Thursday, 16 April 2015

Confidence, criticism and the power to destroy

It's been a long time since I've written a Singing Is Easy post. But I still sing, and I still teach. Not as much as I used to, but that's a good thing. I'm no longer wearing my voice out with constant teaching, so I am now enjoying my own singing more - although I am not doing anything like as much as I would like, no doubt because when I was teaching so much I lacked the time or the energy to focus on my own singing and have therefore disappeared off the radar. Do I have the inclination to do anything about this? I'm not sure. I love singing, but if I am honest I am less confident about singing than almost anything else I do. Even criticism I know to be unjustified cuts to the quick. The scars are very deep.....

Recently I was told by a friend that I have a "very high voice". This friend has hearing problems. The nature of his hearing difficulty is that he does not hear a certain range of frequencies - which just happens to be the frequency range in which the fundamental of my voice sits. So he does not actually hear my voice at all. All he hears is what we call the "overtones" - the high harmonic frequencies that give my voice its "shine". Fortunately - or perhaps unfortunately, as I shall explain - my voice is overtone-rich, so it is actually possible for him to hear my voice despite (for him) the missing fundamental. What he hears is a high faint sound. And for him, that high faint sound IS my voice. He doesn't like wearing his hearing aid because it is uncomfortable, and because he can actually hear me (though faintly) he doesn't need to. But he doesn't like the high faint sound, so he tells me I should speak lower and louder so that he can hear me better.

His criticism is not limited to my speaking voice, either. He makes the same complaint about my singing voice. He thinks it is very high and very quiet. It is actually neither, as people with normal hearing who have heard me sing know.

And yet although I know this criticism is completely unfair, arising as it does from this friend's own hearing difficulties rather than any real problems with my voice, it gets to me. It reminds me of my first year at the Royal College of Music, when I struggled to be heard because my first teacher had removed the "edge" from my voice. The "edge" that she so disliked IS my voice. Without it, I do indeed have a high faint sound. She just didn't like my voice.....

So when my friend says that is what he hears, although my brain knows he is not hearing me properly, my hypersensitive emotional self thinks it is back at the Royal College of Music. College was not a happy experience for me: I was never one of their stars, and when I left after four years I was in worse shape both vocally and emotionally than when I arrived.

At the end of my first year at the Royal College, I failed my end-of-year singing exam. This is a serious matter: failing an end-of-year exam in your principal instrument can mean being asked to leave. It was not my only failure during my time there, but it was unquestionably the worst. It was a formative experience, and not in a good way.

I still remember how I found out about my exam failure. I was stewarding for the exams to earn some extra money, so the day after my own exam I turned up in the Exams Office to collect my papers for the day. The Exams Office had an outer office and an inner office. I went into the outer office, then stopped because I could hear a conversation going on in the inner office about someone who had failed their first study exam the previous day. I thought I had better not interrupt, so I waited. As the conversation proceeded, it became evident that they were talking about a girl, a first-study singer, and they didn't know what to do. She had passed her piano exam, and her theory exams were very good - the only problem was the singing, but it was her first study....As I listened I became increasingly uneasy. Then someone said "Who is her teacher?" "John York Skinner," came the response. And then I knew. I was John's only female student.....I still remember how it felt to hear that. Like a knife into my stomach.

I interrupted, of course, much to the embarrassment of the people concerned. But the damage was done. I completed my stewarding that day, then went to see Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at the Royal Opera House. But I don't remember much about it. I cried all the way through. All I could think about was the disastrous singing exam result and the possibility that I would have to leave college.

I saw John the following day. He was horrified. He told me that when I arrived at college the previous year he had wondered what I was doing there, because he couldn't hear a voice, but that he had now changed his opinion. He said that the criticism made by the examiner was completely unjustified and he was going to complain to the Director. I'm fairly sure that he did, because I was subsequently asked to repeat the exam in front of the Director. The repeat went well, and I was allowed to stay.

But the damage was done. I never regained my former confidence. Even now, when I receive unjustified criticism - such as that from my friend - I start to doubt myself again.

It is shockingly easy to destroy a singer's confidence, and extraordinarily difficult to rebuild it. Singing is intensely personal, more so than any other instrument. When you sing in public, you put yourself on show: there is nowhere to hide. I remember someone once saying that singing was like "undressing in public". Woe betide the stripper who doesn't have a good body....Audiences not only hear your voice, they feel your emotions and see your vulnerabilities. If they don't like you, their criticism hits home. And because singing is also very subjective, it is quite possible that an audience might not like you, not because there is anything wrong with what you are doing but simply because they don't like the sound you make or the way you look.

This is why teachers and examiners have a terrible responsibility. I have written before about teachers whose incompetence causes physical damage: but teachers and examiners who wreck the confidence of singers are possibly even more dangerous. Physical damage can follow on from catastrophic loss of confidence, because the emotional distress and physical tension caused by a disaster such as I experienced predisposes the student to damage, while misguided attempts to rectify supposed problems can actually make matters worse. Vocal lesions are at least in part emotional in origin.

But with the best will in the world, it is hard for teachers and examiners to put their personal likes and dislikes on hold. If you simply don't like the sound someone makes even when they are singing well, how can you judge them fairly? How can you teach that person safely? Singers tend to be highly intuitive and very empathic: you could say we are hypersensitive to other people's reactions to our singing. Studying with someone who just doesn't like your voice slowly erodes confidence. Being examined by someone who has nothing positive to say is destructive.

I now know that there were issues with the conduct of the exam that were sufficiently serious to invalidate it. The exam panel should have consisted of two members of the singing faculty and one pianist (since piano was my second study), a total of three people. But there were only two people - one member of the singing faculty, and one pianist who was also a choral director. I suppose the fact that Hubert Dawkes was a choral director sort of qualified him as a singer, but he wasn't a member of the singing faculty. And the other member of the panel was known to have problems with alcohol abuse. My exam was at four in the afternoon and he was already out of it (I could see that as soon as I walked in the room). The exam was therefore conducted by one person alone. It was evident from the remarks that Dawkes simply did not like the way I sang, and because the other person was out of it, there was no-one to challenge his opinion.

But this is water under the bridge. What happened, happened: and it changed me permanently. I went to college believing that I would have a professional singing career: I left knowing that I would not. And although I fought this conviction for many years, encouraged to do so by many supportive people who loved my voice and wanted to hear me sing, I have never been able to overcome the deep-rooted sense of inadequacy created by that awful experience. Perhaps I never will.