A student of mine was struggling to perfect a technical maneuver during a recent lesson. I finally stopped her and asked, “Did you make straight A’s in school?” She confirmed, “I made perfect grades. How did you know that?” I thought back to one of my first vocal lessons with Jack. He guessed the same thing correctly about me. Jack was a wise, older gentleman who used lots of great analogies and metaphors when teaching. In his studio, the sun shined through a window from behind, casting him in a shadow outlined in light. It made him look more like some sort of mysterious guru. This played into the erroneous idea that my ultimate breakthrough was tied to something someone else would do for me – some magical moment when a brilliant instructor would finally remove my long-standing barriers. They would cure the one thing that had always impaired me.
As it turned out, the gift my coaches had to offer (and still offer) was one of self-awareness. They weren’t removing barriers. They could only hold up a mirror and hope I was willing and able to see what was in the way – then remove it myself. But when I “looked in the mirror”, I saw imperfections that I didn’t want to face. This caused me to turn away or disassociate from what I was doing in the moment. My coaches were pointing me straight at the issues, but I was too out of touch with the moment to catch it. A fear existed of being present to “the now”, to my breath, my insecurities and to my emotions.
I needed to embrace what psychologist Carl Jung called – the shadow side. In his Collected Works, Carl Jung says about the Shadow:
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.
Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative. “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself” and represents “a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well”. If and when ‘an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in others — such things as egotism, mental laziness, and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots; carelessness and cowardice; inordinate love of money and possessions — …(it is a) painful and lengthy work of self-education”.
Turns out, embracing the shadow is indeed a difficult task. So difficult, that I initially instead attempted to amputate the parts of my personality I deemed undesirable. However, that became an ironic process, because aspects of my personality that seemed negative or linked to the shadow in some cases, were positive in others. Behavior which rendered ineffective results in vocal practice actually served positive results at other times. For instance, the desire to control my outcomes contributed well to earning perfect grades, but not so well for singing. The problem with attempting to be in control while singing is that it instigates reactions in the body that aren’t the most effective for producing an authentic and effortless sound. The mind says “Get it right,” while the body reacts by squeezing the throat muscles (and a lot of other counteractive solutions.) Why would we reactively grab with the throat, instead of low body muscles that are stronger and better suited for supporting the voice? I adopt Eric Arceneaux’s view that we grab with the throat muscles because they are the closest set of muscles to the vocal chords, which is the mechanism we’re trying to control. Eric calls them the “steering wheel” muscles.
So how does a singer tame their control reflex when striving for an effortless singing approach? In addition to practicing technical / physical exercises that condition the proper muscle engagement, another important consideration is taking time to condition your mental approach. Learn to comfort the part of you that feels ashamed or embarrassed if you don’t get it right or deliver imperfect results. (Don’t be a tough guy here and claim to never feel ashamed or embarrassed.) This is part of embracing the shadow. All of the things you wish were different, all of your regrets and perceived shortcomings – these things take a lot of energy to bury, and also to extract. Why do we need to extract them for singing? Because we are an actor telling a story. Our audience can only feel as much of the story as we ourselves feel while performing. It has to be honest. To be convincing, the singer needs access to a complete set of emotions – not just the ones they are comfortable showing. Realize that even the sides of your personality that seem undesirable are an important part of your whole being, and they deserve to be accepted instead of kicked out the door.
A former art instructor said that “The final goal of any art is to make people feel something. If they don’t feel something, it’s just decoration.” That must by what Jack meant when he said, “Disingenuous singing is just a bunch of pretty little notes.” In order to sing more than just a bunch of pretty notes, we have to be clear and honest about what we feel, and then communicate something real to the audience. Decide on the inhale (not when you start singing!) – am I mad, sad, glad or scared? When Michael Jackson was a boy, they asked him how he was able to communicate with such emotion for such a young person. He said (and I paraphrase), “I have to feel it. If I don’t feel it, I can’t sing it.”