In my last blog, I discussed the negative self-talk that plagues so many artists, myself included. “I am not good enough” is like a soundtrack that plays on a loop.
These crippling self-doubts often begin young, but the real damage begins when an important teacher in high school or a professor in college implies (or outright states) that you don’t have what it takes. And it only takes one teacher–however qualified or unqualified–to render a judgment that undermines your self-confidence.
I wrote about my own experience, mainly in college, where I didn’t conform to the traditional expectations for a classical singer in a conservatory.
It’s worth remembering that I attended college 20 years ago. Musical training has changed since then, largely for the better. My alma mater has made huge strides, both in the breadth of its training and its definition of what constitutes an “acceptable” artistic pursuit.
But things haven’t changed entirely. A recent podcast hosted by Broadway composer Drew Gasparini (which I recommend highly) featured Amber Ardolino (Hamilton, Head Over Heels, Moulin Rouge). Amber, 27, talks about one teacher who flat out told her she needed to think about another line of work (“a backup plan”) because she simply didn’t have the talent to pursue a career in the arts.
I think many Broadway stars have similar stories. And those teachers (who themselves were not professional artists making a living off their art) were obviously wrong.
But what if a teacher’s assessment is correct? What if you’re not, in fact, talented enough to pursue a career in singing (or dancing or acting)? There are tens of thousands of singers, dancers, and actors with monumental talent who don’t “make it” by even a relaxed standard. Talent isn’t enough. Most successful people in every profession acknowledge luck as a factor in their success. Being “in the right place at the right time” offers a talented performer a chance to be seen. Some wait all their lives for their “big break” and it never comes.
One or two teachers and professors may be wrong. But if you consistently hear from multiple sources over an extended period of time that your diction is rubbish, that your vowels don’t resonate, that your French is subpar, that your acting needs work, and that your attitude is poor, these assessments are likely true.
But that doesn’t have to be the end of your artistic life and performing story.
The key is learning to listen and then act on the feedback. One of the most underrated skills in life, both in and beyond the arts, is learning to apply constructive criticism.
It took me fifteen years to strengthen this skill, and even at 40, I’m far from perfect at hearing and acting on criticism. But here’s what I’ve learned about responding to feedback.
1. Listen to the right people.
I have written and spoken at length about having a core group (of no more than five) who are “your people.” Any more than that and it’s a case of too many chefs in the kitchen. Usually your group will consist of a few teachers, an agent/manager, and possibly a mentor (who may not actually be your teacher).
Rarely is a family member part of the group, even if a professional artist.
My people are (in no particular order):
- Voice teacher
- Acting teacher
- Performance Coach (specifically for jazz/cabaret)
- On-Camera Coach
Who are yours? Write them down. Know them, thank them, keep them close. If you don’t yet have a core group, don’t worry. This can take years, but better you wait for the right people than attach to the wrong ones.
If the advice or opinion comes from one of your people, I would suggest taking it.
2. There is truth in numbers.
This seems obvious, but if different people from different sources keep telling you the same thing, it probably needs addressing.
3. Train broadly.
If your goal is to work on Broadway or act on the big and small screen, you need to diversify. When I look at the resumes of artists in their 20s, I’m gobsmacked at the number of skills they possess (from obscure languages to accents to acrobatics).
There are exceptions, of course. Some Broadway performers studied singing and acting, but next to no dance until they booked a show that required them to tap. Occasionally an opera singer will have no formal acting training. These are exceptions, and as time passes, they become even rarer.
My motto: Keep learning. Some people will never be great dancers, but they can be adequate. And by adequate, I mean passable so that their lack of dance skill doesn’t keep them from booking jobs.
4. Good criticism makes you better.
This may seem obvious, but criticism that doesn’t diminish your talent or resolve is usually worth taking. If you incorporate advice or feedback and don’t see an improvement, then perhaps the criticism was off-base. Generally, though, those who have lived before us and worked in showbiz have experienced things we haven’t, and therefore worth listening to.
Not all criticism is helpful, even if it’s not entirely wrongheaded. While it’s good to expand your skills, there are some skills that you just won’t develop (even if that rules out certain types of jobs). You must stay true to yourself and your unique set of gifts.
All professional opinions are worth considering, but it doesn’t mean you have to take them, or take them fully. Maybe there is some truth in it, but some of it doesn’t work for you. That’s okay. You are in charge of your art and ultimately, your career.
5. Consider motives and sources of criticism.
When an opinion or criticism is given out of spite, jealousy, insecurity, or fear, it will often aim to diminish you in some way. This was my experience in college. Because I didn’t fit a mold, I was often told I was too ambitious or assertive for an opera singer. Looking back now, I see how much of this criticism stemmed from the fear and insecurity of those dispensing it.
At 19, I took every criticism to heart. I thought I was weird and inadequate. This affected my confidence and self-worth for years. These critics didn’t have my best interests at heart, nor did they deserve to be considered “my people,” but they were the people judging me at the time. What do you do when the people in power are not, in a very real sense, “in your corner”?
That’s a large topic I will address in another blog, but the short answer: smile, nod, and make the best art you can. It may not be rewarded or recognized, but there’s no percentage in drawing battle lines.
6. Trust your gut: if something feels truly wrong, ignore it.
By wrong, I don’t mean inconvenient or unpleasant. You may not like playing piano, but it’s a necessary skill. That’s not what I mean by wrong.
As I’ve written before, I shouldn’t have studied opera. People thought I should, but it wasn’t the right path. I wanted to study musical theater and straight acting, but I stayed on the wrong path for years. (And I hated choir. But I did it because I was told I should.)
7. Do No Harm.
If someone gives you criticism or advice that results in harm to another, don’t do it. You don’t want to be part of diminishing anyone, even if directed to do so by someone in a position of authority.
We all make mistakes. Certainly I can look back on my life and see clearly where I chose wrong. I regret instances in which I acted selfishly. Many of us were taught that the universe is a zero-sum game, where there isn’t enough for everyone. One person’s loss, or so we believe, is another person’s gain. It’s a challenge to believe in abundance in a competitive industry, but I believe it’s a better way to live, both as a person and an artist. Stay your course, have faith, and believe in your own value. You won’t have to take anything from anyone else to reach your goals.
I will end with a final thought, dear singers. You are good enough. In case you need to hear it, I am here to tell you that you’re good enough. We are all works in progress, but you are enough.