Learning to sing is a lot like strapping on a pair of roller blades 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 pavement. 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 wheels, they forget to bend. They shuffle along stiff-legged, clinging desperately to any lamp post, tree or person within reach. The irony is that these people constantly hit the ground. 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 roller blade.
We often brace in anticipation of singing a bad note as if it will hurt our bodies. 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 a vocal slip that cause themselves the most problems. 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 voice. 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. Singing should feel like nothing, like rolling down a stretch of smooth pavement. Correct notes are just as easy to sing as incorrect notes, so don’t add any effort when you want to sing something better. 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. The only difference between singing and roller blading is that you won’t have to sit funny while you’re learning.