Being a singer – pure technical ability, or a constant battle against your own psyche?

I worded the header to this blog post in a controversial way on purpose – of course it is not just one OR the other: Learning to sing and being a singer has to do with both.

When we talk about learning to sing or becoming a singer, we very often only seem to focus on building technical ability. This is important, because if you don’t have the technical ability, you will never sing to your full potential – which also means you cannot emote the way you’d maybe like to. It will very much feel like having all these incredibly creative ideas, but they are somewhat stuck inside you because you cannot communicate them the way you want to down to your technical limitations.

Seeing it from that angle might still sound pretty straightforward. Today, I’d like to delve even deeper though and write a bit about taking responsibility for your progress as a singer.

“Noooo”, I can hear some of you moaning, “not that type of psychological talk!” I’m afraid to say though that sooner or later, EVERY creative has to think about what drives them on – or, very often, prevents them from getting where they want to be.

It is very easy to constantly blame others for your stalling progress as a singer. Things we commonly hear, or maybe have even said ourselves at some point, are (and this list is really endless):

  1. I am simply not being given a chance.
  2. I would love to commit more/change career, but I have family/financial obligations/a sick parent …
  3. Other people have much less talent, why do they pick them over me?
  4. I know I have a good voice, so I don’t see why I should get trained. Others have successful careers without it, so why not me? (Note: It’s always people without a career who say this)
  5. I have a vocal problem, but I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t have time/money… for lessons though.
  6. I don’t think I am that good really, I am not putting myself through the pain of being ripped apart completely by going out there (and I am miserable about it, because secretly, I’d still like to).
  7. I really want to be a singer, but others say I can’t make a living, so it’s too much of a risk (and I am completely and utterly miserable about it because it’s what I always wanted to do).
  8. I feel artistically stuck in a rut, so I bury my head in the sand and hope it will pass.
  9. I had this most horrific experience on stage once, and I really don’t wish to repeat it. I’d still like to perform though, but now I know I am simply not up to it, so I give up.
  10. I know I am good, and I want people to recognise it. Why does no one notice?

The last one is actually symptomatic: No one notices because you don’t take action! You cannot expect others to notice how awesome you are if you are virtually taking no actions to make them notice you. They won’t come to you – you will have to go to them.

Your career won’t improve by seeing how well others are doing, being bitter about it, holding a secret grudge and thinking: “But they don’t deserve it, I am much better!” (“Better at what?” is an important question to ask yourself in this context). You will need to prove you are better (and maybe you are indeed) by, you guessed it, taking action.

Taking action is one thing – having the confidence to take action is another, and that’s where it gets really tricky. Undoubtedly, there are people with a slightly warped sense of their abilities, and/or the ones with a constant sense of entitlement. I think though it is far more common that people are actually afraid to take action – afraid because they have to change. Change is always linked to a fear of the unknown: It is easier for some to stay in the (dis)comfort of being miserable, than actually taking a risk.

Being frightened is a natural instinct to spare us pain – but it is also a great inhibitor to move forward. By making excuses, you give away a crucial chance to get where you want to be.

Every artist needs to be brutally honest about their priorities, perceived necessities – and, most crucially, about their fears and complacencies (and very often, the latter go hand in hand).

So the next time you think one of the sentences above, or something remotely similar, I would recommend to straightaway ask yourself the following questions instead:

  1. When did you last take action (not just in your head!) to actually make yourself deserving of that chance – be it trying to make new contacts, working on limitations you know you have, or simply putting yourself out there?
  2. It is a valid choice to put family/relations above your career – but it still is a choice! If that’s what you really and truly feel, you need to make peace with it, and a lot of people do. If you can’t, you need to delve deeper. Ask yourself if there is really no other way: Could someone else help you (and did you in fact ever ask for help)? Could you possibly move (not liking the idea is one thing – saying it is impossible is another)? Did you ever talk to your family, or do you just assume they wouldn’t support you?
  3. Instead of being bitter about other people being picked despite being “less talented”, have an honest look at what they have that you don’t have, and turn it into a positive, because this is something you can work on. And don’t forget about the things YOU have they don’t have: Learn to play your strengths, work on your weaknesses, and then ultimately stop constantly comparing yourself to others.
  4. How do you know, and who told you? What are you afraid of? To simply become better? To train your instrument in a way that will make it last a lifetime? Or are you maybe just lazy and, if you are truly honest with yourself, want the fame, but are not willing to put the work in? Or don’t you quite understand yet what it is that separates a (below) average from a great artist: It is not talent alone – it is the will to constantly work on yourself, and not letting your fears and complacencies stifle your creativity.
  5. If you know you have a problem, stop making excuses and do something about it. In my opinion, it is simply an attitude problem to say: “No time/no money.” If you are strapped for cash, get another job (I did as a student, and so do thousands of others). Stop whingeing about not having time when you are out partying every other night, or spend 3 hours a day in front of the TV, and stop complaining about being too skint for vocal coaching if you have enough money to buy new shoes you don’t really need – YOU set the priorities. If you have real time constraints, ask (again) for help – someone else might babysit for you, your partner might even be supportive of you cutting hours at work etc.
    These days, you also don’t always have to travel for ages: You can get a good coach via Skype and learn from home (if you need any help, feel free to contact me about this).
    If there are seemingly no solutions to your money problems: Heck, even ask a professional coach if there is anything they can do for you. They might be able to help if they see you are truly committed and have what it takes (NB: This does NOT mean you should feel there is an entitlement to get everything for free! You want to be respected for your art, so in turn respect the art and expertise of others, and don’t take it for granted).
  6. Who told you you are no good, apart from yourself? Get a professional opinion. Yes, you might be scared of the prospect of being “laughed at”, but did it ever occur to you that this will probably not happen? And what is actually worse: Taking the risk of doing something you really, really want to do (failure is always an option, but that’s life), or looking back when you are 80, and have nothing to look back upon – apart from regrets about what you haven’t done?
  7. Why do you care what others say? What do YOU want? Being a singer/musician is never “linear” in terms of money. However, is it really the prospect of earning money with your singing that’s most important to you? If that’s the first thing you are thinking about, you will set yourself up for failure. Even if you can’t make a living out of it – there are still many things you CAN do, and you can supplement your income with related (or completely unrelated) jobs.
  8. We all get stuck. Some are passive about it and hope it will pass, some are proactive and seek advice. Try to be the latter. There are a lot of people out there who can help: Vocal & performance coaches, medical professionals, creative industry experts …. Admit your problem, and then seek help. It can sometimes be as simple as just logging onto a forum/taking to Twitter and seeking exchange – you will be surprised how many people have similar problems, and how liberating it can feel to know you are not alone. Bounce ideas off each other, most of all: Be open. A lot of people feel they will always need to deal with their problems on their own, or have to keep their cards close to their chest in case “anyone else will steal my ideas”. There is space, and indeed a niche, for everyone. You always get out what you put in, even if you think you don’t.
  9. Instead of letting one unpleasant experience put you off for good, why not try to work on the things that didn’t go right? Was it a vocal problem that made everything else fall apart? Get a vocal coach. Were you crippled with anxiety? Talk to a performance coach/counsellor/physician with specialism in performance related medicine (they do exist!). Were you underprepared? Work harder.
  10. Here we go back to the start: No one noticed because there is no entitlement that people will, especially not without you pulling out all the stops! No one is waiting for you and will knock on your door – it is you who has to approach your audience, not vice versa.

Don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of things in life we have very little to no influence over: You can’t make the casting director pick you over someone else if they believe the other person is better suited.

There are far more things we CAN influence however than we commonly like to admit to ourselves: You can take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and can become the best singer/performer you can be – if you are willing to commit, work, and stop making excuses.

© Petra Raspel 2012

2 thoughts on “Being a singer – pure technical ability, or a constant battle against your own psyche?

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