Inspirazione! Our Other Voice : Speech and the Singer (Gossip, Criticism, Anger and Timing)

Singers are in a unique position among musicians. The instrument we use to make music, we also use continually for other purposes. Just imagine if a cellist had to use his or her cello to answer the phone, argue with a spouse, negotiate a salary or discipline a child. Imagine that he or she had to play cello first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening, and off and on all day long! It is easy to see that this usage—the nature of it, the tone of it, and the content of it—could not help but impact the player’s relationship to the instrument.

Let’s examine the singer’s relationship to speech—specifically, the content of our speech. I was taught early on never to confront a director or conductor publicly, and never to give direction to a fellow singer or actor. Those are, more or less, the cardinal rules of speech in the theater. But what are some other guidelines we might use at work and in life to determine what needs saying, and how and when to say it?

As part of his instruction on wise speech, the Buddha suggested asking two questions: Is it truthful? Is it beneficial? For speech to be wise, it must be both truthful and beneficial.

Much of what we say might not meet this standard and falls more easily into the category of “chiacchierare.” This Italian word means to chat, but also to gossip. If you’re speaking about someone who isn’t present, it is worth asking yourself if the way you’re speaking is a way in which you would like others to speak about you, and to consider the effect your words may have.

On the topic of anger, author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, recommends a waiting period to allow anger to dissipate. Thich Nhat Hanh—Vietnamese monk, author and Nobel Peace Prize nominee—agrees. He says that expressing anger when you feel most angry almost always makes you feel angrier—which brings us to the question of timing. When you feel something needs saying, the teachings on wise speech in the Buddhist texts offer these reflections: consider whether it is the right time, the right place, the right person, the right subject, and the right tone.

It is ironic that classical music, and opera in particular, art forms dedicated to creating beauty, have such a history of harsh speech, even verbal abuse, embedded in the culture. Instances of icons such as Toscanini and others tearing down singers verbally are well documented. Here are some ways to handle harsh speech if it comes your way.

Have good intellectual and emotional boundaries. Telushkin suggests that you ask: “Is there any validity in the criticism? Can I take what she has said and use it to improve myself?” If someone offers you a comment, create an imaginary buffer zone between what is said and your heart and mind. Take the comment into this buffer zone and ponder it for yourself. Don’t let wounded pride undermine your own intentions. If a constructive truth lies buried underneath a personal jibe, dig it out and benefit from it. Decide for yourself what is beneficial to you.

If a remark is hurtful to you, make sure to take some time for yourself to have your feelings. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is a catchy phrase, but it isn’t true. Being on the receiving end of harsh speech can hurt, so find a safe place, or a supportive friend, outside the situation to process your feelings.

Minimize your exposure to harsh speech. You may decide that putting up with a certain amount of harsh speech is acceptable to you, whether for a job or instruction you find valuable, but consider the emotional impact on you and, whenever possible, consider searching for a gentler soul or more supportive environment.

None of this is meant to suggest that you should not speak your mind. St. Thomas in the Gnostic Gospels says: “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” In that bringing forth, however, it is important to find ways of speaking and responding to speech that are skillful and take into account the impact words have on all of us.

It is a singer’s life’s work to use the voice to express emotion, beauty, power, truth, and even love. Examining our speech in everyday life, moment by moment, can be a wonderful practice to see whether we are supporting or hindering this deepest aspiration.

Sing your best, then let it go—and remember what mom always said: Don’t hide your light under a bushel!

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at