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On Vocal Confidence

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Since the start of the year is a traditional time for goal-setting, I had conversations earlier in the month with various singers about what they would like to get better at during 2019. And there’s a theme that has come up in several times that I’d like to reflect on for a while, and to consider how best to support people working on it: vocal confidence.

You can see why people identify it as a goal: it is very natural to want to feel more secure in what you’re doing. What is less immediately clear is what produces this feeling. Because as I’ve noted before, confidence is not the same as competence - your objective skill level and how you feel about your performance are connected to an extent, but it’s by no means a direct or linear relationship. And sometimes the relationship is even inverted.

There were some helpful clues about how to approach this in the way the singers framed their goals. One, for instance, talked about how he’s not always sure how well he’s singing: in this case, the confidence gap comes from a perceived deficit in the feedback loop. One of the things we learned from the theory of Flow is that activities that take you into the zone involve the experience real-time information on how things are going; this singer’s experience shows that when there is doubt about the quality or accuracy of that information, Flow’s loss of self-consciousness is interrupted.

Another singer discussed how he feels his performance is currently inconsistent – sometimes he thinks he’s doing well, whereas other times tension affects his tone and tuning. In this case, the issue is reliability of the vocal instrument, of whether you can produce the results you desire consistently at will. In some ways, this dimension is more directly a technical issue: the more secure your control, the more secure you can feel. I am reminded of my friend Alison Thompson talking about how technique is her ‘place of safety’ for this reason.

There is an interesting wrinkle in this one, though, and again it’s related to the personal feedback loop during singing. If the sound you are producing is as you’d wish, you feel good about yourself, and you relax. A vocal mechanism free from extraneous tension tends to keep working well. If you perceive things you don’t like in your sound, you are likely to respond by worrying and thereby introducing exactly the kind of tension that distorts vocal production. Self-monitoring can thus produce either a virtuous or vicious circle between performance and how you feel about it.

Behind both of these accounts of under-confidence lurks the critical inner voice that Inner Game theory identifies as our worst enemy. Whether it is saying, ‘Is this good enough?’ or ‘that wasn’t good enough’, it is hijacking cognitive capacity for picky self-commentary that could more usefully be used for attending to the music. Anything you correct through this means will be over-corrected, and corrected late, and your singing feels like a wobbly bicycle ride.

So, our Inner Game tools of Awareness, Will and Trust are going to be useful for embarking on this endeavour.

Another useful reference that occurs to me is Susan Jeffers’ classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. (I may have remarked before that this title is superb in that if you read nothing else of the book, you will still have the key message.) People sometimes think they need confidence in order to embark on something, but she argues that confidence is your reward for having made the effort and survived to tell the tale.

Note that it’s not necessarily that you have succeeded. Sometimes you do, but not always. That’s fine. Mistakes are part of the process, and the near-misses are where the growth happens. Indeed, if nobody is making mistakes, there’s no skill development going on.

I think it is also useful to revisit how we give feedback about confidence. Those I work with regularly will have noticed that I rarely if ever talk about tuning. I listen for it all the time, but regard it as diagnostic information about what the singers and the music need, rather than a thing to be worked on in itself. I’d say that confidence is in the same kind of category. If something is sung expressively of under-confidence, it is more helpful to ask for commitment, or purpose, or joy, or tenderness, or whatever emotional quality the music needs than it is focus on the singers’ already wavering self-belief.

I’ll finish with something stunningly useful that David McEachern said to me a couple of years back. It was useful not just because it was perennially wise, but it was also exactly suited to help me in a particular circumstance I found myself in at the time: ‘You can’t necessarily choose to be confident, but you can choose to be courageous.’

So, to those singers I have privilege of working with during 2019, I can’t promise to have you feeling more vocally confident by the end of the year, but I’m confident we can collectively achieve enhanced levels of vocal courage.

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