I have failed. I know it’s surprising given my unearned sense of confidence. But I have, in fact, failed in my life… Many times! I failed getting into music college for my undergraduate, I failed getting into music college for my post graduate… I then failed again getting into music college for my post graduate… and then I failed again at getting a 2:1 at my degree. I failed at learning to play piano and violin… I still can’t play a guitar! I failed at knowing how to effectively feed myself and stay active and now I’m just a chubby starving mess!
But it’s all ok!
Throughout my education I was critiqued. It’s an unavoidable part of learning, someone will tell you ‘you’re doing this wrong’, ‘you need to be doing that’ and you will take it on board and adjust yourself to fit into what that person says. Then another teacher will come along and say something different, then another and then another until you realise that everyone is wrong and right at the same time! the tricky thing about voice is that there is definitely a right and a wrong to sing, but you get to a point where you are so solid in the right way to sing that it becomes so abstract and nuanced that your teacher is teaching what they know of their voice and not what you know of your voice! I was very lucky to have such a great teacher in university that understood my voice and gave me music that I would succeed and enjoy while being challenging. My teacher was right for me because we understood our instruments the same way. We understood how our voices worked and what we needed to do to get the different technical aspects to work.
This fascinates me because you will never know how other people hear themselves or what they feel when they sing! It’s a lot like Justin Bieber saying that he’s saddened that he’ll never get to hear himself in person, which is something I relate to completely! I will never actually know what I sound like live and in person and I am so curious about it! Sure you can listen to a recording but it’s not the same!
With a harp you can play multiple instruments and you get a ‘best practice guide’ to how to sit and hand position etc because you can go and play other instruments and this is what works best for people, except I play my octaves with my 1st (thumb) and 3rd finger (middle) because my 3rd finger is just longer than my 4th and if I’m only playing a three note chord it makes sense to my hands! However, when it comes to singing, a voice teacher has only ever ‘played’ their own instrument and so only knows there own experience!
So when you get out into the real world were you are your only critic it is easy to take all of the negative things you’ve been told and apply them all and hope for the best, which is what I did, I would show up and sing in a very affected way that was based on what others had told me to do from how their voices worked rather than how my voice as an instrument works. two years down the line and I’m slowly getting to the point where I know how to sing in an effective and efficient manner that works well with what my voice naturally wants to do! I don’t need to warm up as much because my voice is happy with where it lives. However, this is where the criticism comes in and you start thinking ‘oh I could’ve done that word better’ or ‘I could’ve been smoother on that section’ and it slowly builds! Joyce Didonato talks about this a lot and it’s very true. As a singer you’re taught to critique everything, it all has to be smooth and even and your tone has to be good and diction perfect. But when you get on to a stage it doesn’t matter! People want to hear you and your words and your beautiful voice but they also want something real, they want a performance. Something I struggle with a lot is looking up at audiences, mainly because you sort of have to look at a harp occasionally otherwise I end up playing complete nonsense, but I do try! And I’ve stopped worrying about whether that makes the performance or not. I used to worry that if I didn’t look at my audience they wouldn’t engage and I wouldn’t get my message across, but I’ve stopped and I’ve realised that it just doesn’t matter! NO ONE CARES! Look pretty, Sound nice and Screw ’em if they don’t get it!
I used to restrict my repertoire a lot because I would think something was ‘inappropriate’ for work, sure, Beyoncé’s ‘Irreplaceable’ is not the most apt thing to play at someone’s wedding there are limits… But I realised most of my restrictions on things where entirely in my head! Half the time people aren’t even paying attention! I once had a man come up to me and say ‘that song seemed like you were talking to God…’ after I had performed ‘Irreplaceable’, the chorus of which is:
‘You must not know about me; You must not know about me,
I can have another you in a minute, matter a fact, he’ll be here in a minute, baby.
You must not know about me, you must not know ’bout me,
I can have another you by tomorrow, so don’t you ever, for a second, get to thinking You’re irreplaceable.’
So CLEARLY this man wasn’t listening, despite being a metre away from me and I looked him straight in the eye for half of the song. Thus proving my point! No one cares! If you’re not on a stage and people haven’t paid to see you specifically, it does not matter! You should just be trying to find your voice and make music in the most comfortable way you can!
Being The Worst Person in the Room
I’m not good at sight reading. I was rubbish at it in National Youth Choir of Great Britain. I was terrible at it all throughout school and uni and I’m still pretty crap at it now! I have come to terms with this! a few weeks ago we did a bash through with my vocal ensemble ‘The Cardiff Consort’ and I was the worst at sight reading, I never sight read in my day to day life, I was never a chorister at a church and I have never needed to sight sing anything in my professional career. However, when you’re in a group with some incredibly talented singers who have done all these things and don’t worry about not getting every note right then you end up feeling like the worst person in the rehearsal!
What you should do if you are ever faced with this situation is… SHUT UP! nothing will be solved by you apologising for being bad at sight reading, NOTHING! shut up past Sam! No one is good at sight reading, and if they are they don’t admit it, and if they do admit it then they are a very rare breed of musician and you should maybe stab them to see if they bleed because I’m pretty sure you’re in a rehearsal with a robot!
Anyway, future Sam (because no one but you will read this) stop apologising for your mistakes and learn from them instead! It’s fine to sing the wrong notes and look confused at your sheet music, just try and sing the right notes next time around! You’re a god damn professional now and you need to start lying to others about your abilities like you lie to yourself about being able to play harp every morning!
And that is how you beat criticism and that feeling of being a fraud and a failure! Lying and having an unearned sense of confidence! Hurray!