Years ago, I was teaching jazz voice lessons to a recently crowned Miss Tennessee. It was for reals, she was actually a Miss Tennessee.
She was beautiful, confident, incredibly kind, and sang like a bird. On top of those awesome things, she also taught me one of the biggest lessons in my teaching career.
If you don’t trust that you sound fundamentally okay,
you are never going to be able to let go and enjoy singing.
We were in a lesson, and she was singing her jazz piece. Well. She was singing it really well. She also had a weird look of consternation on her face. So I asked her, “do you trust that you sound good?” Because I heard a skilled instrument! The pitch was there, her voice went easily to every note, she had the words memorized, all the “technical elements” were aces. But she was preoccupied, and it seemed like she was singing and evaluating simultaneously.
And she stopped. She paused. She took a minute to think about it, and then said, “no. I don’t trust that I sound good.”
This absolutely blew my mind! And it taught me that no matter how “good” you are, it’s possible to be focused on the wrong thing.
In jazz, we are striving for expression and rhythm and improvisation and freedom. And her voice sounded better than 80% of my other students, mostly because it worked really well and she knew how to control it. Yet, she couldn’t let go and just enjoy the music because she was utterly focused on her sound. She had passed all the technical requirements with flying colors, but she wasn’t enjoying the benefits of those accomplishments.
Now, I also understand that in classical singing lessons the sound is the crux of the situation for lots of reasons. You learn to focus on how you are sounding almost above everything else. And this woman had faithfully trained herself to constantly monitor her voice. I get that.
AND, I’m wanting you to hear me out – at some point, you gotta let that go. Or else you’re going to miss the point of singing. It’s fun and magical. Not everyone can do it well, and if you are one of the lucky folks who can get around on your voice box, find a few moments to simply enjoy the act of singing and stop listening to yourself so dang hard. Sneak out back with the smokers if you have to and let it rip. (But don’t smoke or stand too close to them, that’s not what I’m saying.)
This is one of the many reasons I love jazz singing. It doesn’t dictate one kind of sound, or for you to sing unamplified to the back of a theater. Once your voice is functioning relatively well, and you can sing rhythmically and conversationally, you can just cut loose. The dimension where singing joy and music making collide is your oyster.
I can always tell when a singer is listening to themselves. It detracts from their ability to be present, and cuts them off from their emotions. I prefer to hear you sing with your heart. The mental chatter of self monitoring is noisy and the audience can hear it.
If you need to, by all means, develop your sound. Do the work, get better, all in a spirit of enjoyment. And at some point, cut the apron strings and just sing. I bet you can do it before you *think* you are ready to.