Sunday, 2 December 2012

On learning to trust...

I was never an athletic child.  While the other kids were playing soccer and baseball at recess, I was usually sitting against the wall, drawing pictures.  I got top marks in reading and writing, and the teacher always read my poems out loud to the class.  But in gym class, I was always picked last for people's teams.  Strong?  No.  Fast?  Not at all.  Graceful?  Hardly.  But at least I knew I was smart.

And this is where it all began, this habit of living in my head.  Trusting my mind and not my body.  I know that if there's one thing I can count on it's my brain.  I may not be good at sports or dancing, but I'm certainly good at thinking.  And so, ever since I was little, I've been working my brain very hard and relying on it for everything.

The problem is, I am a singer.  And a singer is a kind of athlete.  Singers spend hours and hours training a set of muscles in their body to work a certain way.  And then, just like an athlete, they have rely on all of this physical training so they can perform under pressure.

Pressure... pushing down on me...
There is a lot of thinking involved in training your voice, especially if you're not a natural.  Yes, I do believe that "naturals" exist.  I've met a few of them.  These are people who seem to be born with a very good voice and an uncanny intuition for how to use it.  They can't really explain to you how they're making such a beautiful sound - they just are.  Their body seems to know exactly what it's doing.

I am not a natural.

I've always had a pretty good voice, but I never knew instinctively how to use it well.  I've had to do a lot of work - with my body and my brain - to develop my singing technique.  Why does that note sound like that?  What can I change to make it better?  What was different this time?  What do I need to think, visualise, or feel, to make sure it's right the next time?  Once I've figured this puzzle out I need to practise it about a million times until it's a habit.  Until it's right every time.

This is what all musicians do in the practice room.  It's just like how athletes train.  We try to find the perfect approach to a physical movement, and then repeat it over and over again until it's in what we call our "muscle memory".

We spend a lot of time practising because we want to perform as well as possible.  We train our bodies so that hopefully, in the crucial moment, they will do exactly what we want them to do.  And here's where it gets tricky.

You can think as much as you want in the practice room.  You can live entirely in your head, analysing every sound and sensation as it happens.  There is always a chance to try it again and make it better.  But performing is a whole different kettle of fish.

(I never understood this saying. 
Do people ever actually keep fish in a kettle?)

In performance, the pressure is on.  This is it - the moment you've been training for.  And there are no second chances.  As my singing teacher says, once you've sung the note, it's out there.  You can't do anything about it.  And you COULD choose this moment to think about your technique.  If you really want to.  But then you would probably look like this while you're singing:

And nobody pays to watch a singer who looks like they're doing math in their head.  They want to see something more like this:

Performing is not the time to be in your head.  It's not the time to analyse or control the voice.  Performing is the moment when you have to let go of all that - stop thinking and TRUST that your body will do what it's been trained to do.

This, for me, is by far the most difficult leap to make.  Let go?  Stop thinking?  Trust my BODY??  How can I trust my body when it's made so many mistakes before?  How can I believe that my voice will be fine on its own, when I've always had to think about it so much?

This week I had another difficult encounter with The Wall.  If you don't remember from last time, The Wall is 2 metres high and just a bit wider than me, and I have to spend a fair amount of time on top of it in the opera.  A few days ago we rehearsed a scene where I have to stand on The Wall, and then climb down from it.  And I had a little bit of a panic attack.  (There may have been tears.)  The director eventually decided that because I'm such a chicken I can be the last to climb down and the others can help me down. 

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself here, but I'm not happy with this decision.  I hate that we've had to change the staging to accommodate me.  My castmates seem to get down quite easily by themselves.  And some of them are much shorter than me, which means it's a longer jump down for them.  So why do I find it so scary?  I should be able to do this!  I really hate that I'm such a chicken.  It makes me angry at myself.

I am physically capable of climbing down The Wall.  And yet I'm terrified to do it.  I'm always overthinking it.  Instead of trusting my body to be strong and do its thing, I keep thinking of what might go wrong if I try.

It's the same thing when I'm singing.  Even when I know my voice is capable of doing something, I can psych myself out.  I try to control things so much that my voice comes out sounding strangled, dull, or a tenth of its actual size.  My mind, my clever little mind, who I've trusted so much through thick and through thin - my mind is not my friend here.  My mind is a dastardly little control freak and it's getting in the way.

Why do I make things more complicated than they have to be?  As a famous baritone told us in a masterclass this week, "just sing the damn thing!"  I was really nervous about singing an interval at the beginning of a Bach aria - straining to sing it as sensitively and perfectly in tune as I could.  But as soon as he told me to "just sing it", the sound I made was miles better.  My voice knew what it had to do - I just had get out of the way and allow it to sing!

I have a new theory about "naturals".  Maybe I am a natural after all.  Maybe all of us are.  The problem is that so many of us let our mind get in the way of our "naturalness".  We may need to do a fair amount of thinking in the practice room.  But at a certain point, the mind has to let go and trust the body to act on its own.  It's the most difficult leap to make, but it's a beautiful leap when it's done well.


As for me, I'm going to keep practising climbing down The Wall.  I know I can do it - I might just need to practise a little.  Just like a difficult passage in an aria, I need to keep repeating the motion until it feels natural.  And eventually I'll be able to let my body climb down on its own - without help from the others, and without any nagging from my mind.

It can be hard to trust your body, especially if you're used to living in your head.  But if you can learn to be kinder - to stop punishing and start encouraging, to stop controlling and start allowing - you might just be amazed by what your body can achieve.

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