The “voices” in your world: when should you listen ... or not?
It’s natural that we aim to please those who seem to know a lot or have our best interests at heart. But there’s an art to discerning which voices and which suggestions will best help move you and your group forward
I often joke with quartets that the best you ever sound is when you first sing together, and two years after you break up! Anyone who has been in more than one quartet knows the truth behind this joke. Voices: They come from everywhere. Everywhere we go and sing, there are voices. As human beings, we want to do our best; we aim to please and make every correction those voices ask of us. Unchecked, this can lead to frustration. Quartets often disband; singers often leave choruses.
WHO ARE THESE VOICES?
They are judges, coaches, teachers, directors, family members, friends, well-intentioned peers, and audience members. Just about everybody who speaks to us is a voice that we hear, process, and then decide whether or not to act upon.
With my opening joke, why is it true? Because there are no voices. We sing for the pure joy of singing. No one is there to critique our efforts. Without the pressure, we sing freely and joyfully. And it is glorious. Glorious in our first effort that we decide to sing together. After we part ways and somehow reconnect two years later, we sing gloriously! “Why did we ever break up?!”
Do we need voices? Of course! Voices can help us achieve higher levels of performance but they can also distract us. It’s that distinction that you must protect yourself against and be vigilant. Does this sound familiar? “We did everything our coaches asked of us.” “This coach said we should do this and now you’re saying we should do just the opposite.” “We’re struggling with the interp that our coach gave us.” “The judges said … ” “I was told I was too loud.” Probably at some point you have uttered some of these words.
Your job is to filter all of the voices, figure out which voices resonate with you, which voices transform you as a singer and performer, and follow that path. To all other voices, say “Thank you,” while you keep on the path!
How do you do this?
Ask yourself a set of simple questions:
1. Does this change my life as a performer?
Do I hear, see, and/or feel a significant positive difference? Bottom line: Are you noticeably better now than one hour ago? If not, say “Thank you.”
2. Does the input maximize my contribution to the ensemble or limit it?
If it limits it, say “Thank you.” Ensembles benefit the most by bringing out the best in all of us, not putting a lid on it. Just because one singer is better than the rest right now doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t capable of meeting that higher potential in a short time.
Often, unlocking one voice enables others to follow. Build the individual; the ensemble follows. We often react to voices telling us we are off when we haven’t finished that skill journey yet or our quartet mates haven’t finished their skill journey.
3. Does the input come from a natural place of serving the music and audience?
Does it feel organic and natural? Or do you have to remember every detail, and each week stumble again over details that don’t make sense? If it isn’t natural and organic in serving the music, then just say “Thank you.”
4. Ultimately, does this voice support you and/or your ensemble in your journeys?
If it takes a side trip on your journey, just say “Thanks!”
Voices are not bad people. In fact, they are just the opposite. They are wonderful people who truly love you and want you to be successful. They want to give of themselves on your journey.
EVEN AMONG TOP COACHES AND JUDGES, WATCH WHICH VOICES YOU ACQUIRE
Judges see you in the absolute worst situation for evaluating who you really are. It is a pressure-packed situation. One-and-done pressure can often interfere with your best you. You are at the mercy of the current state of the voices. Judges don’t know your journey. They don’t realize what it sounded like on Tuesday (either better or worse). All they know is what is in front of them. A great judge will profile and ask you questions about your journey so they can provide the best insight. You might find that annoying, but they have your best interests at heart to provide what you really need. And if you don’t receive what you need for your journey, smile and say “Thanks!”
Quartets and choruses often come to schools to get coached. Often, the school recruits top-flight coaching, and the lion’s share of these coaches understand the idea of journey. They are able to unlock things inside you to help you reach higher levels. If that’s the case, rejoice and enjoy. If after their time you find yourself even more confused or unchanged, smile and say “Thank you.”
Everyone has different approaches to acquiring voices. There is no one strategy. But, as you find voices that resonate with your group, have them periodically join you on your journey. They will reinforce the positive steps you are taking and steadily unlock more potential. It’s also fine to seek out new voices. New voices may be able to unlock things that other voices have not been able to achieve, using the filter of the questions above.
Can you have too many voices? Yes, but there’s no single answer for everyone. If you are confused, then likely you have too many. If you are stuck, then start finding new voices. Does that mean that a voice has to be a top-flight coach and others can’t help? Absolutely, positively NO! Real and profound insight can come from anywhere.
There are a lot of voices who are highly insightful at all levels, but you must evaluate each voice as it comes along and decide for your group whether to listen or whether to just say “Thank you!”
About the Author
Kevin Keller is a BHS coach, arranger, and Music judge.
This article was originally featured in the July/Aug 2020 issue of The Harmonizer.