The Courage To Learn

By Lis Lewis

I don’t like finding out that I’m not good at something, especially when I thought I was. I want to ignore it and pretend I didn’t need whatever it was anyway. I remember when a friend of mine gave me some notes after a performance telling me that I had my eyes closed too much onstage. I couldn’t believe it! ‘That’s how I get connected,’ I argued. ‘The audience likes it!’ I spent quite a bit of time defending myself until I starting noticing that other artists didn’t close their eyes and they had a better relationship with their audience. That was a blow. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. I’ll never be able to sing with my eyes open! I’d feel so self-conscious. I can’t do it!’ It took a while but I eventually started working on singing with my eyes open and staying connected at the same time.

I’ve watched myself have these kinds of reactions over the years and I see a pattern. First I’m defensive, then I feel discouraged and then I get to work. My voice students have patterns in their learning as well, maybe not the same patterns as mine but their own version. Change is hard; no one wants to see their weaknesses. You want to feel strong and capable. On the other hand, if you are strong enough to see your weaknesses, you can fix them.

I often get voice students from producers who are working with the artist in the studio. The artist might do a fantastic stage performance but under the pressure of recording, their flaws are exposed. Sometimes their pitch isn’t spot-on or they get vocally tired. Often when the producer sends the artist to me, the artist isn’t happy about it. They don’t want to admit that there is anything wrong with the way they sing. Once they’re willing to acknowledge that they could use some help, it’s a relief to them that they can get it. They realize that I’m their partner not their judge. My job is to help them overcome their problems and get stronger.

Everyone Learns Differently

Some people become musicians by educating themselves, learning chord structure and harmony. Others pick up an instrument and start playing without any information. Both ways work. The problem comes when they are afraid to fill the gaps in their knowledge: the intuitive player is scared to learn to read music and the educated player is afraid to improvise.


We each have our own process of discovering what we need to learn and then figuring out how we’re going to learn it. I see my own learning process like the face of a clock with ‘6’ at the bottom and ’12’ at the top. I’ll start at ‘6’ because its my favorite spot; that’s where I’ve already figured out what I need to learn and how I should go about it. All I have to do is work and I know I’ll accomplish my goal. It’s not frightening; it’s exciting. I want to learn. I trudge along learning as best I can toward the ‘9’ on the clock getting better and better. I’m really getting it! Right around ’11’, I’ve got it! I’m a great singer now and nothing can bring me down! I know it all. Then suddenly somewhere around ‘1’, I realize there is something about this career that I’m not so good at, like keeping my eyes open when I’m performing. What am I going to do? I’m a failure. How could I not have known this? What made me think I could be a singer? Between ‘1’ and ‘5’ is pretty bleak. I have to fix what’s wrong but I don’t know how – I don’t even know if I can. I’m defenseless and I’m willing to try anything. Because I’m so open to help, I always find some. Now I can get started working on it. Then I’m at ‘6’, my favorite spot, where I know what to do and all I have to do is work hard.

I don’t expect your process to be like mine; my process is a little radical. I get too arrogant when I think I’m good and too depressed when I think I’m bad. But if I can recognize it, I can see that each part of it is temporary. That alone makes it less radical. The same is true for you. When you hit a snag in your learning, a part of you feels ‘I’ll never get this?.’ But you can also remember that you’ve felt that way before and then gone on to accomplish your goals. You will be able to push through your doubts because you know there’s success on the other side. And maybe when you are at your most arrogant, thinking, ‘I don’t need any help,’ there will be a part of you thinking ‘there’s always more to learn.’