Tuesday, 20 November 2012

On handling feedback...

Opinions, opinions, opinions.  Everyone has them.  Everyone loves to share them.  And they vary and change, from person to person and from day to day, just about as much as celebrities' hairstyles.

Naturally, singers are always hearing other people's opinions about their singing.  Coaches, teachers, directors, conductors, and of course other singers.  Everyone is eager to offer their two cents.  And they (usually) mean well.  Some opinions are helpful, some not so helpful, some make absolutely no sense at all.  And it's not always easy to tell the difference.

Being a singer is a confusing business.  To start with, you can't see your instrument.  It's not exactly obvious what's going on in there.  I mean, if you played the double bass, nobody would ever walk up to you and say "actually, I think that might be a trumpet."

Unless perhaps they are Helen Keller.
But it's different for singers.  You have to "diagnose" your instrument blindly, relying solely on your ears and your instincts.  There are a few things to consider when figuring this out: colour (what your voice sounds like), range (how low and high it can go), tessitura (where it likes to "sit" most of the time), size (how loud you are) and weight (how easily your voice can move).  On top of this, the distinction between some voice types can be quite subtle.  And your voice is constantly changing with maturity and training.  And of course voices are very individual, so some people just won't fit neatly into one category.  Now, keeping all those things in mind, how easy do you think it is to know what your voice type is?

To further complicate matters, you can't completely trust your own ears.  Since you ARE your instrument, since your voice is inside you and is resonating in various spaces that are quite close to your eardrums, you can get a very distorted idea of what your voice sounds like.  It's impossible to hear yourself from the outside as you would if you were playing the violin.  In fact what you hear when you're singing can be quite different from what your audience is hearing.  Listening to recordings can help, but it's still not the same thing as an objective outsider's opinion.

So of course it's important to know what other people are hearing.  To get feedback from other people in the profession.  And people in the singing profession just looOOOooove to speculate about your voice type, especially if it means implying that you're something wildly different than what you think you are.   Yes, it's true - people in the opera business really are drama queens.

Forsooth!  Thou'rt truly a soprano!
All it takes is for someone to notice one characteristic in your voice, and suddenly they could be steering you in a completely different direction.  If you're a baritone with a bright sound, maybe you're actually a tenor.  If you're a mezzo with good high notes, suddenly you're a lazy soprano.  If you're a soprano who sings runs well, you must be a coluratura soprano.

Take my case, for example.  As a young mezzo, I was terrified of high notes.  My teacher at the time didn't want to push me, so I played it safe and only sang low stuff.  I sang a lot of contralto repertoire and developed pretty good low notes.  So naturally some people would suggest that perhaps I was a contralto.  Then I moved to Glasgow and started singing higher repertoire and really working on my high notes.  In fact I have been doing nothing BUT work on my high notes for the past three years.  Needless to say, my high notes have improved a lot and now feel much more comfortable.  But do you think people simply appreciate that I'm a mezzo who's developed a decent top to her range?  No, of course not.  They now say that since my high notes sound so good, perhaps I'm a soprano.

What the what???
It feels like I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't.  If I sing good low notes I'm a contralto and if I sing good high notes I'm a soprano.  God forbid that I might just be a mezzo with a wide range.  That's far too simple!

In my experience, some people just love to be shocking and controversial.  They love feeling oh-so-clever as they suggest that actually, you've been wrong all this time about your voice, and you're a completely different creature than you thought you were.  Beware of these people.  Here be dragons.

This issue of voice type is just one example of the many difficult and confusing things singers worry about.  There are millions of other questions keeping us up at night.  What roles should I sing?  What do I need to improve in my technique?  How should I move on stage?  Who should I audition for?  And we're all very eager to hear people's opinions on all of this.

It's been a tough week here at the opera studio. We had two days in a row of audition training, where people in the profession - in this case, an agent and a casting director - came to hear our audition arias and give us some feedback and advice.  Needless to say, it can be rather overwhelming to hear so many opinions about your singing in such a short space of time. Especially when the opinions are unexpected or negative, or when they completely contradict each other. You can start to feel a little bit like this girl:

So. Many. Snowballs.
And if you're not feeling particularly confident or certain about your singing, a couple of comments can throw you completely off-kilter.

Of course, it would be alright if your ego had some time to recover from all this. But it usually doesn't. Before you know it, it's time to do another audition, sing for someone else, hear another opinion. Or to give a concert. Or to go back into rehearsals. And you have to carry on, unphased, as if someone hasn't just shaken the entire foundation of your singing career with a few well-intended remarks.

So how do you do it?  How do you handle all of those snowballs coming at you, while continuing to build your snowman with a smile on your face?  How do you decide which opinions you should pay attention to - which snowballs you should use to help build your snowman and which ones you should allow to just fly past?

I really struggled with this question this week.  After the audition training, I felt confused and conflicted by what I heard from the experts.  Worst of all, after hearing some unexpected negative feedback about one aria, I lost a lot of confidence.  I felt diminished, deflated, tiny.

Me after audition training.
In our staging rehearsals the next day, the director noticed that I'd lost my spark.  Luckily he's a very intuitive and supportive person.  So not only did he know exactly what was going on, but he knew exactly what to say.  "Forget about the last two days," he said.  "As a singer you always have to carry on.  You have to think about today, this moment.  We need you in the here and now."

He was right.  I had to be strong.  I couldn't let myself be shaken so much by what these people had said.  Of course it was important to take it into account and try to follow their suggestions for improvement.  But their opinions were not the be-all and end-all.  They were just that - opinions.  And they shouldn't be blown out of proportion.

It's easy to get caught up in what other people think and to let it affect you too much - especially if you're feeling a bit insecure.  But no matter how famous, important or knowledgeable someone is, there is absolutely no way that they know your voice as well as you do.  After all, you are the one who is singing with it every day.

There are of course many smart people out there who can help you improve your singing.  But there are also people who don't really know what they're talking about.  In fact, even if they DO know what they're talking about, when they're only hearing you sing for 5 or 10 minutes, it can very easy for them to get the wrong end of the stick.

I'm learning now to be careful with opinions.  To listen with an open mind, but to always ALWAYS take things with a grain of salt.  It's important to trust your intuition.  Does what this person is saying ring a bell for you?  Does it perhaps hit a nerve because it's uncomfortably true?  Then it's probably worth thinking about.  Is their opinion wildly different from what you feel, or from what anyone's ever said before?  In that case you should probably take their opinion fairly lightly.

In the end it's all up to you - to know what you do well, to recognise what you need to improve, and to sort through these millions of opinions and decide which ones to trust.  While many people can offer you valuable insight, nobody knows you better than yourself.  You are your own best teacher.

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