Singing in Confidence...

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singingpracticeComedian Jo Brand used to talk of an agony aunt who had received a letter from a man whose girlfriend considered him inadequately endowed. (Bear with me, this metaphor becomes relevant shortly...um, no pun intended...) She wondered who these women were making such comments - surely they should realise that if you observe that it's small, it just gets smaller...and smaller…

This sequence comes to mind whenever I'm working with singers and someone gives the remark that something sounds tentative or lacking in confidence. They may be right (they usually are), but it is the kind of observation that will elicit exactly the opposite response than the one needed.

Hence, I have started to work with people on ways to give feedback that don't undermine a fragile state of confidence. The usual guideline for feedback is to not to name the problem, name what you want to hear. For example, rather than: 'it was rather ragged,' you'd say, ' it needed to be more synchronised'.

But in this case a simple positive reversal doesn't do quite enough. To say, 'it needs to be more confident,' is certainly better than, 'it sounds tentative,' but it still hits people in the dimension in which they're feeling like they have least control. It is hard to summon an appearance of self-assurance when you are being told directly that you don't have one. It feels like you're being told, 'You just need to be less inadequate as a human being'.

Instead, it turns out to be useful to address the symptoms, rather than the perceived cause. We diagnose underconfidence from a collection of vocal clues: intermittent breath support, a breathy tone, a tendency to wait for others to sing first rather than all stepping into the music together.

These elements are all subject to conscious technical control. And having something specific to work on calms people down because instead of thinking how wobbly their singing is, they're thinking about the specific technical feature that needs attention: continuity of breath, or bringing the tone forward, or all reaching a target vowel cleanly together.

And that is when the magic happens. Because as soon as you address one of these specific technical issues, the sound immediately becomes more positive, and the internal perception-identity loop within each singer changes direction.

For whatever the inaugural sound we hear when we start to sing sounds like is how we feel about ourselves as singers. A clear, ringing, rhythmically secure start informs our subconscious that we are competent and in control and we continue to sing that way. A hesitant or undersupported start tells our sense of identity that we're rather out of our depth and don't really want anyone listening to us.

Sort out the sound, and we sort out the sense of self-identity. Attack the self-identity and the sound will retreat to match the feeling of personal embarrassment. And if people are thinking about the needs of the music, then they can get on with working on the sound without feeling self-conscious.

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