Pride, Fear, and Ambition in Singing

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.  Proverbs 16:18

In singing, I often remind myself and my singers that emotionally and vocally “pride can really get you hurt, but humility will get you well.”  By teaching and training a voice in a functional way, any aesthetic concept that I have of ‘my sound’ or my student’s ‘sound’ is to end-gain or drive to the final product. This takes us both out of the process of learning to sing and focuses on the destination. It also takes me OUT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT with their voice. I’m no longer invested in the moment that they are singing RIGHT NOW, but am mentally attached to some ‘future voice’ that doesn’t even exist.

“Can you sing an ‘u’ vowel on A4 at a very quiet volume?” is an instruction based upon functional logic;

“Can you round the sound and keep a pink mist floating in the back of your eyeballs, while you squeeze your lower abdominal muscles?” – well, that is not useful at all. What kind of pink? Shocking? Light? Dark?

We all vacillate between our pride and our FEAR and our ambition in singing. Think about a time that you ALMOST NAILED a vocal scale or a technical difficulty in an exercise, song or aria. You are so close to achieving your goal that you can see it, hear it, and taste it. And how tempting is it at this point to PUSH your voice to achieve it, to get to that final finish line!!

And that’s when the EGO will get in the way and step right in to take you the rest of the way vocally.

When we become OVERLY ambitious, we lose sight of the practice of singing, and focus on a result, rather than freedom, ease, and release of the unwarranted extrinsic musculature of the the throat and larynx.

Contemplate and think about the vocal exercises that you don’t sing as avoidance; because they show off a flaw, or hurt your pride. This is an interesting thermometer for where your ego stands with relation to that particular maneuver. (For ME, it’s a messa di voce.) We don’t like the feeling of ‘letting go’ or ‘failing’ when singing, so we ‘hold on’ and force a response that is less free, less US.

When you avoid certain vocal exercises, you allow this voice of unreason to be your guide, and it then dictates your vocal technique. Perhaps this is the reason so few singers can ‘get under the hood’ in their own voices to fix technical problems that require a recalibration? It’s scary to make unusual, weird, or different types of sound. A pure falsetto doesn’t sound like an end product, sounds effeminate and un-masculine, so men avoid it. “That hooty [u] exercise doesn’t sound like an ‘end product’, so why should I exercise in that way?”

Here’s some truth: ANY vocal trouble or avoidance when met full-on can quickly transform itself into a friend.  It’s a bit like not owning up to a credit card bill that is due or just plain ignoring it. It doesn’t make the debt go away. Only by facing the money you owe and making a plan to pay it back are you going to get out of debt.

Humility is a two-sided coin: I grew up in Missouri, and my mother would often scold me if I was getting “too big for my britches.” I know the meaning of that, as I’m sure you do too. But humility is a letting go of GOOD AND BAD – BOTH. The highest and most successful singers I know tend to be the most humble. I think there’s a reason for that, friends.

But the other side of the humility coin is not to try at all. “I’ll never be a famous singer” can make your work less expansive, less open, less real. Just like the earlier example of egoic singing tends to push, the opposite is not doing enough. This is where humility doesn’t serve, and becomes closer to Self-Minimization; that is NOT what we are going for in singing. Remember, singing is an ASSERTIVE ACT.

We don’t need to ELIMINATE our fear or ambition, they will always be there in our awareness, and BOTH are necessary in a singer’s life. But we must bring them into BALANCE in the moment of singing, so that our vocal work is energized by them both. Then we sing with a balance of holding on and letting go (students hear me say this ALL THE TIME!), action and non-action, ambition and restraint. What is REQUIRED to achieve this kind of a balance is an understanding of humility, and a commitment to playful discovery and functional truth.