Most singers admit that voice lessons have the potential to be equal parts therapy and education, and that voice teachers should probably have degrees in psychology as well as in music.
As I drove to my voice lesson earlier this week I was in a mood that my mother describes as “cranked”. I’d received a frustrating email just before getting in the car, and I was feeling like everyone’s last priority. I spent most of the drive ruminating on certain ways in which I feel aggrieved, a habit which I am mature enough to know is unproductive but not mature enough to stop.
Walking to my voice lesson I tried to shake it off. I knew I would have an unproductive lesson if I didn’t clear my head. When my teacher and pianist asked me “How are you?” I didn’t launch into my list of complaints, I just said I was good and got ready to work.
We started warming up, repeating figures that weren’t quite right and tweaking things as we went. In the back of my mind I was still preparing for a melt-down, but instead something completely new happened: I took refuge in focusing. For the first time in my life I really left my problems at the door and found peace in knowing that all I had to work on during those 60 minutes was the calibration of my movements to facilitate the best possible singing.
Leaving certain problems behind doesn’t mean no problems are going to take their place, which is exactly what happened later in the lesson, when my teacher suggested I release a small bit of jaw tension on a handful of words and phrases.
When someone says “this note is not right” what most singers hear is “you are a terrible singer and a disgrace”. As I struggled to eliminate the tension that was making a few spots in my singing less-than-ideal, that old wave of doubt washed over me. The tape in my head started going: you have terrible technique. You will never be good. All of your singing is awful. You have unfixable habits. You will never be able to do this.
I thought about all the singers in the world who don’t have jaw tension. I don’t know any personally, but I imagined some group of “they” out there who are highly sought-after and tension-free and perfect and whom I would never be like. Of course I want to be like them because of course they have it all figured out and have perfect lives!
Once again, an epiphany: People who have figured out their technical issues with singing are not inherently better than I am. My technique (which overall is quite good, if I’m being objective) is not a comment on my character. I am free to be frustrated with a peccadillo in that it keeps me from a particular goal, but it doesn’t make me a bad person.
It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure this out. But how many of us spend much time affirming that we’re really not so bad after all?