Fixing Fear

Several weeks ago, I was fighting off a sinus infection while preparing for a big concert with my colleague Alexandra. I’m somewhat prone to them, especially when the weather fluctuates as greatly as it has been in the States this winter. I took my usual precautions, but the sinus infection got progressively worse. This was particularly problematic, as the concert was being video taped to market our cabaret duo.

In the midst of the morning’s internal psycho-babble, a moment of clarity arrived: the exact same thing happened last October. Same duo. Same venue. Same recording situation. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “Maybe I can’t blame this global warming after all.”

Another moment of clarity followed: David, you’re afraid of being heard.

I had suffered at the hand of these voices many times before thanks, in part, to a particularly negative graduate school experience. I’ve seen these same voices cripple my students – self-doubt rabidly tearing away the beautiful technical work we had done together as they sang their voice jury.

I know how to diagnose and treat tongue tension. I know how to help someone find a healthier belt mix. But I must admit I’ve spent less time than I’d like helping my students navigate the emotional mine fields we encounter as singers.

Obviously, singing is incredibly vulnerable. We dare to make consistently beautiful sounds with an ever-changing body while our ego subconsciously seeks to undermine the proceedings. Why? It might not come out right. Someone might harshly judge us. There are a myriad seemingly rational reasons for us not to open our mouths.

In my experience, fixing the technical issues associated with this problem is like taking the scenic route. Sure, one might get there eventually, but it’s not the most direct path. When fear grips my students’ singing (or if they’re too in their head), I have come to rely on a couple tools that seem to “bring them back into the room”:

  • I ask the student to move or sometimes briskly walk while singing, focusing on whatever is straight ahead of them.
  • I maintain a large collection of action verbs, written out on index cards. I ask the student to sing their song, changing the cards with each breath. They must play the action on the card even if (and especially when) it doesn’t match the song’s character.
  • I ask the student to translate the text into their own words while singing, keeping in mind it doesn’t have to rhyme or match the number of syllables in the song.

All of these tools address the main issue: fixation on a negative internal narrative. When the student’s view of a song is completely rearranged, it forces them to be more present, which often gets them on their breath. In my own experience, those negative voices have a much better chance of keeping at bay when a student supports their singing.

Back to the concert. I had a full day of teaching the day of the performance. Beyond drinking more tea than I ever care to ingest again, I decided the best thing to do was to come out to each of my students: to admit I was struggling with the negative voices in my own head. I talked about what the voices were actually saying and that I was embarrassed I was letting them spin false narratives after all the work I had put into delivering a memorable concert. I told them we would be talking more about how to overcome fear in their lessons.

As if by a miracle, my voice was completely back to normal by the time the concert rolled around that night. By shedding light on my own fears, I gave my body permission to move past them and release my voice. The concert went incredibly well and I’m happy with (most all) the video recording (I’ll start working on self-judgment next….).

Beyond a desire to sound our best, why is “fixing fear” important? It matters because I believe audiences attend performing arts events – whether it be a recital, opera, concert, play or movie – to be subconsciously released from their own fears. It is our job as performing artists to build a bridge of vulnerability and honesty the audience might not be able to find any other way. We provide for them a safe way of dealing with their fears by virtue of flying in the face of our own. In my opinion, that’s a very high calling.

I’m very much looking forward to my time with you all at the ANATS Conference July 2 & 3. I hope to share my experiences as a teacher, helping students find more technical freedom so they can better communicate a song. I look forward to talking to you about my findings about Vocal Health on Brodaway and Beyond. But I also hope to talk about the importance liberating ourselves from fear so we can heal others through our performance. In my experience, that is when the work is most profound.

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