Do you talk to yourself? Sure you do. Everyone does. Maybe not out loud, but with thoughts and assumptions you’ve developed over a lot of years and become comfortable with, because it’s how you perceive yourself and the rest of the world. If you started talking out loud you’d see how silly some of your assumptions are. (“You really are stupid. You can’t do anything right.” “She hates you, of course. They all do.” “I’ll never sing as well as he does.” Or one of my favorites for many years, “I have a small voice.”)Thoughts are very powerful if you don’t recognize them. It’s like subliminal propaganda from an insidious fascist regime. We really say awful things to ourselves, and, incredibly, we believe them. By acknowledging the negative things in your mind, you can start to laugh at them and weaken their effect.
What’s that got to do with singing? Everything. Many times I’ll say to a student, “What
happened there? That note wasn’t quite right.” And the answer is, “I was thinking about the measure before it, where I screwed up.” You were singing along, thinking, “Breathe. One-and-two. Focus.” Then, “Oh! Darn! I missed the C# again! What an idiot. I always do that. I just can’t get that spot. This song is too hard. I hate it.” Notice how unyielding and judgmental this is: always, can’t, too hard, hate. In the meantime, 3 measures have passed and you were not concentrating on what you were doing. In fact, all that negative propaganda made it harder. It robbed your physical, mental and emotional resources. In
addition, singing, especially performing, takes a lot of confidence – even bravado. That was all drained from you the moment you started berating yourself for the mistake.
Obviously, improving your singing means that you must notice and take care of your mistakes. But that’s not the same as being mean to yourself. You can think,
“I need to practice that phrase more,” without putting yourself down. Then you can go on and concentrate on the next phrase.
So when beginning a new piece you should work on what is a manageable goal for you. This help you avoid taking on so much that you really can’t convince yourself it’s do-able. If you have difficulty learning the notes, do rhythms alone until they are working well, then pitches, then add the text. Sometimes you can take a short phrase that is well-learned and start to work on opening for the high note or getting the focus right. The thing is that
you can’t expect correct notes, rhythms, diction, tone, breathing and expression to all come immediately. Plan on small achievable goals so you get less frustrated. Then you are less likely to think those ugly thoughts.
Aside from the unemotional “Practice that spot more,” you can add positive phrases to boost your confidence. Try “I can do this. I enjoy performing. High notes are fun.” Even “I am a great prima donna!” (Oh, and try to avoid “I’m better than that guy who just sang.”)
So what if you have to pretend it at first. Say them anyway. Besides, if you stick to small goals, it’s not hard to believe that you can do it. You may find instructional affirmations (“Breathe deeply”) most helpful during practice, while the positive and uplifting (“I
am Luciano Pavarotti!”) work well as you get close to performance and are polishing the expression and presentation. You won’t be able to perform without those negative thoughts if you haven’t practiced replacing them.
You can’t afford a single negative thought.