When Friends and Family Become Artistic Adversaries

Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse. This happens in any number of ways: beginning work is measured against the masterworks of other artists; beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.

Cameron, Julia. “The artist’s way: A course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” London: Pan Macmillan (1995).

There’s nothing like the feeling of working with a nascent voice, helping it to find new abilities and new ways of making sound. Giving the voice more volume, more range, more openness of expression. How many students have I personally worked with that come in with repressed throats, barely able to open their mouths or make even moderately loud sound?

Then these little vocal embryos go off to demonstrate these new sounds for friends or family. Maybe it’s a demonstration of an emerging head voice, or perhaps the greater power of an open chest sound…

All it takes is ONE person – ONE person – to make a comment or criticize the vocalism to send the poor fledgling singer back into the nest and destroy all their enthusiasm and self esteem. This psychological repair can take MONTHS – MONTHS? – sometimes YEARS to recover and rehabilitate. Sometimes it never happens, and the singer gives up – believing friends and family that they have NO talent for singing. That little bird never sings again.

People think I’m crazy, but this is precisely why I don’t think it’s psychologically healthy for many new singers to sing publicly before they can withstand this kind of criticism, especially if it’s from friends and family. It is so disconcerting and aggravating to pick up the pieces of a singer’s already fragile ego in the studio. In the Old Italian school, the singers never sang publicly on the stage until their training was complete!

The human larynx is the first site of repression on the human body.

Think about that for a while.

It is the first body part that we are told to control. We must BE QUIET as children. My own family told me “CHILDREN SHOULD BE SEEN BUT NOT HEARD,””HUSH UP IN THERE!,””QUIET DOWN,” or my favorite (just kidding): “SHUT UP!” Many NEVER use their voices again because someone else in the family doesn’t like loud noise.

Studies by Kenneth Phillips in his book Teaching Children To Sing have shown that boys with awkward pubertal voices do NOT sing into adulthood if they are criticized or ostracized in singing groups. That is a loss of men’s voices on a scale that should make us all sad.

Beverly Sills once said that the reason her speaking voice was so low was because her parents told her to ‘lower her voice.’ Rather than get quieter, she simply dropped the pitch. A search of Sills on YouTube verifies this lower-pitched speaking voice, despite the fact that she was a high coloratura soprano.

Edward Foreman had this to say about development of the young voice:

The emotional life of the child causes a physical mechanical approach to the voice
which results in an actual shaping of the vocal organs. From the earliest years, before the child can make rational choices, fear and imitation cause the child to use muscular repression to shape the voice into an acceptable means of communication. This prerational use of the voice causes the vocal organs to adopt specific coordinations which are interferences and inhibitions to the free and natural use of the voice. The child will continue to control and limit the voice by this basic shape—which is a reflection of the personality of the child—until it’s changed by Transformative Voice.

For Foreman, the Transformative Voice was the fully potentialized human voice that changes the sense of self and frees the human from socially induced repressions. Is it any wonder that Cornelius Reid connected voicework to Reichian therapy, which attempts to free repressed emotions through muscular movement?

In our current turbulent times, consider how many people (gays, lesbians, minorities, transgender, women, children, the aged) have their voices SILENCED. Free speech is bound inexorably with VOICE. Consider how much we tie FREEDOM in general to FREEDOM of SPEECH!

So what is to be done? How can we nurture an emerging voice’s abilities?

We as teachers need to do better at helping our society understand the role of VOICE – in ALL ITS manifestations both physical and metaphorical. Training a voice is a time in which many sounds will be explored – perhaps not all of them good. Early efforts should not be judged against professional artists. Television talent shows have made everyone an armchair critic of what is good and bad in vocalism, yet children bring home finger paintings from schools and are always praised for their early efforts.

We need to view an emerging singer as a delicate child, and celebrate every new discovery, every new bit of art that they bring home. Perhaps students should be made a aware in lessons that they may receive criticism as they try new things and they need to know how to react when that occurs.

The slightest comment or criticism can SILENCE a voice for life.

Do we really want that on our conscience?

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