“She knows nothing about breathing.”
“He has no clue about French diction.”
“Her musicianship is terrible, and she should never sing [insert composer here].”
Why is shame such a part of the teaching of voice?
Why does a student need to be shamed in order to learn something, especially something as wonderful as music?
I have had many conversations with other teachers who will say some of the above to me, and I have to nod and remain silent so as not to forget how my mother raised me.
This type of instruction is based solely in the ego.
The need to shame someone is almost always tied to making someone feel ‘less than’ so that you can feel better about yourself and your expertise.
Shame has an EFFECT on the psyche and the soma of the student singer. Shamed singers are not able to ‘open’ up, and often carry with them tremendous muscular tension of the throat and neck. The sound cannot be ‘brought out,’ because the muscles that engender vocal release are ‘held’ or ‘frozen.’ The body of a shamed singer is held rigid with fear.
Fear is CONSTRICTIVE. Acceptance is expansive.
Peter T. Harrison’s wonderful book should be taken to heart by every teacher interesting in the wholism of the art of voice training. His remarks on shame and its ripple effects are tremendously insightful:
The fury and frustration, anguish or loneliness which make us feel inadequate, marginalised, defiant or desirous to please can be exacerbated by self-blame or feelings of guilt or shame. However, the clinical psychologist Dr. David Smail once wrote of those drawn to or referred to psychotherapy, ‘They are less people with whom anything is wrong than people who have suffered wrong’. Once we are adult, we must take responsibility for how we are. The starting point of becoming what we were intended to be or to become (as distinct from what we have been conditioned to become) is the acceptance of ourselves as we are, warts and all. In accepting ourselves we can admit that we need help. We are designed to laugh and cry; to transmit our emotions physically, to convey how we feel vocally. Discouragement, censoring and prohibition of emotions debilitate the expressive reflexes and physical mechanisms with which we were born. This causes chronic retentive or protective muscular tension.
There can be few people who do not have demons of one kind or another lurking in the shadows, or who do not have diamonds which only need the light of day to sparkle and show their worth. The process of learning to sing has a way of uncovering or releasing the parts of our personality which are dormant or afraid. This can be an exciting ‘growing up’ process; it can also be painful. Time and effort is sometimes wasted in the studio because there seem to be so many doors, or too many locks. As teachers our job is not that of a psychotherapist. We must keep an eye or ear open for signs of psychological distress which may indicate some other form of treatment.
Our bodies and emotions are in league with one another, each in its way reflecting the condition of the other. As well as taming the demons and discovering how they can serve you, singing should be a search for those diamonds, those life-affirming aspects of our personality which as children we carried determinedly but lightly into this world. Successful therapy or healing is bound to involve the whole person, body, mind and spirit, which is why the holistic process we call learning to sing can be so liberating.
Harrison, Peter T. The human nature of the singing voice: exploring a holistic basis for sound teaching and learning. Dunedin Academic Pr Ltd, 2006.