After countless hours of lessons and faithfully running drills, does your singing seem to be on a plateau? Are you still searching for that special something that will make your performances memorable? Worse yet, do people complement you by saying you have a “nice” voice? While that may be far better then what they used to say about your singing, you didn’t dive head first into music to get a pat on the head. Like me, I’ll bet you dream about controlling the very pulse of your listener. First suspending the heart mid-beat as you fly through an acrobatic vocal run and then making it pound into a gallop as your performance reaches its climax. You want fainting and screaming and standing ovations! Hey, who doesn’t? But that kind of unbridled listener reaction doesn’t come easily. It requires you muster up some courage and sing outside your comfort zone. Lessons and exercises can turn anyone who practices into a good singer, but the extra edge only comes if you dare to be great.
Learning to sing is a lot like strapping on a pair of ice skates for the first time. Some people are fearless, or maybe reckless is a better word, and fly off with little regard to the laws of gravity. They immediately fall flat on their ass, laugh, and get right back up to try again. Most people, though, would rather not spend the day bouncing on the ice. These folks approach the challenge with one agenda: do not fall. This mind set dominates their muscles. As soon as they are hoisted onto their blades, they forget to bend. They shuffle along stiff-legged, clinging desperately to the sides of the ice rink or any person within reach. The irony is that these people constantly fall. The rigid body, which reflects their fear of falling, causes their lose of balance. Their inability to loosen up also prevents them from developing a feel for shifting body weight from skate to skate. So at the end of the day, both personality types have sore butts, but the carefree people have at least learned how to skate.
We often brace in anticipation of singing a bad note as if it will hurt our bodies or the performance. It won’t. A bruise to the ego and a bruise to the vocal folds are completely different things. Like fearful skaters, it’s the singers who fear sounding bad that cause themselves the most problems. They call attention to their flaws. Perfectionists, introverts and people who pride themselves on having good pitch are usually the worst offenders. Ironically, tone, pitch, emotion and longevity all suffer due to the over involvement of protective muscles like the tongue, jaw and neck. A cautious attitude doesn’t even insure that you will avoid vocal strain. Like falling, stiffening your muscles because you fear injury often causes more damage than if the body was loose.
Singing is a balancing act. The expectation that notes should always roll perfectly out of our mouths, especially when we’re just learning, is absurd. But don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re finding it difficult to let go. It’s not your fault. Pressure is placed on us the moment we start to explore our voices. For some reason, children are allowed to be clueless on every instrument except the voice. Nobody rips the violin out of little Suzy’s hands as she saws her way through, “Three Blind Mice,” but heaven forbid if she’s out of tune when she sings the same song. Kids that struggle with singing in grade school are usually detoured into sports programs or given a tambourine. Wouldn’t it have been great if they did that with math? Later in life, the stigma of falling off pitch or hitting a crack silences many would-be singers.
It is vital that you allow yourself to sound bad as you work to improve your singing and performing. Find a private place where no one can hear you; it’s hard enough to tune out your internal critic let alone opinionated roommates and family members. Your goal when vocalizing is to minimize muscle involvement — no matter how bad it sounds at first. For this reason, it is important to distinguish the difference between sound and feel. We often say a note feels bad when it actually just sounds bad. Sounding bad is okay, feeling bad is not. Some people will put up with tremendous discomfort in order to make something sound better. The truth is; many little imperfections will go completely unnoticed by listeners unless you call attention to them by straining. So it’s just as important to practice not reacting to every little vocal problem and stay focused on the sentiment of the lyrics.
Singing should feel like nothing, like gliding over a smooth patch of ice. Correct notes are just as easy to sing as incorrect notes, so don’t add any effort when you want to sing something better. Vocal cracks are simply a momentary loss of balance. They do not hurt you physically, so try not to wince if one zings out unexpectedly. To gain control of your voice, you need to learn to release your face, jaw, tongue and neck. Just like relaxing your arms and legs when skating, this usually creates a short term loss of control. Re-visit this slippery feeling until it’s trusted and you will be rewarded with effortless singing – but not necessarily a standing ovation.
Audience reaction is based on a performer’s risk – not skill. Lot’s of people can skate. Beginners, though, are not held to the same standard as those who can perform a triple Lutz. So an audience may erupt with applause as an amateur skater attempts a basic move yet be bored with a pro who presents a difficult yet “safe” routine. With singing it’s an internal challenge. Every performance provides an opportunity to sing with more conviction. This doesn’t always mean you should sing harder. It’s a tired cliché to expect an audience to respond emotionally to shear physical force – especially if it’s easy for you to scream. If you’re a loud mouth the personal challenge would be restraint. If you’re an introvert the challenge would be to come out of that shell. Both goals place the singer in a vulnerable place; neither requires the singer to be perfect.
It’s important to remember that singing, unlike skating, is an art. There are no judges and no set standards to uphold. There are only potential admirers. Performers are only expected to sing within their means – but to do so in an honest and inspiring way. Unless you’re involved in a vocal competition, every singer can be a winner. The only challenge is to shake up your status quo; to explore uncharted emotional territory. Use your vocal exercises to build a solid foundation of reflex behavior. Then trust that behavior and start provoking you and your audience to consider the emotion of a song. They’ll thank you for the nudge and refer to you as a great singer because of the way you made them feel. So put aside your fears of sounding bad and sing into that great unknown. I dare you!