Quite often I talk to people who think that you are either born with an amazing voice or talent for singing, or not at all. And if you’re not lucky enough to be the owner of such a voice, well, too bad for you then. I think this is a huge misunderstanding. Perhaps there are singers and speakers to whom it just comes naturally, this certainly does not apply to everyone.
We often only see an artist’s succes, and not what happened beforehand. In my own case: I am now, just since a few years, quite satisfied with my singing. Looking back at the journey I have memories of hard work, disappointments and the urge of ‘just keeping on going’. I think this side of the story is not talked about enough, and it inhibits people from doing more with their voices – if they want to. This is why I decided to share my process. It is the story of a singer. But anyone who speaks in front of groups, gives presentations or experiences fear of failure, could also identify with it.
Maybe you recognise this as well: as a child I felt completely free to go crazy, to sing and to dance. I was not at all concerned with whether it was good enough, or what others thought of me. But at some point I developed an certain awareness and this stopped. I very well remember the moment when I suddenly realised that it was all different now.
At the age of fourteen, I had a solo performance at school with piano and singing. I was well prepared, felt like it, and it didn’t occur to me that something could go wrong. But when I sat behind the piano, something happened to me that I had never experienced before. To my surprise I got trembling, sweaty hands, a dry mouth and palpitations. “Ehm, why did I wanted to do this again?” I asked myself, and blacked out. This came as a total surprise to me. I had performed in the renowned Concertgebouw five years ago, without any problems. But being fourteen years old, I was fully aware of my environment and sensitive to the judgment of others. I felt that public failure was the worst thing that could happen to me.
From that moment on, stage fright has haunted me. I kept singing, though. At home at least, and at some point also in the studio where someone helped me to record my own songs. When I listen to these recordings now, I hear a very original, authentic voice that you recognize from thousands. It also sounded very young and as if I had little contact with my body. But in a way it was very free and carefree.
Later on I decided to study jazz at the conservatory. But somehow in class my singing never sounded as easy and relaxed as at home or in the studio. And there was always a lot of criticism: “you sing too high, you sound too thin, this music does not suit you, you should better sing this or that …” I became incredibly aware of my weaknesses and all the things I still had to learn, that I couldn’t hear anything else. I became very critical of my own voice and slowly lost the pleasure in singing. And I didn’t improve at all, so after a year the conservatory was done with me.
Meanwhile, there were other people who heard something in me and encouraged me to continue singing. And because I’ve been told so often that I sang too high, I fully leaped upon classical music. As a soprano it is a prerequisite to hit high notes. It was a tough job though. Because I was switching to classical technique, I had to say goodbye to my pop voice. I couldn’t use these two next to each other (then, at least). At the beginning of that transition I even lost my singing voice completely. I really had to start all over again.
For years, I enjoyed singing classical with nice and knowledgeable teachers. First I just sang at home or in the choir. But later on I became better and I started to sing solo again in public. Yet, I have to say that I was always struggling with my voice in a certain way. I was never in shape, there was always something in the way that prevented me from sounding the way I wanted. Nerves, sleep deprivation, hay fever, colds, too much mucus production, and god knows what else. There were also moments when I had no control over my voice at all. It sounded thin and tense, and I suddenly lost my easy high notes. My teachers at the time also didn’t know what to do with me. This left me completely distraught, nobody knew how to help me.
Until at some point I ended up with a speech therapist. She asked about stressful situations in my life, and for the first time someone made a connection between stress and my blocked voice. This might seem like a no-brainer, but at the time I had not connected the dots. Stage fright disappears by doing it often and being well prepared, I thought. That is partly true, but partly not.
In certain situations it can still all go wrong. If it is an important performance for instance, and a lot depends on it. Or especially at an audition, where you know that you are being critically assessed. But also: when things are not well arranged at a concert, when there is too little time, when I do not feel welcome or valued, when I am being rushed or pressured, or when I am just not comfortable with myself. Perhaps not every singer is equally influenced by this, but I experience a lot of stress in these situations. And the stress reveals itself immediately through my voice. It turns out to be the perfect barometer for everything that is not in balance at that very moment in my life.
I also had several beliefs about my singing. For example: ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I have to prove myself extra because I haven’t graduated from the conservatory’, ‘my voice is too small, too thin’, ‘I’m afraid to be judged’ and ‘I’m afraid to be a failure’. The judgments you have about yourself (which naturally originated from input from your environment) always unconsciously affect you. This way, you are never able to sing freely from your emotions. You are then too much concerned with making no mistakes and trying to meet other people’s expectations. You may succeed, but you might not have not enjoyed it and you probably have not really touched people either.
To experience that type of freedom again in singing, I started to sing pop music again. And at a certain moment I also started writing songs again. Suddenly I was back to what I was doing as a teenager, but with a completely different sound. Because of all the classical training I sounded very polished, and a bit musical-like. Nothing wrong with that, but I was looking for that very original sound of the past. Actually, I had to consciously unlearn a lot of techniques, and trust that I would regain that voice if I started to rely on my musical instinct. Only then my classic voice become increasingly instable…
In the same period I ended up in a long-term internal development process, which is still in full swing. One of the results is that I have more or less rejected the negative beliefs that got in my way. I also recognized that I no longer have to pursue a classic career, and no longer have to conform to certain styles or singing traditions.
I could not have foreseen what happened then. Without being aware of it, my voice became truly free for the first time. Even more than before. Suddenly there was space to let emotions sound through and there was connection with my body. I discovered all kinds of timbres and sounds that I didn’t know I had in me. And it is still getting better. I now sing everything I want, also classical, but in my own way. I never feel limited by my voice again, and I am not afraid anymore of what others would think of it.
There is a famous quote from Rumi about love: “Your task is not to seek love, but to look for the blockades in yourself that you have built against love.” I would like to say something similar about the voice because this is a similar, vulnerable manifestation of the human kind. In order to let your voice shine, it is not always necessary to train and learn techniques. Sometimes it’s enough to lift the blockades that you have imposed to sound completely free.