Vocal Relationships That Work


Barbara’s Venue

Barbara showed up at the venue to find, yet again, that the keyboard stand had not been replaced, the mic leads were crackling and two of the main lights were still broken.

She’d been over this territory with the venue manager at least three times before; he was always apologetic and nice, assuring her that he would take care of it but he’d still done nothing and now Barbara was really pissed off.

In the past she would have swallowed her anger, felt resentful and played the gig feeling distracted, having been well-trained in both her family and her first marriage to feel powerless and dismiss her real feelings. Next she would have either undermined her financial position by inventing an excuse to refuse the next gig even though she needed the money, or performed with a transparently “bad attitude.”  Fortunately, she now had better options.

If you want to hear how Barbara solved it, scroll down to the end of the article now.  First, though, I’d like you to consider how to move ahead in all types of relationships.

Drowning in Relationships?

Sometimes people ask me: what is normal for relationships? Since there are a lot of people in unhappy relationships, a much better question is: what is healthy?

Think about the various relationships you’ve had in your life – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What characterized your best relationship? How about your worst? As you read the rest of this article, consider how you’re taking care of yourself in this department right now.

Signs of Un-Health

If you don’t have any of the following signs of an unhealthy relationship, you can skip reading this article!

    – a lack of genuine communication

    – a lack of reciprocal respect

    – patterns of secrecy and resentment

    – “shaming and blaming” – that is, projecting our issues onto our partners instead of taking responsibility for them ourselves

Another unhealthy relationship pattern is becoming passive about your real needs. This generally leads to becoming aggressive when the needs invariably don’t get met, and then passive again after you’ve acted badly!

Often this pattern stems from the belief that other people’s needs are more important than our own or from the fear of losing the relationship if you rock the boat. A much better alternative is to get real about your honest feelings and needs and then to assert them clearly, as a request, not as a demand.

Where do these struggles come from? The tendency to participate in unhealthy relationships usually stems from having internalized similar patterns within our earliest families without even being aware that we’re doing it.

People will often prefer to go with what feels familiar (and therefore falsely secure) than with what feels authentic or satisfying.

Once you become aware of feeling miserable in an unhealthy relationship, the good news is that you can begin to make changes. Again, increased awareness and personal responsibility are necessary aspects of good self-care – so let’s glance now at what a good relationship looks like.

Signs of Health

Healthy relationships naturally encompass a wide range from superficial or casual level contact, to short-lived contact based on shared interests or activities, to enduring friendship, to romantic love, to shared life goals and to family bonds.  Here are some qualities of a good relationship:

    – a sense of togetherness

    – an ability to be yourself

    – honest communication

    – creativity

    – reciprocal caring

    – a sense of comfort and satisfaction

In healthy relationships you know that you always have a choice; you can balance your own needs with those of others in any given situation.

When problems arise in healthy relationships, people communicate clearly, persevere and solve the problems so that they can return to a position of comfort and satisfaction. The better your self-care, the better your relationships tend to be and vice-versa.

Finding Your Balance: an Exercise.

Improving your self-care is actually the most important factor in improving your relationships.  So, I’m going to invite you to do an exercise that will pave the way for a more balanced self.

Get a piece of paper and a pen and jot down the first thoughts that come to mind with each of these questions.  Don’t write more than a sentence or two.

1. How well am I doing in the area of relationships right now?

2. Now that I’ve read the above, where do I need to make improvements?  Look at the areas below and be as specific as you can be.

    – Self-Awareness – paying attention to, or being conscious of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors and needs:

    – Self-Responsibility – owning your part, no more, no less:

    – Radical Acceptance – accepting and tolerating reality, even if you don’t like it:

    – Healthy Relationships – authentic, mutually satisfying, caring connections:

    – Lifestyle Balance – honoring all parts of one’s self:

3. Now, write down three goals for improving how you take care of yourself in any of the areas you considered to be ‘in need of improvement’. Being specific usually helps you to know whether or not you’ve met your goal. Set a time-line for each goal, if you can. Feel free to add additional goals

1.________________________________

2.________________________________

3.________________________________

Notice any reactions you are having to doing this exercise. Does it bring up any particular feelings, thoughts or bodily sensations? Take note of them and consider writing them down.

Finally, ask someone you trust to support you in being accountable and to follow-up with you about your goals. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you succeed. If you didn’t succeed, figure out what didn’t work and rework the goals to be more realistic. Keep going. You’ll be improving your self-care in no time.

Back to the Venue

Instead of feeling silenced, getting mad and sabotaging herself, Barbara arranged a meeting with the venue manager and his business partner, the owner.

In the meeting, she described how she felt that the club conditions were negatively impacting upon her performance and potentially upon their business. She expressed herself clearly with an appropriate level of muscle and appealed to their mutual interests. By the end of the meeting, the club owner and the manager made arrangements with their sound engineer to fix the problems and then actually followed through.

Barbara heard through the grapevine later that the owner wondered why she’d had a reputation for being difficult when he found her so reasonable.

Barbara has lost her tolerance for bad behavior from a whole range of people including her family, her manager, booking agents and club owners. The longer she has been with Gene, her loving and mature second husband, the more she has come to realize how destructive the patterns in her first marriage had been.

She has even changed her repetitive interaction with her adult son, who grew up watching his father criticize and disrespect his mother. Instead of continuing to ignore her son’s dismissive comments or blame herself for staying in a bad marriage for too long, she started calling her son on his hurtful behavior in a non-reactive but direct manner.

Barbara became brave and clear and found that her relationships became more authentic and more meaningful. She learned to treat herself with respect and to expect the same from others.  As you work through these issues, you will too.

Useful Links:

SPAM in the Vocalist’s Brain

Creative Recovery

Susan Raeburn, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist. She is the co-author of Creative Recovery. Susan maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, Calif., and is a staff psychologist in the Chemical Dependency Services program at Kaiser Permanente. Susan’s mother, Ginnie Powell, was a professional vocalist during the Big Band era, singing with the orchestras of Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Boyd Raeburn.

© Susan Raeburn and Gregory A. Barker September 2009.


  • Thanks for the article. Too bad it focussed so much on the singer's personal issues and only marginally on developing good business practices. While I agree that personal problems often impact our professional lives, I think a lot of readers, especially men, will be turned off by the tone of the article.

    I wholly support the basic message in the article, though – in order to be successful in managing professional relationships, singers need to be direct without being pushy, clear without getting shrill and professional at all times regardless of the dubious behaviour of others. Stand up for yourself and what you need in order to create the level of musical product both you and the venue require. As the article pointed out, your vocal ability and musicianship impact not only your own career but the pocketbook of the venue as well. I've found that couching requests (and sometimes outright demands) for more cooperation from the venue in terms of their dollars lost or gained often generates a positive response faster than anything else!

  • kcalmes

    The golden rule says for us to treat others in the same way we would like to be treated. I've found this works in most situations. Barbara's solution to the problem resolved her issue with the venue management and I'm sure she will be invited to perform there again in the future simply because she followed the golden rule. And, as she discovered, along with walking softly sometimes you will just have to use that big stick you're carrying :-)

  • DaviRai

    The process of looking at life patterns is important to the focus everyone requires to know self. Creating, performing and preserving
    an original project is a very good way to do this. It does not every require anything special to begin. Writing lyrics is alot like journaling about what has happend, what is happening and what can happen. During this process things begin to be revealled regarding what best influences the highest outcome in almost any situation. The paradigm may be the paradox for you also. The 'big shift' seemed to happen when there was a certain realization regarding the fact that it is necessary to 'give it up' in order to 'get it' because that paradox was showing up as a variable common denominator across the board. How the unseen Universe is a very real part of this world is no longer rocket science. Often if we place so much emphasis on what is right under our nose that there is no room or time for anything else we may find that an 'outside the box' experience is likely to arise. I hope this sheds some Light on our selves and all we Love. Love, Peace and Joy—DaviRai

  • Yeah, i suppose that growing healthy relationship skills is always a plus. But not least important is to know how to deal with difficult situations that have no solution in the short term. We all musicians have had to perform many times in terrible places with horrible equipment. My personal goal is making sure i can put aside of my thounghts those bad conditions and make a good performance rather than wasting any energy in trying to correct things beyond my reach.

  • garymckinney

    Venue managers, like most business owners, usually have a ton of problems on their hands. The last thing they're looking for is another problem and if you are the messenger bringing them another complaint or problem for them to solve they will quickly put you in the category of someone they don't want to do business with. But, if the “complaint” is presented as not a problem but a “suggestion” that will enhance their business — that's a different matter altogether and explains why Barbara's meeting went down so well.