by Lis Lewis
Some people go through life being supremely confident; they think they are awesome singers, great performers and ready for stardom. To tell you the truth, I don’t think they’re paying enough attention. You need to be critical of your work if you are going to constantly improve. On the other hand, I know too many people who watch everything they do. There’s a critic sitting on their shoulder who only thinks the worst. “Who do you think you’re kidding?” he says. “You think you look so cool? Your songs are no good; change your clothes; be creative for heaven sakes.” I hate that critic. He makes you distrust yourself. It can be paralyzing.
This is a tough business where everything you do will be scrutinized, dissected and discussed. Recently I went to an awesome show of a band I work with and at the end of an hour long, energy packed, hair-raising performance, the managers said to the lead singer “It wasn’t your best show “. Oh for heaven’s sake. What do you want? It was a spectacular show. No wonder we are constantly watching everything we do and examining it until we have no idea what works and what doesn’t. For every person who likes what you did in the show last night there are five waiting to tell you what was wrong with it.
Everyone has an opinion and they’re all going to tell it to you: your friends, your mother, your manager, the press, even strangers. You are under the microscope. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. Who should you believe and how do you live with the constant criticism without taking every negative comment to heart?
First and foremost you need to have a strong concept of who you are and what you want to present to the world. What style of music do you sing best? What kind of voice do you have? What is the personality you present onstage? How is that reflected in every aspect of your show: your clothes, movements and interactions with the audience and band? What do you want the audience to experience when they see you perform? The clearer you are about what you want from your music, the less likely you are to be buffeted about by other people’s opinions.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore other opinions. They can be a helpful objective look at something you don’t see. You can’t see yourself as others see you. You may think that your persona onstage is tough and wild but someone watching you may not see that at all. They may only see a person who is jumping around a lot. You need to have people around you whose opinions you trust, who understand your concept and can tell you when you are on the mark and when you off.
A very famous comic was on a late night talk show talking about the fact that no matter what he does when he walks onstage, people laugh. That may sound good to you, but it means he can’t tell from the audience’s response when his material is working and when it isn’t. The audience assumes he’ll be funny no matter what he does. So, to solve this problem, he has developed a circle of friends and advisors who help him figure out what’s working. They know what he is trying to accomplish and help him discern when he’s done it.
When people come up to you after a show and tell you what was wrong with your performance, you have no idea what their perspective is: maybe they don’t like your style of music, maybe they are jealous of you and think they could do it better. Their opinion is worthless because it has no context. And don’t believe them when they tell you how great you are either. The opinions you should take seriously are those of the people you know and trust. To develop this circle of advisors whose opinions will mean something to you, you need to talk to the people who are closest to you about what you intend musically. Tell them about your artistic goals and ideals. Are you attempting to change people’s political and social ideas about the world or are you an angry rebellious poet trying to express your personal pain? If you can communicate your vision to the people who you’ve chosen to be your advisors they can give you feedback about whether you’ve accomplished it. This is the start of a conversation you will have with them over and over again through the years as you evolve and change.
Still, there is the part of you that has doubts: Can I really do this? What makes me think I’m so special? It can be overwhelming and discouraging, day after day, pounding your head against the wall of the music business. There is so much to do and so many other people out there trying to do it too. Remember that one of your jobs as a musician is to be as thoroughly yourself as you can. That’s what will set you apart from everyone else – no on else can be you. The more specific you are about the things you love and hate, about your personality and how you express it, the more recognizable you become to your audience. Don’t copy the people you admire. Learn from them and then create your own thing. Then you won’t be in competition with anyone else.
There will always be two parts to you – your artistic nature and your critical one. Your critical side has to participate in the process in order for you to meet your goals and achieve greatness. The problem occurs when it overwhelms your creative ability. It can’t be constantly telling you that every word you write is trite or that the movement you were just about to do will look silly. Suspend your critical thinking in the initial creative process of writing a song; then bring it back in when you are crafting the song. When you’re rehearsing with the band and trying new moves, you need the freedom to try anything even it doesn’t work. After you experiment you can choose the ones that work and leave out the ones that are awkward. Don’t let your critical side stifle you. Be brave and try new things. Once you are onstage both of these parts of your mind will operate together. Part of you will improvise a melody you’ve never tried before while the other part makes sure you don’t sing a note that is too high for you. Part of you will jump up on the speaker while the other part will make sure you can get down again. You need both sides to be an artist. Keep a balance.
Lis Lewis is a voice teacher and performance coach in Los Angeles, CA. She has been training recording artists for over 30 years. Learn more about her private voice lessons. Lis is the author of the books The Singers First Aid Kit and The Pop Singers Warm-Up Kit both published by Hal Leonard. In addition to private coaching, she has worked in collaboration with managers, record labels, producers, bands and songwriters in the recording and rehearsal studio to get the best performances from their artists.