a singer. Of course it make some time. It’s an art like any other, and everyone’s path will be different. But as long as you keep learning, the very act of being in the process of becoming will provide you with enough excitement and new discoveries to keep you moving steadily towards your goals. But you have to stop talking bad about yourself TO yourself in order that can give yourself the chance to allow your unique voice to truly blossom.
So dust off that practice cd, get out your karaoke tracks, and commit yourself to a daily exploration of your instrument and your identity as a singer. Guard that time together with yourself more vehemently as the critic would want you to walk away from it. I challenge you to do all this in the New Year of the new decade. You deserve all that, and more! And I want to see you shine like we both know you can!!!