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Let's start by exploring four negative mindsets from which to 'act as if'. All of these limit and sabotage vocal ability. I'll illustrate these with some case studies of people I've worked with., leaving out names to protect their privacy.
Fear and Anxiety
Did you know that fear - and acting out of that fear - can create expectation that literally paralyze you? That goes for your voice, too.
She was a singer, songwriter, performer entrepreneur and artist manager. She came in with several kinds of vocal issues and limitations. We did some vocaleses that seemed to help, but her issues were puzzling enough for me to recommend going to Vanderbilt Voice Center for a laryngoscopic examination. Turns out she had partial paralysis in one of her vocal folds! I could feel with my hand the tightness across that side of her neck and shoulder. She and I had some deep talks about things, and it turned out she was holding some serious general anxiety pretty chronically. As she began to process her fear, her muscles began to relax, her posture changed and her voice began to respond from the exercises we were doing. Three weeks later, she had another laryngoscopy, and the paralysis was completely gone!
I am not a doctor, and I make no promises that a vocal lesson will heal you of anxiety or any other psychological condition. I just try to make my lessons safe places to explore. Sometimes my students have needed professional therapy and I highly recommend that kind of help for anxiety and fear. The thing to know is, whether you need friendly counsel or professional help, facing and processing fear can allow your voice to function freely and efficiently again.
Believing the Worst
Preparing for the worst possibilities, getting examined to rule out the worst... by all means, you should do these things! But deeply believing your voice is damaged, your diaphragm is frozen, your throat is too small, etc, can cause your voice to act as if these things are true!
He was a recording artist on a label and came in having trouble with vocal control. He was absolutely convinced that his diaphragm was tight and he couldn't do anything to loosen it! I tried many exercises, to no avail. I called Vanderbilt Voice Center wondering if it was possible that his belief could be creating his condition. The doctor there told me that this is almost always the case! This singer didn't come back in for another lesson, and I'll never know if changing what he believed could have changed the tightness at the bottom of his ribcage. But at least I am assured by medical advice that this is indeed possible. It might have been the stress of his career or personal concerns and he might have been helped with psychotherapy. I really hope so; I regret that I was unable to help him.
She was a singer/songwriter who had successfully worked through a number of vocal issues with me stemming from her eating disorder. We'd been working together for quite a while, when suddenly she started having trouble singing sustained notes smoothly. She, too, decided the problem was that she had a tight diaphragm. Remembering my previous student, I sent her to the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic to be examined. When they told her that she did not have a tight diaphragm, she came in for another vocal lesson with me. We did the exact same exercise and she performed it without a hitch! Her sustains were not a problem from then on.
Focusing On What Others Think
Comparing and competing with our voices can create vocal insecurities for any of us. For this case study, I'm going to use myself.
I was doing a lead vocal on a song of mine. There was a high note I wanted to sing, but I could sense that the engineer didn't think I could hit it. So guess what? My voice literally acted as if what he believed about my voice was true. I couldn't hit that note 'til I went to another studio and then sang it with no problem. The voice is so sensitive... our subconscious mind sometimes called the 'lizard brain' that works our voice is so sensitive. Critique and good correction has to be truthful but needs to be positive and kind for the voice to have faith in its full ability to do something or to learn something new.
In the past, I have definitely created my own drama thinking someone didn't like my voice, and it affected my ability to sing around them. I find it helps tremendously to realize with humility and humor... to accept the fact that there will always be people who don't like my voice! It's not usually an intention to be mean, it's just that we all have our own tastes and preferences, and no voice can be all things to all people. Realizing that there are people who don't like voices, styles, and/or songs of Barbara Streisand, Andrea Boccelli, Celine Dion, Willie Nelson, or Taylor Swift... puts things into perspective for me. Those artists have been loved and financially supported by millions:)
I quite frankly also learned not to sing for people who don't like my voice, expecting them to change their minds. It's not fair to them or to me!
Physical and emotional trauma can create a chronic mindset to 'act as if you are' in danger'. When trauma is internalized, the body goes into a counterproductive protect mode long past the need to protect. In this wonderful article by Andrei Schiller-Chan titled 'The Voice Keeps the Score', the trauma-induced fight or flight syndrome can move on to a shut-down state. Vocal ability is compromised by limited breath, as well as jaw, tongue and shoulder tension. The throat is constricted from neck tension, and the ribcage is dropped to protect the heart. The lizard brain directs the body to produce a voice that communicates a lack of confidence for the sake of survival. From the conclusion of the article:
There is no quick fix ... it begins with taking some time to understand your body and your habits. The most important facet to remember is whatever your body has done to keep you safe, it did so in looking out for you; so, when it comes time to let go of these habits, as naked as it may seem or the feeling of shame that comes with it, be kind, it did the best it could.
She was a brilliant young songwriter who had experienced terrible emotional and physical trauma in her life. She came in for her first vocal lesson with the voice the size of a little mouse. Her songs were incredible, but she had no idea how good she was. After a season of vocal lessons, performing, recording and psychotherapy, she developed one of the most iconic voices I've worked with. She's singing and in general doing extremely well, now that she has fully embraced her voice's truth and beauty.
'Act As If' Mindset For Success
Ok, no matter what has gone on in your life or right before the gig - there are ways to corral your thoughts to create positive intention that can raise your vocal ability right there on the spot. Here's one of my favorite student success stories:
She was an emerging public speaker who had landed a keynote spot at an important event. She had learned how to successfully deal with a severe eating disorder, had written a book on it, and was speaking to doctors about ways to avoid triggering the disorder while working with their patients. She called me from the hallway before going on, just about to have a panic attack. I told her to look around, notice colors, smells, sounds, sights, textures and notice that she was safe. Centered in that moment, she was safe.
Then with a flash of inspiration, I suggested that she 'act as if' she was completely confident in her speech. How would she be standing; holding herself? How would she be breathing? Where would her hands be and what would they be doing? I took her through a deep breathing, centering exercise and then focused her on the task at hand. Who are you about to talk to? I asked, and had her think of the room of doctors as one heart. Why do they need to know what you'll say? How can what you say change the lives of their patients? What will their response be if they understood what you will say?
She called me after her speech, thrilled because she DID IT... and they responded! That was a couple of years ago; I saw her speak again recently and didn't hardly recognize the confident, well-paced, powerful communicator she has become. She acts as if she knows that what she's saying is valid and important, she knows the room of listeners needs to hear her message, and that her voice is absolutely able to send that message out and get the response that says they got it.
Your Next Performance
Here are some ways to get into the mindset you need for your next speaking or singing performance. Acting as if you'll be great... in other words, expecting and intending to succeed, can be a powerful self-fulfilling prophesy. Try these 5 steps:
- Find a quiet corner where you can be alone to focus.
- Acknowledge and accept the butterflies of any anxiety, and give them time to settle as you center yourself with your senses into your safe zone.
- Move your mind on now to focus on the task at hand
- Laser focus on your first words, or lyrics. Who are you talking to? Why? What response from the heart do you want?
- Go out there and get that.
The lizard brain is powerless in the face of art.