I’ve always hated listening to myself on recording…or worse, watching video of myself in performance. It’s because I’m always evaluating: “Am I in tune? Are my vowel shapes working? Do I grimace when I slip up?” But I have to do this, because I’m a voice teacher and choir director. If my job is to evaluating singing, I have to make sure that my own skills are up to snuff.
Recently I had the occasion to watch video of myself in Ferndale doing a show of all original music (plus a run of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Faire”). It was a few weeks after the performance, but I was still nervous about watching it. When the videographer hit the play button, I braced myself for the onslaught of crazy – how did I look, did I hunch my back like some mad cathedral organist or undead vampire in a musty mansion, did my glasses blank out the whole upper half of my face; did I sound fake or pushed, out of tune; did my mouth look like a gaping dragon’s vagina; did my teeth look bad, and oh my gods I didn’t remember that one word in that song – DAMMIT.
These are what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, call “blurts.” They are reactionary statements that the brain spews out when it observes something that the brain’s owner does.
“I didn’t notice anything at all!” my videographer said. I kept quiet, but I thought, “Oh yeah, right, of course you would say that because you’re not trained to see the kinds of things that I see,” and, “You’re just being nice, you’re just being my friend.”
But then she asked, “Are you as self-critical as Elaine is?” (Elaine is my pseudonym for another performer she filmed that night.) And it struck me – I didn’t know how to answer. No videographer had ever asked me that before. She was obviously very experienced at filming musicians, and had no doubt sat with them as they winced at every little thing that seemed wrong to them.
I don’t remember what I said to her, but that question snapped me into a different mode – one of observing the observer. And it changed the experience for me.
Observing myself observing the video removed me from my emotional reactions and silenced the blurts. From there, I could actually start watching the video from a more objective and compassionate point of view.
I started to see more of what was working than what was not working. I did notice where my tuning was only 95%, and why that happened – it was a tonal thing, how I handled my breath and vowel shaping. And I noticed some tension in my face whenever the singing got emotional. I noticed where my eyes were focused at different times, my body language, all of it. And so my overall critique was, “Ok, I know the things I should work on to make sure my tuning is perfect. I just need to watch out so I don’t push.” But I also noticed the victories, what I liked: a ringing tone, clear head register, good breath control, good diction, good piano playing, good moments of eye contact with the audience, good twang where it was needed, and the soulful runs were a little pushed, but that’s fixable!
So I resolved in the future to make my self-evaluations a two-step process:
Step 1: After the performance, get your most emotional reactions out of the way as soon as possible. Don’t look at the footage just yet. Get the highs and lows out of your system first. Then cool off for at least 24 hours.
Step 2: And then, when you have zeroed out your emotional system, watch or listen to the footage. Observe yourself observing it. Maybe have a trusted buddy nearby, so you get more sides of the story than just your own. What do you notice now, and how do you describe and express it? Is it more objective or less? Do you notice things you didn’t notice before? Does anything surprise you? Do you find your singing was better than you thought? Maybe more challenged? Do you forgive yourself for the moments when you were less than 100%? Compare your reactions today with your reactions from right after the performance.
And remember: This is a tool to evaluate your work, not your character, your person, or your self. Use it to form a less personal and more professional relationship with your voice. Like I always say, your voice is not you.