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.

An Open Thank You to All of You

Dear Vocal Community:

My recent blog post on “Ego and the Vocal Mask” really touched a nerve for many of you: singers, teachers, coaches, and others. I have received Facebook messages, tweets, instant messages, and phone calls from all over the world in the past 24 hours expressing gratitude for it. The post went viral really quickly and has been seen over 6,500 times in the past 24 hours.

And before my ‘ego’ jumps in here and claims credit for MY work – ha! – let me just say that I believe a deeper dialogue has opened up regarding the issue of authenticity in singing. I will continue in the next several weeks and months to encourage this conversation, and I am so grateful to every single person that has opened their hearts to me.

When I envisioned what my life would be, it was always to help and touch others’ lives; making them happier and more open and honest. I’m grateful in some small way to be of service to all of you.

Let’s stand together now, and work to bring our collective voices to the world with greater authenticity and more self-respect and love.

Humbly submitted to you with much warmth,

Justin Petersen

Ego and the ‘Vocal Mask’

For those readers familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle, this post will come as no great discovery; or maybe it may!

Eckhart Tolle is a teacher and author of The Power of Now and A New Earth. In his book A New Earth, he describes one of the major dysfunctions of the human experience as the “ego” or the “illusory sense of self” which is based on unconscious identifications with one’s memories and thoughts.  The more that you make your thoughts (beliefs) into your own identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension that exists within yourself.

What does this have to do with singing?

Perhaps in constructing a singing voice that is based on a pre-conceptualization of ‘what you think I should sound like’ or ‘matching the market’, it shuts you off from the connection of making truly open, honest, and ‘naked’ vocal sound that has the power to touch the human heart?

As I ponder this, I often wonder if the overly-darkened, brusque, aggressive, and LOUD approach to classical singing gives the singer a chance to stand behind a ‘vocal mask’. The sound is impressive in some cases, and masks can be stunningly beautiful. But they’re still masks.

I also wonder if the rampant egoism that is found in parts of the classical community aren’t connected IN SOME large or small way, to the way that the people are MAKING SOUND. When you construct a ‘vocal mask’ to stand behind, you learn to identify with it, and own it. Identification and Labeling is what Dr. David Burns would call a “cognitive distortion.”  Identification with “my sound” or “my style” or “my way of singing” or “my limitations” stifle the open exploration and discovery of your true sound. My colleague Brian Lee posits that the idea of singing in the mask has a double connotation. Singing into a forward place pedagogically, but also psychologically singing into the construct of what you think the sound should be. Deep.

Other ways of labeling and egoic attachment include the fach system, “I’m a lyric-coloratura with spinto qualities.” The ego absolutely LOVES that!! It’s a label that it can identify with! But what if you’re not those things? Can you just be a singer? Yes, of course you have to put a voice type on your resume, blah, blah, blah. But can you just be ‘a singer’ or ‘a voice’? Why deepen the identification and box yourself in vocally and psychologically?

The word “identification” is derived from the Latin word idem, meaning “same” and facere, which means “to make.” So when I identify with something, I “make it the same.” The same as what? The same as I.

As I have journeyed through the experience of having a broken voice, I have come to learn to make any kind of sound in the quest to restore what I have lost. I became ‘pedagogically agnostic.’ Anything could be TRUE, and anything could be FALSE. I had to test everything against logic and reason. When I started up again, there was no ‘pre-concept’ of what I needed to sound like anymore. I couldn’t do any of my old ‘tricks’ to make my voice work for me. The edifice or ‘vocal mask’ that I constructed no longer worked, because the machinations of singing were not native to my truest self.

Whatever the ego seeks and gets attached to are substitutes for the Being that it cannot feel. You can value and care for things, but whenever you get attached to them, you will know it’s the ego. And you are never really attached to a thing but to a thought that has “I,” ‘me,’ or ‘mine’ in it. Whenever you completely accept a loss, you go beyond ego, and who you are, the I Am which is consciousness itself, emerges.

I think that’s what happened to me when I lost my singing voice. I couldn’t attach to it anymore so it was no longer there. I often said in voice lessons with teachers that ‘my ego had been burned away.’ I was no longer wedded to the results of working technically on my voice, and came to open myself to any kind of sound. Falsetto, Pharyngeal, Nasty, Dopey. These weren’t the normal defaults for me, but since I had no attachment to them or their success, I could submit myself to exercising my voice in that way.  There was no more shame in having a broken voice, but an open-hearted discovery to find out how to make it back.

The vocal sounds and singing that I do now connects me to something rather profound: a vocalism reflective of how I sang as a child: free, uninhibited, open, honest, and carefree. Singing like that FEELS GOOD, and we want to replicate behaviors that offer us a positive stimulus. Singing poorly doesn’t feel good, and so practice and efforts usually wane because we don’t want to experience bad things. This is Pavlov 101.

All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. That is why we may also call it Presence. The ultimate purpose of human existence, which is to say, your purpose, is to bring that power into this world.

Classical singers (and ALL singers), I beseech you to throw off your vocal masks, and embrace a generous and open-hearted way of singing.  Surprise yourself. Disentangle yourself from the attachment to ‘my sound,’ or ‘my voice’.

Bring your vocal and musical power into this world. I can’t help but think that THAT is the unique power that enraptures an audience, causes them to weep, and changes their lives forever. They will always remember that moment when you took off the mask and made them look at themselves and feel the oneness that we all share as human beings.