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When We Play Small

Elizabeth and I had worked on a song for a showcase she was doing. She’s a music theater singer and her song was perfect for her. She was communicating the character and her voice sounded great. She was completely selling the song. Until the showcase. I was there, and watched her sing her song as though she was punching a time clock. Rather than communicating the text of the song, she was communicating…well…nothing. She was a pretty girl singing a nice song with her pretty voice. Who cares.

Of course I was supportive; she had beautifully incorporated some technical things we’d been working on, and I was proud of her for that. At our next lesson I asked what had happened to the presentation we’d worked on. Turns out there were singers at the showcase whom Elizabeth thought were better than she was. That was it. That was the whole reason she’d turned her sunshine off. “There were singers there who were so good…I knew I couldn’t sing as well as them.”

Well, that got me to ponderin’.

Elizabeth’s situation is a common one, even among really experienced, professional singers. There’s someone you’re sharing the stage with, or who’s in the audience, whom you know to be a really good singer. Or even great. Someone who’s skill level you can’t touch even at your best. So you play small. Or, conversely, you might try much too hard.

It’s the rare singer who isn’t affected by this. We don’t even ask ourselves why we’re trying too hard, or not trying at all. We don’t challenge whatever faulty logic we’re using to justify our actions, or even get conscious about it. We just do it. And then we feel horrible; self-recriminating if we didn’t share our best performance, or embarrassed if we overdid it.

I think it’s human nature, and it doesn’t make us bad. But here’s the thing; you know it’s going to happen. At one time or another you’ll be in this situation. So rather than react in the moment out of fear, plan ahead with intention from a state of calm. Hopefully, then, you’ll have a better chance of being in control of your response to the in the presence of awesomeness.

One of the many items on my “What-I-Know-Now-that-I-Wish-I-Knew-Then” list, is that people like what they like. You can’t please everyone, so all you can do is be the best you you’re capable of, right here and right now. The more you imagine that there’s one perfect way to sing -and once you get it everyone will like you - the more you’ll be frustrated and false.

What people like is for performers to be real. What people find desirable in any art form is not on a nice, tidy continuum. So use your singing to help your process of uncovering what it is you love, hate, value, or desire. As you uncover the musical reflections of your truths you’ll find what those truths are, and then uncover deeper truths through your singing. For a singer who’s singing as a way to genuinely express music, the process never ends.

Art is about personal discovery and expression. As artists find their own truths and are able to express them accurately they find an audience that resonates with that truth. That doesn’t mean you have a Truth you can write down like a mission statement. That means that your singing just feels right to you. It means that as you’re performing, or recording, that you’re working to meet your own standards. That’s a big job that takes a lot of faith. But it’s true. And the more you invest in the ego race of figuring out who is better, or worse, than you are, the longer it will take you to find yourself in your own singing.

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