If I were to ask you to tell me a little bit about yourself, how would you answer? Pause for a second before reading on, and try to respond with a couple of sentences that do not involve work, family, or school.
This is the first question that I ask every new student upon commencing singing lessons with me, and it is a question that is often met with hesitation, an awkward grimace, a clearing of the throat or a nervous chuckle, followed by a blank stare. Ironically, the most popular answer students respond with is, “I thought you’d ask me that”, followed by a long silence or a muffled “hmmm”. What if I was to lead with a similar question, but instead I asked you to tell me a little bit about your best friend, a person close to you, or a musician you admire. What would you tell me? I would bet my first born that you could give me a running spiel on how talented, capable, hardworking and authentic these people appear to be to you. For a friend, you may connect with an aspect of their personal identity, or if you have a musician/artist in mind, the message their music relays, appeals strongly to you. Through my own observation of conversations I have had with students, it occurs to me that we spend a lot of time thinking about how we see others or how we think others see us, but we avoid investing into working on how we see ourselves.
Self-perception and artist identity are intertwined and they are not something that just happen. They require long-term investment; taking the time to learn about what you stand for and what message you want to send to others. When you truly invest in yourself, you are investing into your songwriting, your vocal chops and other unimaginable artistic possibility. Imagine for a moment, that you could see yourself through the eyes of a person close to you. Would you be calling yourself ‘mediocre’, or would you be considering that, as a musician, you are at a point on a journey with no destination, constantly improving, and always working at upping your artist artillery? Would you be comparing yourself with other singers or would you be resting easy in knowing that you have something to offer your audience, focusing your energy on fine tuning your skill set? Would you be at war with your greatest fears and insecurities, or would you be switching up that internal dialogue, exercising some compassion with yourself and getting on with harnessing those gremlins into your songwriting? Your internal dialogue can be your greatest superpower or your Achilles heel. For some, this conversation does not come naturally. I have spent hours with some students, condoning every putdown (sarcastic or otherwise) they direct at themselves until they begin to see it as committing an offence. And it ceases, because it is not allowed to be an option during our lessons. I encourage you to try and exercise the same restraint by replacing every crippling comparison, with soothing self-reflection of your own abilities. It may be hard at first. Perhaps you can not name a quality, or it may feel uncomfortable to speak kindly about yourself. Maybe you need to ask someone who knows you really well to suggest some starting points. But keep at it, because it could be the case that you are yet to tap into a plethora of your own possibility.
As a teacher, I experience the phenomena of ‘negative self-talk’ (NST) as a recurring theme in a lot of my students. I empathise with them, because I face it as well. I have been blessed with the opportunity to make a living out of music for the past ten years, and there are still times I feel like an imposter. But I have learnt that a lot of people feel this way from time to time, and it is ok to experience doubt and question yourself. In fact, I know these traits, amongst others, can be what pushes me to keep learning, improving and not become complacent. What is not ok, is to let that doubt overwhelm you. A lot of the time, students will hesitate to sing a song at the beginning of our sessions, leading with a list of excuses as long as my arm as to why ‘it might not sound good’. “Why are you here?” I immediately ask them. If they respond with something along the lines of wanting to find their own voice and hone their craft, then it does not matter if it sounds good or not. Because it will soon, through the thoughtful discipline of daily practice. Any other response that comes from a place of seeking surface validation (i.e. they just want me to tell them they ‘sound great’), does not sit right with me, and I would encourage them to dig a little deeper, and anchor themselves with an understanding of what they want to add to their skill set when showing up to the next session. Because it is through meaningful, authentic purpose that discipline is derived, and remarkable singers are disciplined.
Authenticity is seriously attractive, and so is looking after yourself. As a singer, if you feed your mind and your body, you are feeding your instrument. As a quick example of what I mean by feeding your mind and body, I have a list of 5 ‘non-negotiables’ that I’ve built into my every-day routine. These are; drinking 8 glasses of water a day, reading 20 pages of a book for joy (i.e. books that are not apart of my uni studies), playing piano for 30 minutes, exercising for 15 minutes and singing for 20 minutes. (As a side note, these times are a minimum I expect myself to meet – most days I’ll blow them out, because it is about starting, not meeting an exhaustive quota). These non-negotiables take up an hour and a half of my day, or 9.4% of my waking hours. If my life gets busy (i.e. when gig season hits), I will negotiate the time that I dedicate to these items. But I will still do them, because they are feeding my mind and my body, which is fuelling my instrument. And if I do not get to do all of these things, I urge myself to accept that my vocal capacity and my mind set may not be at its prime, and I will be ok with that. The take away here is: if you are fuelling and working your voice, you are doing what you can to improve your mind and your body and you will be on the path to becoming a better artist.
Well-rounded artistry originates from a place of discipline. Firstly, if you have a positive internal dialogue, lucky you! The first battle is won. If you are not as fortunate and struggle to be kind to yourself, that is ok because that conversation can be re-wired. Putting yourself down is not sexy, nor does it enable you to explore the possibilities of what you have to offer. Rather than relying on other people’s kind feedback to make you feel ok about your voice, seek to validate yourself, and foster the growth of your own artist identity. The road may be more difficult to navigate, but you will reap far greater and more substantial reward in becoming grounded in your own ability. Secondly, feed your mind and body on the daily. As a singer, your body is your instrument. The things it is capable of are quite marvellous and it deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Finally, have some fun, go and write a song and enjoy the opportunities that your music delivers you. Treat this music thing that we get to do, as a blessing. It should not be the source of anxiety or fear of judgement, rather one of expression, connection and joy.