Fear & Singing: Why it can be so right to be wrong

April 28, 2014

I’ve been working lately with a student on this tune by Joss Stone called “Right to be Wrong.” It’s from her 2004 album Mind, Body and Soul, and for all intents and purposes it is lyrically very cheesy. Here’s a little taste…

“I’ve got a right to be wrong
My mistakes will make me strong
I’m stepping out into the great unknown
I’m feeling wings though I’ve never flown
I’ve got a mind of my own
I’m flesh and blood to the bone
I’m not made of stone
Got a right to be wrong”

Kind of obvious and silly, right? Except, every time I’m working on this song I can’t help but be taken aback by how apropos the lyrics are to the singing experience. At their heart, I wonder if they’re the key to our singing success? Let me elaborate.

Because Davin Youngs Voice is a studio that welcomes any and all voice types, we routinely encounter students that fall to extremes of the broad singing spectrum. From those who have managed to make a living by sharing their voice to those who believe themselves to be “tone deaf.”  This is part of the excitement of running a voice studio outside of traditional education models. Additionally, it provides we teachers, unique insights that those in an audition based environment may not have. So, because we’ve “seen it all” I want to share with you some anecdotal evidence that might inform us about why Joss Stone’s tune keeps ringing a bell for me.

Let’s start with the students who feel as though they struggle to match pitch. The truth of the matter is, only 2+% of the population actually suffers from “Tone Deafness” or Congenital Amusia. This condition isn’t specifically about whether you can sing in tune, but rather about your ability to distinguish between pitches. Or, it’s more about perception than it is production. Make sense? If you want to read more about it, check out the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_deafness but let me bottom line this for ya. Most people, who come to voice lessons thinking they are tone deaf, aren’t. That being said, most people who come to voice lessons thinking they are tone deaf are intensely afraid of singing the wrong pitch. They certainly are not of the Joss Stone mindset that their “mistakes will make them strong.”

My experience is that when asked to duplicate a pitch being sung or played, many of these students first experience a sort of panic that then results in physical tension, which then results in the inaccurate production of the pitch. They aren’t incredibly coordinated to begin with, but add fear into the mix and everything gets thrown off. Often, when caught off guard these students experience much more success.

Recently I was working with one such student who I spent a solid 15 minutes working on tools to improve coordination in matching pitch. In an effort to change gears and take some of the pressure off, I asked her to sing Happy Birthday with me. Would’ntchaknow? She was right on the money the whole time. Why? Well, she wasn’t afraid of being wrong when it came to “Happy Birthday to you…” It seemed like something she could do, even though it was more challenging version of what I was asking her to do in the first place. The coordination showed up because the fear was less.

When she was trying and afraid of not succeeding, she did not succeed whereas when she was not trying and not so fearful, she did succeed. (Seems like a nice metaphor for life, eh?) But, I’d be lying if I said that fixed the problem. Besides, she was “flesh and blood, to the bone.” When we returned to pitch matching, the insecurity kicked in and the pitches were way off. We’ve got a lot of work to do on coordination, but it is getting better!

So then, what’s a voice teacher to do with a person who has spent a lot of years believing they “can’t sing?” First, we can provide encouragement and highlight successes. Second, we can explain and encourage the physical production of sound, providing tools and understanding for change. My student was able to identify she did pretty ok singing Happy Birthday and I affirmed her in that and helped her take note of what she did physically different.

If you believe you are tone deaf, a good voice teacher can most likely help you find success in matching pitch but ultimately, you have the right to be wrong and unless you believe that, you will keep struggling to match pitch.  Thanks, Joss!

But what lesson does this tune have for those of us who can sing in tune and want to become better singers and artists? I believe we are all a bit risk averse. I know that I am. Let me see… I don’t want to crack. I don’t want to sound bad. I want people to like me! Sound familiar? That’s a lot at stake every time I open my mouth and that would make anyone not want to take the risk. But the question remains, what if those things didn’t really matter that much? Or stepping back further, what is the risk?

Let’s dig into that final question, first. In singing, I believe the “risk” is making your sound in a different way. Think on that for a minute. Are you willing to sing in a different way? Moreover, are you willing for that way to be wrong? You may recall a previous blog post I wrote about my experience in a master class where I was asked to do this very thing and despite my “willingness” I continued to perform my assigned task in the same way. This experience has really stuck with me and I keep returning back to the idea that in order to make change, we must act differently. For singers, this is often physical and requires a lot of self questioning…

What is my breath like?

What is my posture like?

What is the shape of my mouth like?

How might these things influence sound?

Am I squeezing?

Am I pushing?

Am I being physically lazy?

 …and on and on and on. Again, a good voice teacher can help you learn what these questions are but the change comes when you are willing to act upon the answers and experiment despite the fear of mistake. When singers are “stepping out into the great unknown” they often uncover ways of producing sound that are new and different and well, feel good! They may even say they’re “feeling wings though they’ve never flown.”

But even further, the best singers I know are constantly doing this! They seem to “have a mind of their own” in singing. (Are the quotes getting out of control?) RISKY! What does this sound like? Well, they play when they sing. They live comfortably in that risky space of possibly being wrong. They stretch the notes in a new and exciting ways. They craft phrases unexpectedly. They trust their instrument to go where they ask it and they make it work when it doesn’t. They still experience the same insecurity that the rest of us do, but they truly believe that their “mistakes will make them strong.” They also (and this is important) believe that people will like what they are offering and aren’t afraid if they don’t.

Personally, I’m trying to be one of these singers. But let me tell ya, it ain’t always easy. Let me share one quick example. Saturday, I was sick. I’d been struggling with a cold for a couple of days but it really kind of hit my voice during Saturday afternoon. Despite this, I had committed to cantoring at a local catholic church here in the loop of Chicago. I knew I couldn’t bail because there was no one to take my place on such short notice, so I decided to make it work with hopes that my body would sustain. Sure enough, shortly into the mass I hear my phlegmy and swollen cords do a little crackity crack. In my mind I was immediately transported back to puberty and also convinced myself I was singing the worst I ever had. By the time the service was done, I felt a great sense of relief and hightailed it to pack up and go home. On my way toward the door, a sweet looking older woman grabbed my arm and said, “You have the most wonderful voice! I heard you sing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.” I laughed. No, I’ve never sung at the Lyric, but I appreciated her compliment especially in light of my inhibited voice. I was also reminded that this situation was a classic example of my fear and insecurity around singing being greater than the act of sharing my voice with a receptive audience. Or to return to one of my earlier questions, “what if those things don’t really matter that much?”

Do you believe you have the right to be wrong? Have you experience the reward of being wrong? Are you prepared for a sweet old lady to tell you what a wonderful voice you have?

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