I organised to play a show in Oakland, together with local artists. It turned out to be a night with five women taking the stage. Musical girl power!
I’m spending three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where I will play three gigs. My journey starts in Oakland.
Ah, the joy of singing! So many people love to sing, but a great deal of them has all kinds of hang-ups about their voice or singing in public. Why is that? Well, your voice, emanating from your own body, is a blueprint of who you are. Making music with it means showing a very intimate part of yourself. You can’t hide behind an instrument. It’s my personal experience that it feels much worse to sing a note out of tune, than hitting a wrong note on the piano.
OK, your voice is your very own unique instrument, that’s fabulous. But the consequences are that if you’re being criticised on your voice, you can experience this as critique to your deepest self, ouch. So beware: if you ridicule or dispraise someone’s singing, you might give this person a sense of unworthiness as a human being. Not something to take lightly.
And yet, this is what a lot of people experience at some point in life. Maybe you remember – I do, at least – the moment when you expressed your joy by singing, and there was this grown-up or classmate who told you to shut up because “it sounds horrible” or “you can’t sing”. And for a lot of kids this is just enough to never sing again in public, and restrict their vocal expression to the bedroom where no one can hear them.
Negative feedback like this gives birth to your inner critic. I sometimes still have a hard time dealing with it, and I see it in a lot of my pupils when I teach. You judge every note you sing, labelling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You get so scared of making mistakes that your voice gets tensed and you feel it gets stuck. Your singing teacher might want to solve this by focussing on technique, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
You’re trying more and more to control your voice with your mind, instead of letting it flow freely and with ease. There actually is a good chance that nothing is wrong with your voice, and that your mind is stuck in negative beliefs about yourself: “I can never hit this high note”, “People won’t like my voice”, or “My voice is in bad shape because I have a cold”. In my opinion, the vital role of these psychological aspects is not always acknowledged enough in voice training.
So, what does it take then to sing freely? I think you only need two things for this: your voice and your heart. If you can manage to connect these two without the mind interfering, that’s when your voice can experience total freedom. When you sing from the heart, it doesn’t need to be technically perfect. You don’t have to sound pretty, or even good. This doesn’t make it easy, though. You might feel terribly exposed, bud naked or – at best – vulnerable. But this is a good thing!
Sometimes particular singers touch us. We then say they have a ‘talent’ or a ‘gift’. But what happens here is that the singer connects to you on the level of the heart, something we don’t get too much in everyday life. How often do you meet someone for the first time that appears to be completely frank and authentic, without any social masks or ego strategies? This is exactly what the human voice can represent to us, and why it’s able touch us so deeply. Those singers are brave and vulnerable each time they stand in front of an audience, to share a bit of themselves and reflect our own vulnerability back to us.
So whenever you feel like singing, please do, and let nothing hold you back. Make sure you enjoy every single part of it. Tell your inner critic to shut its mouth, and especially don’t listen to others judging you. Remember that when people criticise, it’s not necessarily about you. They might just project their own insecurities. People like talking someone down because it makes them feel better about themselves. But there is a strategy so much more positive and powerful to feel good about yourself: Free your mind and sing your heart out!
Amsterdam Dance Event is on its way! Which raises a question: Why is clubbing predominantly the domain of people in their twenties? You might think this has just to do with the life phase they are in: no demanding jobs and families yet, a greater focus on social life and they seem to have fewer problems handling the hangover and sleep deprivation.
But that’s not the whole story: Young adults are also more receptive to new music. So are you under thirty and really passionate about discovering new music? Good for you, enjoy this precious time while it lasts! Because it might change when you grow older. Let me explain this to you.
When it comes to the development of our musical sensitivity and preferences, we go through different stages in our lives. This starts in the womb, after the 6th month of pregnancy. As an unborn baby, your hearing mechanism is already fully developed. This means that the sounds you hear, like your parents’ speech intonation, will decide the intonation pattern of your first baby cries.
In the further months after birth, you are like a sponge and highly affected by everything you hear. At this stage in your life, it will be decided whether you’ll grow up preferring Western chord progressions, complex Balkan rhythms or Arabic Maqam scales. This heightened perception will disappear after your first year. So you can say that where your cradle stands, will determine what kind of music you will value later in life.
When you’re a young kid, music stays highly important. You probably remember enjoying dancing and singing without being ashamed of yourself, until you developed a sense of self-consciousness which made you lose your spontaneity. And from the age of fourteen, you start to develop you own personal musical taste and preferences. At that time it’s all about your identity, and music plays a part in this.
Do you remember the huge impact music had on you as a teenager, and the intensity of the emotions that were involved? This is because your brain connects music to important new experiences in your life, of which you’ll have plenty in your teens and twenties. And this is exactly the reason why we get all sentimental when we listen to music from our youth. It connects us with emotions and memories from the past and makes us reminisce, for instance, a first kiss.
As a young adult, you’re still developing your musical preferences. You might change from heavy metal to hip hop, or exchange Justin Bieber for Arnold Schönberg – in the case you learn to appreciate a more complex sound. At approximately twenty-four the development of your musical taste is at its peak; it won’t change much anymore after this age. This is the type of music you’ll be listening to for the rest of your life.
From then on, it all goes backwards. Research has shown that you stop discovering and valueing new music when you’re in your mid thirties. As I’m turning thirty-nine next week, I find this a frightful idea. Is it because new music does not have the same emotional connotation as the music from your youth, or do you lose the ability to be touched by events that used to have huge impact when you were younger? I’m not sure yet, but it does explain the presence of people my age at 80’s and 90’s dance classics parties! And probably also their absence at the contemporary club scene.
Fortunately, and despite my age, I’m still a passionate collector of new music. The obvious reason for this is that I’m a musician myself, and I’m trained to being perceptive to new sounds. But I also think that you can train your sensitivity as a listener: do keep listening to new music, and you will keep on enjoying it. Yes, it’ll become a matter of dedication, in some ways you have to ‘work harder’ to appreciate the new stuff.
But the best precaution against ‘musical numbness’, I think, is to avoid overall numbing. So, don’t lose your sense of wonder. Look at the world with marvel, and let it touch you. Try to experience things as if you encounter them for the very first time. This way, you will not only keep on appreciating new musical experiences, but even more important, life in general.
Maybe this sounds familiar: you have a strong urge to get out there, share your art in front of an audience. But when you’re about to do so, you’d rather die that very moment than climb on stage and do your thing…
I call this the performers paradox. All performing artists have experienced something similar, at least once in their life. I very well remember a specific performance as a solo-singer when I just turned 14. Well prepared and confident, I felt that nothing could spoil my gig. Until I entered the stage and sat down at the piano. Then, something bizarre happened to me for the first time: Sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaky hands, racing heart … ”why exactly again is it that I want to do this?” I asked myself, and kind of blacked out.
As a kid, I’ve played gigs before. So why did stage fright hit me so sudden? Being 14, my ego was in full function mode. I was fully aware of my environment and judgement by others. At that age, you think that public failure is about the worst thing that can ever happen to you. Hence, my stage fright was born.
First of all, I want to stretch out that stage fright is completely normal. It’s human behaviour to care about what other people think of you. Especially for performers, who can be quite sensitive beings and very critical towards themselves. And yet, acknowledging this is a major taboo. No one likes to show stage fright or talk about it, and it’s not even a topic at music tuition!
So what can you do? If you’re looking for help on the subject, you can indeed find some well-meant tricks and advices. ‘Know your material’, for instance. Well, not really an epiphany. I’m afraid of being judged, so it goes without saying that I will prepare myself meticulously and try to make a mindblowing impression. And I know that this won’t steady my nerves.
I think it’s time to be more open and accepting about stage fright. Yes, it’s inconvenient, but likely to happen anyway. Rather than trying to ignore or overcome your fears, try to befriend them. Your body is telling you something with those sweaty palms! So start listening, and feel some empathy for yourself.