The Devil On Your Shoulder

Judgment in Singing

I used to criticize my voice all the time. When I was practicing, I could hardly make it through a phrase without finding fault with my diction, my intonation, my resonance, and (certainly not “or” in this case) my breath support. One of my favorite teachers told me to get the devil off my shoulder.


The Devil on My Shoulder

At the time, I was working towards my Masters degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and performing a lot of opera roles. During an opera, it’s easy to block that little devil out because there are so many other things vying for your attention. Things like, “Don’t make a fool of yourself by falling off the stage into the orchestra pit,” or “Thank goodness the spotlights are so bright that I can’t see the audience reaction to the note I just bombed,” or, “What the heck is my colleague doing right now because that is NOT what we rehearsed!” Needless to say, there was so much going on in my head that I didn’t fully understand the importance of her words at the time.

After I graduated, I found myself doing fewer operas but a lot more recitals. And that devil had gotten really loud. Fortunately, my next teacher put the same idea in different words, and this time it actually worked its way through my thick skull. She said to sing through my scales for 20 minutes a day without judging myself. Like every good student, I did what I was told. But boy, was it hard.

I didn’t realize what a constant companion that little devil had become! I felt lonely without him telling me how much my high notes sucked and how I couldn’t possibly call myself a professional singer because I couldn’t sing more than two words without gasping for breath. But the more I worked at it, the easier it got. And contrary to what my logical mind had been telling me for years, the more I experienced my singing and the less I judged it, the better it got. And that is when I learned that freeing ourselves from our negative thoughts about our voices is a crucial step.

Tips for Changing Mental Habits

Want to know how to stop thinking those judgmental, biased, negative, hateful, and spiteful thoughts? There are two main ways to silence that little devil on your shoulder. (No, homicide isn’t one of them.) Some people use Idea One. Some people use Idea Two. Others use both. Experiment to figure out what works for you. And then remember to make it into a habit, whether you are practicing your pitch to your boss about how you deserve a 100% raise because you are so awesome, sight-reading repertoire with your coach, or wondering what the heck your colleague is saying during your big presentation to win the ad campaign because that is certainly NOT what you rehearsed.

Idea One:

Focus on your physical sensations when singing or speaking. Pay attention to what the muscles in your body are doing. Begin by feeling the sensations in one particular region of your body, then think about each of the other regions in turn: abdomen, back, chest, shoulders, neck, face. (More details on muscle sensations later, but this is a good starting point for this exercise.) What are the muscles in one group doing and how do they feel? Tight, slack, relaxed, tense, working hard, unengaged, lazy, overachieving? Try moving one or several of the muscles differently, and pay attention to the changes in the sensations. Trust your body. There is a difference between pain and an unfamiliar sensation. Pain is not a good sign. In fact, if something is physically painful, by all means, stop! But an unfamiliar sensation is not the same thing. Work with it awhile until you have a sense of whether it is helping you accomplish your overall goal of creating your voice.

Idea Two:

Substitute “same” for “good” and “different” for “bad.” So often, we trap ourselves by making value judgments instead of making assessments. If I think I made a “good” sound (e.g., warm, beautiful, pretty, floating, limpid, powerful, loud, soft), then I’ll be motivated to try again. But if I think I made a “bad” sound (e.g., ugly, harsh, sharp, flat, strident, white, limpid, powerful, loud, soft), then I don’t want to try again because I think I’m a failure. So give yourself permission to try again by assessing without judging.

Notice also that many of the adjectives I chose to list after the words “good” and “bad” were the same. People have a variety of tonal preferences, and the type of voice a person prefers certainly is an individual thing. There is nothing right or wrong about vocal preferences. In fact, our preferences are something we need to develop intentionally as we create our voices (more on that later, too). But what you like and what others like are not the same thing. For example, say you are a yoga instructor and have developed a soft, limpid, floating tone. Not only do you love your voice, but you get paid a gazillion dollars to do voice-overs on self-help meditation CD’s. But don’t expect that someone, say, looking for a singer with a strident, loud sound to head up a death metal band, is going to fall head over heels for your voice. There’s nothing “wrong” with either one. But if you jump off a cliff because Death Metal Band Guy didn’t hire you, then Houston, we have a problem.

Releasing Judgment

One of my clients, call her Angie, has an amazing voice. It’s beautiful, warm, rich, full, powerful, and loud. For years, she sang in a small church choir. And guess what. Yep, the director had a preference for light, limpid, floating voices. So what did Angie do? Like any team player, she tried to sing softer and softer to make her voice blend. Singing softly, especially on high notes, is just about the most difficult thing to figure out how to do. And unfortunately, Angie didn’t figure out how to sing softly in a way that felt good to her. When we met, her high notes felt tight and strained, if she could get them out at all. After several sessions with her, I realized that she had felt like a failure for years singing in that choir and trying to please a director who preferred a different vocal sound from hers. So when I suggested that she try substituting “same” for “good” and “different” for “bad,” it was though I had set her free from prison. What I actually did, you know, was give her a tool to free herself.

Changing habits takes time for all of us, but getting rid of that nasty little devil on your shoulder is worth the work. As you center yourself in your body, free yourself from your negative judgments, and turn your attention to experiencing your voice, it will respond by growing and developing in amazing ways.