Hannah Northedge looks at how vocalists can overcome the effects of early criticism.
His voice faltered as he said, “It’s silly really, but I’ve always wanted to sing.”
It was Monday morning and I was speaking with a prospective student….well, at least I think he wanted lessons.
He then gushed self consciously, “I have a terrible voice” and “I don’t want to be famous or anything”.
As I listened to all of his apologies and self-deprecations, I considered how many hundreds of times I have heard all of this before.
I’m sure there are many answers to this question but one theme emerges again and again – and it surfaced with that student after a few weeks of voice lessons:
He had been criticised as a child and this was deeply affecting his perception of his ability.
Students usually tell me that someone in their early life – a teacher, authority figure, peer – told them they couldn’t sing, weren’t good enough for the school choir, were tone deaf, laughed at their singing or just bluntly told them to “shut up!”
This has led so many singers to believe that in some way they don’t have “permission” to sing and so end up being “bedroom singers” when they really want to be “Wembley singers” (or at least sing to more than their cat!)
Reclaiming Your Voice
Three useful strategies I use for students who feel imprisoned by past judgements are:
Record yourself so you can hear how everyone else hears your voice. Often a singer’s perception of their voice is distorted through hearing their own voice partially through bone conduction. So, I take them off to the recording studio so they can gain some feedback. Some of the criticisms may be founded in reality, so this gives students a chance to hear what they can focus on improving upon. Many singers have been pleasantly surprised by how they actually sound!
Consider reasons for criticism as rooted in the one criticizing. Was the person doing the criticizing jealous of the singer? In competition with them? Do they wish they had been a singer themselves? Is it insecurity due to the singer attracting more attention than them? Are they just a negative person generally?! Did the person criticizing think singing was not a valid career option (buying the “musicians make no money” myth) and was trying to dissuade the singer? It is worth trying to understand why a person felt the need to criticize a young singer instead of encourage them to then be able to move on from the effect it has.
Set goals of singing in front of others and get their feedback. This starts by singing in front of yourself: give yourself permission to sing every day around the house or in a rehearsal space. Then sing to one other person in your lounge, then to a few friends or family, then at a karaoke with a few friends, maybe join a choir to gain confidence in numbers. You might then try a public solo open mic performance with a few supportive friends cheering you on. The audience is on your side. They want you to sing well and aren’t really like the scary judges of reality shows dishing out harsh words, but rather just want to be entertained and have a good time. Singing is not just for the “elite few”!
Finally, for those who have had early criticism it is critical to learn the difference between this and the kind of constructive criticism you will encounter in a good coaching or mentoring relationship.
It is wrong to tell a child they “can’t sing” (or “can’t” do anything) since those words immediately place a psychological limitation on their lives.
Constructive criticism from your vocal coach, however, is different since it aims to remove your limitations through encouragement and the hard work of practice. This feedback is essential if you want to develop your craft.
Remember these 6 words:
You have every right to sing!
Hannah Northedge is a pop and jazz singer, vocal coach and director of www.voicecity.co.uk. One of her clients is currently supporting the band JLS and performing at the 02 Arena. Hannah has sung at Ronnie Scott’s, Wireless Festival and Abbey Road Studios. She has just conducted a choir in a film called “POSH”, has coached X Factor finalists and judged Live and Unsigned.