February/March 2017

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Myth of Self – Confidence

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Myth of Self – Confidence

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Is it confidence that makes you capable of performance, or performance the gives you confidence? I believe it is the latter.

Confidence is NOT a prerequisite for singing well. And yet, the self-diagnosis for most new students is that they just lack confidence (and I need to teach it to them). Hell no gurrrrrrrl…. You need skills! There are 1001 reality TV programmes that love to exploit overconfident delusional individuals who back themselves, but can’t back it up with chops. Think of any trade, like plumbing or electrical engineering; it’s not about confidence, it’s about knowledge, experience, and the demonstration of well-honed, well-practised skills.

You can have all the confidence in the world and still be a terrible singer. I for one, have extreme low self-confidence. I do, however, have unshakable faith in vocal technique. I believe the world needs to hear the songs I’m singing and this becomes my motivator – not self-belief. (Though it must be fun for those lucky souls who have it.)

Weirdly enough, my most talented students tend to lack self-confidence. The more confident ones often rank themselves highly and are hard nuts to crack because they don’t perceive themselves as having anything to work on – they’re already there. (And just need to be discovered by a record company!) You either have it or you don’t, right? Wrong!

I think the apparent need for self-confidence stems from a mindset that equates singing with public performance. My singing doesn’t have to be heard or appreciated by an audience or listeners. That would be a bonus, but essentially, I sing because it settles my soul. I learn/write songs in order to sing/play them to the best of my ability. This is because I love what songs do to me – they educate, inspire, delight, reveal, heal, soothe, give voice to emotions, deepen my experience and understanding and make sense of life. I don’t need to hear applause or receive compliments in order to feel complete.

If performance is your goal, and you believe that self-confidence is a pre-requisite to getting on stage, you may be waiting a very long time before you feel ready. Remember: preparation creates opportunity. If we prepare a gig’s worth of material, gigs often miraculously appear. If we say yes to a gig with a reasonable amount of lead-in time, there’s a job needs doing and we can rise to the challenge.

Confidently? Probably not. However, we’re never presented with things we can’t do – even if we’re terrified and believe wholeheartedly that we ‘can’t’ do it. (That is the way of the Jedi.)

Over-confidence and under-confidence are both ego-based recipes for disaster. Best we not even mention the ‘c’ word. Both mindsets tend towards seeing ourselves as exceptional (rather than anatomically standardised to adhere to universal principles of acoustic engineering!), but for different reasons. The Under-confidents (UCs) don’t believe themselves capable of adopting/using good vocal technique because they are fundamentally flawed, slow, talentless etc. The Over-confidents (OCs) consider themselves exceptional because they exist above and beyond all rules and norms – they are just better than other people, don’t need to practice or warm-up – they were just born that way. Yaaaay!

UCs tend to…

…give up very easily; not try for fear of failure or not being good enough; generalize about how bad their voice is; compare and contrast themselves negatively with others; procrastinate; over-intellectualise; not trust their own instincts and indicators when practising, rely on affirmative feedback that they’ll discredit anyhoo; be hypersensitive; never celebrate successes or breakthroughs; view all/any feedback as critical; view singing (especially high notes) as difficult or impossible; shun the use of deadlines or ultimatums; live in the past; remember negative experiences that back-up supposed under-function in the present and remain stuck in bad-practice because it’s familiar.

OCs tend to…

…think they know what’s best for them; distrust experts, authority-figures or advice of any kind; make assumptions about why they do things the way they do without understanding what’s actually going on; under-estimate how long it takes to properly learn and memorise songs; over-estimate their own abilities; have low standards of accomplishment; believe they have an entitlement and right to receiving other people’s attention and praise; believe that simply being onstage is more important than what you do when you’re up there; talk themselves up to feel better, disregard mistakes or faults; not be able to discern between good and bad technique; ignore pain or set-backs and not listen to anyone else’s opinion.

I hope you can appreciate what a minefield it is to duck and dive around and through the OCs and UCs, when all you want to do is offer up some mighty tools for beautiful vocalisation. Mind you, I’m a UC and have safely navigated myself far from the turbulent Oceans of Confidence and into the calm Sea of Skill.

Sadly, the myth of confidence being essential to singing is one of several mind traps. Another is buying into the stereotypes and generalisations of what it is to be a singer/songwriter/rock star. That is, thinking that singing and songwriting should be automatically effortless and easy – therefore, if you struggle, then clearly music isn’t your calling. “Say whaaaaaaat?!”

This is why I love to read interviews, biographies and autobiographies. Sia with her crippling stage fright, bi-polar disorder and subsequent recovery from addiction… We’re only seeing/hearing a tiny percentile of the talent that’s out there – the confident ones. I’m privy to some most amazing voices and songs that may well never reach the labyrinths in your inner ears. Why? Because a certain amount of self-belief goes a long way. According to the Tall Poppy Syndrome, any parts-per-million self-belief are interpreted as arrogance. So we best think of gymnastics…

When I was young, I did gymnastics. Loved it. If you asked me to do a backflip, I’d say, “I can’t”. But, I used to and with the right training, may well again. Is it about confidence? No. Practising skills? Hell yeah!
Fb: caitlinsmithjazz and caitlinsmithmusic