The Incredible Shrinking Singer : Rebuilding Your Confidence

I have observed people physically shrink in front of my eyes when performing, speaking, or holding conversations with people or audiences they perceive to be important. These moments of shrinking are times when personal power has been given away.” –Meribeth Bunch

As early as you can remember, your voice drew attention–it made you “special.” Your music teachers said, “She has real talent,” or “He’s gonna make it!” You won the competitions, you earned the scholarships, you played the leading roles, you got a manager, you signed the contracts, and you impressed the reviewers. But with each step forward and upward, there are more people to please, and more pressure to succeed, as you unwittingly give away bits of your personal power and find yourself constantly doubting your own abilities. Perhaps you are an experienced singer going through a “slump,” or seeing roles go to younger singers. You may be a singer who has had success on one level, and now face the unknown challenges of the next professional arena. You may even be returning to singing after a voluntary or forced “break,” such as an illness, the birth of a child, a career change, or relocation. How do you regroup and rebuild your confidence?

I recently spoke with Creating Confidence author Meribeth Bunch from her home in London. “One of the biggest problems for any singer,” she told me, “is that of identifying the ‘core’ and the ‘voice’ as being the same thing. As soon as we perceive an insult to the voice, performance, or audition, we take it personally, and give away personal power to an external force. It is easy, then, to blame others.”

We also blame ourselves. “The self-critic is the largest obstacle any of us face, particularly the older we become. By then we have heard ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ so much that they have become parasites. The self-critic becomes the voice inside the head, that tries to speak at the same time we are singing. When we try to satisfy the self-critic, the message, the presence, and the performance all go out the window!”

To prove her point in lessons and workshops, Bunch tries the following experiment. “I stand behind a singer, and become their self-critic. As they are performing, I whisper lots of negative observations in their ear. And they seize up completely, because they can’t do both at once. Think about it–if the brain is busy talking while you are singing, it’s like having a radio on. It’s amazing what happens when the mind is quiet and supposedly blank. Athletes call this being ‘in the zone.’”

One of the most difficult things for a performer to do is to develop an innate sense of self that is not dependent on what others think. Bunch prefers to accept exactly what singers tell her about themselves and let them change their minds later without having made a judgment. “I find out what their goals are, where they want to be, and how they want to sound ideally. We also have a discussion about the attitudes and thoughts that contribute to personal presence and space they have around them. That usually boggles them! Then I have them sing while I make a videotape. We work on the congruence of the message, and especially on staying present–which is quickly evident in the eyes. You can see the second they ‘leave town!’”

Bunch tells of a soprano sent by her teacher for a consultation and video session. “She was a bit afraid at first, but later when I asked her what she was taking away from the session, her answer blew my mind. She was overjoyed because she looked like a ‘normal’ person. I shudder to think what she thought of herself before the session.” Bunch adds, “Singers needs to hear and see for themselves how they appear and sound. As long as singers, particularly classical singers, refuse to videotape and look at themselves, they will always need to go to others for approval.”

When she works with singers, Bunch trains them to be in the present. “The critically important attitude is simply this: I want to be here!” She cautions not to be stuck in the past or distracted by the future. “One of the ways we hang ourselves up is to try to recreate the great rehearsal, performance, audition we had–whenever. When we do this, we are forever disappointed that we can’t get the same feeling. We must instead recreate each time we sing.”

And what about the singer who is singing a small role, and desperately wants and “deserves” the lead role? “The person who is trying to be in the future is not in the present, and is probably not performing optimally. Do the small role wonderfully well! One of the sad aspects of the teaching of singing is that no attention is paid to presence from the beginning. From the first moment of making sound, the face and eyes need to be present. Even the warm-up is about the enjoyment of singing, not just a means to an end.”

Bunch believes that there is a dual responsibility for the singer to maintain his or her own integrity or personal power, and for the voice teacher to find a way to “honor” the singer. “We need feedback on the voice that we can trust. However, gut feelings need to be acknowledged and honored. For example, if we are losing confidence because a teacher is subtly or otherwise trying to discourage us, we need to know when it is time to part company. We have given away our personal power to that teacher [coach, manager, etc.], and feel we are failures because we cannot do what they are asking. We keep trying to prove ourselves to the person in front of us, when we need to prove ourselves to ourselves. By constantly walking back into this situation, we crush our confidence and spirit. There is so much nurturing needed–not spoiling and false praise, but nourishment of the individual as a human being.”

What Is Personal Power?

• An innate sense of yourself that is not dependent on what you believe other people think;

• The ability and confidence to find out or ask what you need to know to do your job or task well;

• The ability to listen to comments and criticism, and pursue them positively until a way is found to resolve the situation with integrity, and without emotional attachment to the outcome;

• The ability to recognize and take care of your own needs. In doing so, you are far better able to maintain your energy and sense of self-worth, and you will be free to share and to give others what they may need at the time.

(From Creating Confidence, Meribeth Bunch. Kogan Page Limited, London, © Meribeth Bunch, 1999, www.creating-confidence.com).

Meribeth Bunch, Ph. D. has been a force in the singing world for more than 30 years. Her classic textbook, The Dynamics of Singing, has been used internationally for classes in singing, drama, speech therapy, and medical courses, since its first publication in 1982. She is also a specialist in self-development in business and the performing arts.

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.