The Difference Between “What’s So” and “So What!”

From parents to peers to People Magazine, the moment you open your mouth to sing the critics start lining up to offer their opinions. How you process their comments will play a great role in your future as an artist. In his autobiography, Barry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, observes that most stars are either super-smart or super-dumb. The super-smart are too intelligent to let negative criticisms get to them and the super-dumb, well, they don’t know they’ve been insulted. So where does that leave the rest of us singers of average intellect? Often, we are overly sensitive to criticism about our voices. That’s a shame because some observations can be very beneficial for developing skills and honing an artist vision. To separate the constructive from the destructive, think of each comment thrown your way as a letter. Then, just as you sort your mail at home, start separating the important stuff from the junk.

Create two mailbags in your mind and label them, “What’s So,” and “So What.” “What’s So” is a place to put the truth. Use this bag to hold the comments regarding any current reality. Your range, for example, may be something you felt needed expanding and so you began a program of vocal exercises. Any comments concerning range, therefore, can be helpful in monitoring your progress. It’s like getting a bill in the mail; even though you can’t pay the whole balance you acknowledge the situation and keep working. What hurts, though, is when someone exposes something you have yet to address. If you have always wanted a higher range but haven’t done anything about it, comments regarding your lack of high notes will sting. Don’t shoot the messenger, get off your duff and start practicing. The only criticisms that can hurt you are the ones you agree with.

The “So What” bag is where you put all the junk mail. Any comment that does not directly help you should be stuffed in here and dealt with at your leisure. Every day I hear sad stories from people who were told long ago by teachers, friends or parents that they couldn’t sing. Decades have past and these comments are still haunting them. The only response that I can possibly offer is, “So what?” It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that I can’t change the past. At some point all the items in this bag will have to be acknowledged, but many will not require a response. Noting the source of a comment is important. You certainly don’t need to dwell on a remark from someone who doesn’t support your goals. Understanding the sender’s perspective may also help turn a destructive comment into a constructive one. Ironically, most negative criticisms from parents are just awkward attempts to keep you from getting hurt. Also, plenty of people interchange the words “voice” and “music,” so clarify whether it is your singing or the song that’s being criticized. If, after all this scrutiny a comment is still bothering you, it’s time to admit that you agree with the observation and take some action. Even if all you do is switch the mental bag the comment is stored in, at least you know it’s now a work in progress.

Starting today, get in the habit of sorting your mail quickly. Un-filed criticisms tend to float around in our hearts and eat at our confidence. Avoid the automatic defensive retort as well. Emotions make us say unfortunate things, especially to ourselves. In truth, there’s no need to respond to any comment other than to acknowledge you heard the person. Singing requires you find yourself, which can take some people a lifetime. Never mind what others are saying about you, the value of a criticism is observing your reaction. What matters will continue to bother you until you address it and what doesn’t matter is quickly forgotten. It takes time and practice to empty those mailbags, but in a year you should arrive at a mental state where you are not concerned with how others judge you. And that, my friends, is when you really begin to sing.