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If I were to ask you to sing right now, in front of me, how would it make you feel?
I'm sure some of you would smile and eagerly share a song. However, for those who feel they "can't sing" or who have been told they shouldn't, the very thought of singing in front of someone can cause their heart rate to rise, muscles to tense, and spark a thought something like, "Oh crap! She wants me to do what?" When people think about singing their body reacts in a habitual and emotional way that is influenced by their personal relationship to singing, their opinion of their singing voice, and very commonly, from negative messages they received from others over their lives in response to their singing.
Every week I hear new stories about how, usually in childhood, a person was given negative feedback about their singing voice by school choir teachers, parents, family and/or friends. This results in a negative personal association and a lack of trust in their own singing voice. These negative associations can stay with people for years, even throughout a lifetime, causing a detrimental physiological and psychological response to singing. My experience has shown that most people don't even realize they're having this response, but it's this very response that's contributing to the less-than-pleasing sound they may hear when they are singing. Fortunately, once the reaction is recognized it can be re-patterned, eventually resulting in a free and joyful singing voice.
I often ask newer students how they feel when asked to sing in public or around peers, and commonly they share with me that they feel anxious, (or down-right scared) tense, vulnerable, start comparing themselves to others, and they often think negative things about their voice or ability to sing. The trouble is, this tension and un-supportive self-dialogue makes it much more difficult for the singer to control their voice and sing in a way that pleases them. Instead, the singers breathing gets shallower, their muscles get tight, and their focus shifts away from the song or music and towards worried thought about how good (or bad) they will sound, and what others will think of their singing.
If people have practiced this negative association to their own singing voice enough, over time the thought of singing will instantly create a stress response in their body instead of a relaxed state of enjoyment. The tension will inevitably have a detrimental effect on the sound the singer makes when they do sing, which reinforces the negative self-talk ... and the cycle continues.
What you think, your body will respond to.
The action of singing, being (in part) a physical activity, requires the intricate coordination of muscles, nerves, and breath. The brain being the control center, sends the signals required to sing, to the rest of the body based partly on impulse and partly on the conscious or unconscious thoughts we are having at the time. I see it often. A student will think, "I can't sing that note. It's too high." and inevitably they prove themselves right. If you think you have a terrible voice, or that no one would want to hear you sing, your body is going to respond accordingly, making it almost impossible to sing freely.
If, out of the gate, a person tells themselves they will not sing something well, what is the likelihood they will?
How do we change these patterns when we have been practicing them for so long?
As long as the cycle of (sometimes unconscious) negative self-talk is present, it's going to be difficult for the singer to get the best sound from their voice. It is possible though. The first step to breaking this cycle is self-awareness based in curiosity. If you are asked to sing in front of others, what physical and emotional sensations arise in you? Do you experience shakiness, difficulty controlling breath, negative self-talk, racing heart rate, a feeling of vulnerable, tense muscles, feeling tongue tied, brain going blank (can't remember the song or lyrics) or any other feeling that relates to a negative association with your singing voice? All of these sensations have been trained into you because of the external (other people) and internal (self-talk) experiences you have had around your singing.
If you notice any of them in yourself, just note them. They're a perfectly natural response that almost everyone has felt while singing, at one time or another. When you bring your awareness to these feelings when they arise, they lose some power.
The next part requires practice because it involves re-wiring your automatic response to singing, and that takes time and intention. The process itself can be quite simple however.
Spend some time thinking about how you want to feel when you sing.
Confident, joyful, relaxed, connected, happy, expressive, playful, free, open, sincere...?
A student of mine who is timid about her singing voice at times, expressed that she would like her voice to feel like springtime. When I asked her to describe that to me a bit further, she said that springtime felt full of opportunities for growth and possibility. Now that's a nice place to sing from.
Find a feeling that's comfortable to you. (In the context of singing) Can you bring yourself to a state of feeling it right now? Give it a try.
The next time you sing notice how you are feeling; and be aware if there is any kind of stress or negative response in your mind or body when you do so. If there is, remind yourself of the state you wish to feel when you are singing. The one you just practiced. Call upon this positive association and see if you can replace the negative feeling with the positive one. "I want to feel relaxed and happy when I am singing". Take a deep breath, and give yourself a moment to set a new feeling intention for your singing experience, and do your best to hold on to this while you are singing.
As simple as this may seem, this process is actually building new neural pathways in your brain, that will eventually lead to more positive association with your singing voice. Over time your body will react differently when you start singing because your brain will associate the act with a positive state instead of a stressful one - and your voice will adjust accordingly. Your voice may be louder, clearer, and more controlled due to slower breathing, better focus, and more relaxed muscles. More importantly, your experience of singing will be much more enjoyable , and that really is the whole point isn't it.