Hey Singers! Today I want to talk about the dreaded O word. We live in a world full of opportunity. Thanks to the internet, there are always new things to learn- new podcasts to consume, new think-pieces to feast on. There are online courses, YouTube tips, blog posts and Pinterest boards to get relentlessly inspired by. There are interviews with your favourite artists, webinars from experts. In short, there’s a whole world of education (and noise) out there.
If you have a curious mind and big ambitions, it’s easy to feel like you’re never doing enough. Your body might be screaming out for a lie in, and yet to give in can feel like giving in. After all, there’s that professional development you could be doing. Everyone else in your industry went to that life changing workshop at the weekend, and you have FOMO.
Many of my friends, family and students have confessed to these thoughts, and I’m in the same club. Information is fun. Information can become addictive. It’s been revealed in recent years that apps such as Instagram (which I also use) are designed to hijack your brain so you crave that big fat dopamine hit when someone hits the heart button. Yes there’s a logical reason why you keep refreshing that feed and don’t even know why. Those app designers have done a good damn job. We all know someone who has done a digital detox. Perhaps we have (I recently spent 3 weeks in Asia and didn’t check social media until I got back). Certainly this can restore a sense of peace and harmony, but we live in a digital age- it’s impractical for most of us to abandon our online life indefinitely.
Personally, I think any information, including books, podcasts and courses can become ‘too much of a good thing’ if we don’t ever allow our brain to switch off. For the rest of your life, there will always be something to do. A new must-watch show. A development in your field of work to get to grips with. The list goes on…
This is wonderful of course. Life is motion- we continue to grow, evolve and learn. At the same time, it’s vital to view those delightfully unproductive moments, as an investment in ourselves. When we give ourselves space, things percolate. They sink in, we absorb them, and we can appreciate them.
Most visual artists understand the value of ‘negative space’- this is space around the subject, which ‘supports’ it. Negative space allows the subject to breathe. If we are the subjects, let’s allow ourselves to breathe, focus on one thing at a time, and expand into this space. Far from negative, we might find the experience positively transformative.
This doesn’t mean throwing your smartphone in the bin ( unless you want to!) but it could mean…
Reading one book at a time, not 3.
Listening to a couple of podcasts a week, as opposed to 2 a day.
Allowing yourself to daydream on the tube/ bus, or turning off the radio when you drive.
Committing to one extra project or course at a time, rather than trying to excel in 5 simultaneously.
Looking where you’re going when you walk down the road instead of texting as you go (less treading in mess and tripping too- bonus!)
If you already do these things ( props to you, zen master!) keep it up. If you think you could benefit from this approach, give it a go! Next time you do your vocal practice, don’t even think about cleaning at the same time!
When I was 12 years old I had an accident while riding my little brother’s bike- it was far too small for me, (my own bike had a puncture) and I was riding like a little speed demon at the time. One short attention lapse later, and I was unceremoniously thrown in the air after colliding with a lamp post. Not my coolest moment.
Luckily I was wearing a helmet and it was my pride that hurt more than anything. It must have put me off though, as I didn’t get on a bike again until I was 24.
I wasn’t sure I’d even remember how to ride, but it’s true you don’t forget! I rode 16 miles the day I got back on a bike- a big step towards making me a less nervous cyclist! I’m far from a ‘proper’ cyclist. I rarely ride on busy roads, or rely on my bike for transport. For me, riding a bike is about exploring and having fun.
and what better way to have fun than to sing? I have a feeling that some of you reading this may have done this already. Several of my friends have mentioned that they sing on their bikes (or while kayaking- hey why not?)
Needless to say, your primary focus while cycling should be on the road- always! If you’re not a confident cyclist I suggest sticking to the cycle superhighways or any designated cycle path. If you have any green spaces nearby, even better (ahhh)
A treasured sunny day in London
Then- let rip! enjoy the absolute freedom of motion and sound. There’s something so liberating about the independence being on a bike gives you. Add the joy of belting out one of your favourite songs and it’s the happiest feeling in the world!
It’s rare that you get to hear your singing voice out in the open air, amongst other people milling about. (Unless you’re super confident, or a musical theatre student- props to you!) and you can do this without having to soak up all the attention as- weeeeee! you’re off again!
Maybe its the playful, child-like nature of it, or the freedom it gives you- or the motion, but I have a hunch ‘singcling’ is really good for the soul. Give it a go!
Do you do this already? Are you going to try this out? Let me know how you get on!
Today I want to talk about size. More precisely, how big your voice is. How loud it is, how powerful it is. Can you do vocal athletics? Can you shatter glass with those high notes?
Whatever the answer to those questions, I hope you will realise there is a lot more to being a singer than how loudly you can belt the high notes.
After 15 years of talent shows such as the X Factor/ Pop Idol etc, I feel that the general consensus is that bigger and louder= better. Big voice, big performance, and possibly, but not necessarily, big hair.
This opinion is totally legitimate- having a big voice, huge range and vocal agility and athleticism is impressive. These performers dedicate hours to their craft, and work really hard too.
But what about the individual with an incredible voice who doesn’t have the size? They may have beautiful tone, real artistry, honesty and vulnerability, but they would probably raise an eyebrow at the concept of a ‘sing off’ on national television.
What about these singers? Yes, they’re out there!
Laura Marling, Thom Yorke, Bjork, Birdy, Bat for lashes, the late Billie Holiday and Jeff Buckley…
Even mainstream artists like Alicia Keys are considered vocally featherweight against their big voiced counterparts ( like Beyoncé or Adele)
Rather than strain to emulate others, these artists have embraced their voices, and their power lies in their tone, communication, honesty and vulnerability.
First Aid Kit by Renee Barrera (cc)
Whether it’s the heartbreak in the voice of Sinead O’Connor, or the fragile purity of Birdy’s cover of skinny love, these voices can cut to the core of you. Not to mention the hugely emotional voice of Jeff Buckley, who often walked the tight rope- he sang with such passion and commitment that there was a certain messiness to some of his live performances, at least in terms of technique. That did nothing to blunt the beauty of his work.
Billie Holiday used her haunting vibrato to deliver possibly the most powerful protest song of all time- Strange Fruit. Vocal acrobatics were not needed, Lady Day was a natural storyteller.
So whether you have a ‘big’ voice or a gentle voice, be kind to it. One is not better than the other. The truth is, listeners are as diverse as singers. Whitney Houston may have made the powerhouse vocal de rigueur when she took the world by storm in the 80s-but even Whitney doesn’t do it for everyone!( even if her talent was indisputable!)
So please embrace whoever you are, because there is only one of you. There are so many different vocal tones and ‘textures’ you can experiment with- from breathy to belt-y. The key is to sing in a way that feels authentic to you. It all comes back to communicating honestly with your audience, whatever the sound and style! 🙂
..I borrowed that title from a collection of short stories by writer Miranda July, (which I still haven’t read!) but I’ve always loved it. How many of us have needed to hear that now and again?
Today I want to talk about imposter syndrome, a silent epidemic of self-doubt that effects many performers, both professional and otherwise. It’s the belief that you don’t really deserve the success you’ve had. Perhaps you feel that you’re going to fail publicly if you take a risk?
I probably don’t need to point out how counterproductive this is to giving an honest performance. It’s impossible to be truly present in the moment when we are second guessing ourselves. I have witnessed this phenomenon with singers who freeze when they hear their own voice through a PA system. It’s so easy to over-listen to your voice, and fall down a rabbit hole of analysis- this distracts us from (our true task) of communicating with our audience!
This is true for all of us– life is a pitch after all! Perhaps you need to give a presentation in your office job, but you freeze, cotton mouthed while you have an out of body experience (and not in a good way!)
Harvard professor Amy Cuddy describes imposter syndrome as feeling like a fraud. “impostorism causes us to overthink and second guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us (in these fixations, we’re usually wrong), then fixate some more on how those judgements might posion our interactions. We’re scattered- worrying that we are underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for us tomorrow.”
Phew. sounds exhausting, doesn’t it?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a link between perfectionism, performance anxiety and impostorism.
Ironically, those who feel like frauds are often the most successful!
However, external markers of success do not make you immune to feeling like a fraud.
Writer Neil Gaiman suffers with impostor syndrome and has shared this anecdote with a fan who also suffers with impostorism. He talks about how he met Neil Armstrong:
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of,” I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said,” . But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
If this is something you’ve ever felt, I hope you will find reassurance that you’re not alone.
About 6 years ago I was offered a place on a group training program for music leaders. This was great news- but as a singer that couldn’t read music I was racked with self doubt.
Despite my anxiety, I went along, made friends, and had the best time. Most of the musicians there were from leading conservatoires, and could play multiple instruments. I initially felt intimidated, but then I realised I wasn’t alone- there were other singers like me in the group. Singers from pop, rock and gospel backgrounds who learnt to sing by ear.
We were split into small groups, and asked to devise a short composition together. To our surprise, many our formally trained classmates were in awe of our ability to improvise and create melodies out of thin air (even if we couldn’t say what those notes were!).Of course the admiration went both ways- but I learnt a valuable lesson from it.
That’s not to say I won’t ever have those moments again- but I now know that it has a name, and that I’m not in terrible company either!
So what is the solution?
Well, the first step is realising your not alone- there are others feeling just like you, but most people don’t like to share their insecurities. Being aware you have imposter syndrome can help you to ignore those doubts in the future.
So keep singing, and know that no-one belongs here more than you!
So, today I want to tackle the concept of mindset and how it relates to us as singers.
I’d previously heard of the term ‘mindset’ in relation to positive thinking or being strong willed. i.e.. something you were told you should have- a kind of inner strength or resilience. So far, so good- however, what does that mean in practical terms? How does someone acquire this illusive ‘mindset’?
According to Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two types of mindset, a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is where someone believes that their nature, talent and abilities are fixed. The problem with this is that it becomes far too easy to write off yourself and others. A fixed mindset is a powerless place to be. It leaves little or no room for development.
For example, if you believe you were born with a finite amount of talent, you’re probably going to take it a lot harder if you mess up on stage, than you would if you believed that you can grow your talents. Instead of being useful, mistakes will feel like a threat to your very identity as a singer, perhaps even as a person!
Generally speaking, those with a fixed mindset struggle to push themselves out of their comfort zone more than their growth mindset counterparts. If you believe you can’t grow or improve, you’ll be less likely to risk failure- because that failure will be interpreted as you being a failure.
The truth is, we all need to fail in order to grow.
According to Daniel Coyle, author of the Talent Code, ‘talent isn’t born, it’s grown’. Developing our talents takes commitment and persistence, and this is the only way to improve.
Recognising that you have a choice can be hugely liberating. You decide- do you believe your talent is fixed? Or do you believe it’s grown? Which of these beliefs would you prefer to steer your creative path?
Creating takes a great deal of humility. You have to get comfortable with operating at the edge of your ability. There really is no place for perfectionism or ego in creation. Give yourself a break from these tyrants and get to work!
The below video will give you more insight into Carol Dweck’s research into the ‘growth mindset’.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend reading the following books:
On Saturday I went to a friend’s wedding. The bride sings in a barbershop quartet and her friends, the incredibly talented ‘Hannah & the Hurricanes’ performed. I was blown away with their impeccable timing, perfect pitch and memorising performance.
Hannah & the Hurricanes are a mixed quartet, comprised of Andrea Day, Hannah Braham, Tim Briggs and Duncan Whinyates. They won the silver medal at the World Champion mixed quarter championships in 2016.
After telling Baritone Tim Briggs how impressed I was by their performance. he kindly invited me to join them for a sing-song! I was given a melody to sing while the group sang beautiful harmonies. The harmonies moved around the melody, creating a gorgeous clash and then resolution! (a process known as ‘tagging’)
It was a LOT of fun and thanks to H&TH I’m now officially a barbershop fan! Check out the below video of Hannah, Andrea, Tim and Duncan smashing it!
I have a confession to make. I have a book problem. A genuine book problem. at any given moment I have an audio-book on the go, and my bookshelves are always overflowing. Don’t even think about letting me loose in Foyles. In good news though, consider me your faithful music memoir reviewer. Here are 5 memoirs that have valuable lessons for every musician out there..
1)You don’t need to come from a rich background (and have piano lessons from age 2!) to be a rock star!
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read is the hilarious, witty, and at times heartbreaking Clothes, Music, Boys by Viv Albertine. Viv grew up without any female guitarists to look up to. She was from a working class background and thought music was the domain of rich men. So what did she do? she jumped right in and became the guitarist in The Slits (one of the most influential punk bands to date!) By doing so, she paved the way for countless women after her. In my opinion, the most inspiring part of the punk movement was the ‘can do’ attitude.
Takeaway: Can you string a couple of chords together? You can make music. do it.
2) Even legends make things they hate sometimes. oh, and they’re just people!
I enjoyed reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, and I was hit by the fact that being Bob Dylan has involved quite a lot of mundanity at times. Yes Dylan had a meteoric rise, but he’s also had years of plugging away at music since, and he’s no stranger to the daily grind. He’s also put time and money into projects he ended up hating and scrapping.
Takeaway:Bob Dylan is a genius. If he gets stuck sometimes, perhaps we can be a bit more patient with ourselves?
3) Singing is a job. It’s not always glamorous!
Want to understand the reality of being a singer? Read Tracey Thorn’s Naked at The Albert Hall. Tracey fronted Everything but the Girl but was a reluctant pop star. Tracey discusses the wide spread fantasy people have about singers. It’s easy to assume singers are born talented, like angels that fell out of heaven with perfect voices. This is not so. Yes talent is a big factor, but hard work is a much bigger part of the puzzle.
Takeaway: Singers are made not born. So keep practising!
4) You don’t have to be an extrovert to be a performer!
Often it’s the introverted, quiet types that long for the stage. Take Carrie Brownstein, guitarist in Sleater-Kinney. Carrie might have looked cool rocking out on stage, but she’s suffered from anxiety along the way. Sleater-Kinney broke the rules when it came to music. Lead Singer Corin Tucker would often tune the guitar to her voice, rather than to the other instruments, which gave Sleater-Kinney a discordant sound. Talk about doing things your own way.
Takeaway: Don’t be scared to be yourself!
5) Follow your dreams, at the very least you’ll have an adventure!
Last but by no means least, I can’t recommend Just Kids enough!This is Patti Smith’s memoir, and at it’s heart is a book about daring to be an artist. I don’t think Patti knew what she was going to end up doing (becoming the ‘Godmother of Punk’ couldn’t have been predicted!) but she knew it was going to be special.
Takeaway: whatever you need to do to support your dream, do it. Have faith in your purpose and hustle, hustle, hustle!
Is there an amazing memoir I’ve missed? drop me a comment and let me know!
Whilst my primary passion in life is music, I am also a film lover. There’s something so comforting about getting lost in a movie. My favourite films are those that not only entertain, but inspire you to create. Films are often a source of inspiration for me, and here is a list of films I recommend to inspire the musician in you.
Searching for Sugar Man
This documentary is beautiful, moving and so inspiring on a human level. I feel like this film must be good for your health 🙂
La La Land
Sorry to those of you who feel you’ve already heard enough about La La Land, but what’s not to love. Great songs, dazzling visuals and amidst it all- poignant gems of truth. Every artist doubts themselves at times, and finding your own path can be hard. La La Land is sure to resonate with many hearts- now and in the future.
God Help The Girl
This film is both happy and sad, and peppered with stunning visuals. The portrayal of mental illness, supportive female friendship, and the solace of music elevates this film beyond your average coming of age drama. Don’t be surprised to find yourself inspired to write your own songs..
Sing Street will make you laugh and cry (and laugh again!) The message is clear- life happens, but music is a life line.
Whether you’re an Oasis fan or not, I highly recommend this documentary. Using archival footage, it follows their meteoric rise. This is a rock and roll fairytale that could never be repeated. Nevertheless, the band’s early self belief, passion and hard work will inspire you. Oasis were a band that performed for the sheer, unadulterated love of it. That’s something we can all aspire to.
So put the kettle on, sit back and fill your brain with inspiration!
Are there any films you recommend? What inspires you to create? Feel free to share!