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I have spent several years comparing my voice to professionals, my peers, even children in plays who are years younger than me. It seems we all have this bad habit of making our voices a competition. But why? For me, it is usually because of how touching the voices of those who are successful are. I become jealous, in a way. The ability to move someone through a song is like a hidden super power. In the better half of the past year, my voice and technique has grown immensely due to one change I made. I have accepted that although my voice will always sound imperfect to me, that doesn't decrease its value.
Why We Sing
Why do we sing? Why do we care what we sound like? As an actor and performer, I sing partially to tell stories. My roommate sings in church. My friends sing while skipping down the street. We see strangers singing in their cars. Our voices are a tool we use to explore freedom, emotion, and power. Music has become essential to our everyday lives. Every song touches us in some way; a torch song to help us get over our lost love, or a fun bop that makes us get off the couch to dance.
When I was in my earlier teenage years, I silenced my voice for several years. Even though I loved musical theatre and wanted to be good at it, the idea of singing in front of anyone, even a sibling, made me want to cry. I would reserve singing for when I was the only one home, or for when I could sit in front of my loud, box fan to drown out the sound. Now, although I'm still not one to randomly burst into song in public, my time spent practicing singing is sacred time for self-care. I love sitting in front of the piano in the chilly, basement practice rooms with the dimmed lights dimmed, where my voice be the focus.
Our voices have the power to do incredible things, but only if we give ourselves the permission to be heard. In doing so, we can't always filter out the bad. All of our voice will be heard. The good, the bad, the ugly. It's a vulnerable thing to do for ourselves, but it is essential.
Our Right to Sing
There is a phenomenal book by Patsy Rodenburg commonly used by actors called The Right to Speak. Within it, Rodenburg mostly discusses the use of the speaking voice, but I've found her words to apply just as well to singing. In the second chapter, "God Doesn't Mind a Bum Note," she writes about the self-judgement so many of us battle with each time we use our voice.
We all harbor a fundamental fear about our voices, we are all racked by severe self-judgements. The fear is bound up with the way we think we sound to others. This self-judgement can and does prevent us from communicating fully to the world. This obstruction is so strong it will often create permanent vocal habits that physically and spiritually constrict our voices.
She's exactly right. The fears that bury themselves deep within our minds can completely ruin the joy of discovery with our singing voices. How can we ever expect to improve, surprise, or move ourselves and others if we are unable to allow ourselves to take a risk and our voice apologetically?
The first and most difficult step in this process is accepting the right to use our voice. We must grant ourselves the permission to be heard. We must embrace the cracks and the flat notes here and there, for there is truly no such thing as a bad voice. If you are aiming to use your voice and song to spread a sort of energy that has a positive impact on people (as opposed to the many voices in our world today that have a negative one), it is already a beautiful thing.
I've personally had a big problem with apologizing when it comes to singing in front of others. At music rehearsals for plays I've done, I used to say things like "sorry in advance" as I stood beside the piano - I soon noticed how many others have this same habit. Not apologizing, and therefore asserting that you have the right to be heard, is a vulnerable experience, as is singing in the first place. It's all highly personal and sometimes scary, but that's part of what makes it such a gift in our lives. It's always amazing to me when I see a nervous peer stand in front of the class and sing, then graciously accept criticism so they can move forward in their vocal journey. We accept the imperfections of our friends and favorite singers. It's time we all accept ourselves as well.
The Thief of Joy
Comparison. So often our biggest enemy. Why is it we always think our voice isn't worth sharing if we don't sound the same as someone else? When you really think about it, it should be the contrary. We should choose to sing because our voice is so unique that it could only belong to us.
Our voices are all unique, so it is unfair to compare our path to one another's. Whether you have been taking lessons for ten years or 45, are just starting out, or just sing for fun, what matters most is that you are (at least for the most part) enjoying what you are doing. If you are in a field where singing is a career-related skill, it is essential to put yourself on a path where you find joy in learning about your voice and all the wonderful things it can do, while at the same time working hard to expand your abilities. The excitement of new discoveries and accomplishing your small goals is what will make the bigger-picture journey of your own personal voice work worthwhile and long-lasting.
No journey is the same as another. If it were, what would we have to explore for ourselves? Because you and your voice are not like anybody else, you alone have the power to choose where singing will take you, what you will use for, and what kind of energy you will create through it. Let knowledge of that empower you.
Every voice is beautiful, so use it for beautiful things.
Our voices hold so much power. We can choose to use it to constantly apologize for singing and diminish ourselves in the process, or we can use it to thank the audience of the songs we sing and hold close to our hearts. Remember, when you start feeling discouraged to think less about the improvements you've yet to make with your vocal journey, and more about the positive effects our songs can have on the people in our lives if we continue to let ourselves be heard. Music inspires, moves, educates and enlightens. Do the world a favor. Allow your singing voice to become a part of the symphony of art in the world all around us. There is no better gift you can give than letting your voice, complete with imperfections and idiosyncrasies, be heard.