“My 3rd grade teacher told me to mouth the words.”
“Even my parents have told me not to sing!”
“I was born with zero musical talent.”
Heard these laments before? Said one of them yourself? Shaming experiences with music can
stay with us for a lifetime, preventing us from rewarding music making experiences.
According to Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, shame is something everyone experiences. It is based in fear and thrives on secrecy. It is the notion that “I am bad” rather than “I did something bad.” The more we are able to recognize and address shame, the less control it has over our lives.
Fair enough, you might say, just don’t ask me to sing! For some people, nothing quite provokes terror like the thought of singing in front of others. Performance anxiety is really about the fear of being embarrassed. Otherwise, virtually no one would sing in the shower (the place where glorious singers abound). Having studied music for the better part of my life, I know how much difference practicing makes in my singing and instrument playing. Yet, people often say, “it’s easy for you” or “I wish I could play music but I have no talent.” The way I sound is directly related to how much I sing or play. I also spent a year in the South Pacific studying ethnomusicology and learned that many indigenous cultures around the world have extensive traditions of community singing. Thus, they are often noted to have pleasing singing voices.
They sing well, in large part, simply because they sing!
An early experience of being shamed around music can have a lasting and permanent affect. If you are a professional musician, I would be surprised if you do not have at least one shame story from your training. Shaming in music (and other performing arts) is sometimes condoned and accepted as “good teaching.” The movie Whiplash presents a profound example of shame and music.
When I have given workshops that explore music and shame, just showing the trailer to this movie has proved to be a trigger for nearly everyone present. While the movie’s depiction was extreme, this kind of shaming really does go on, usually behind closed doors, and with no apology.
As a voice major in college I had to participate in exams called juries (even the name of this exam is intimidating) and master classes. Juries took place in the auditorium with the voice faculty sitting in the back. With my knees knocking and singing my much labored-over art songs, rarely did the faculty smile or clap. One time during a master class I was singing Gounod’s Ave Maria. When I got to the high A, I remember how easy and beautifully the note floated up so high. In the next instant I dropped the note, stopped singing, and was unable to finish the song. My voice teacher was yelling at me, in front of my peers, to finish the song. That feeling stayed with me, and it was ten years before I was able to sing a high A again. Instead of opening my throat to sing, it closed in fear!
Learning about shame and how to deal with it has
transformed my experiences as a musician.
Recently, I sang a rhythmically challenging solo with a community choir. The first time I rehearsed it with the choir; I messed up it up terribly. I was so embarrassed and my self-talk was pretty negative: “you suck at rhythm.” Once I noticed the shame storm, I was able to pause, take a few deep breaths, and then actually learn the music.
As a music therapist, I sometimes have found myself reintroducing music into someone’s life, due to a stroke, head injury, or other physical challenge. Sometimes it was unbearable for my client to play music at a level so below how she or he once played. The music that gave such pleasure in the past now only brought pain weighted down by shame. Unfortunately, this shame often prevented finding new ways to experience music.
It’s time to forge a different way of being with our music – a way that is messy, full of errors, flowing, full, and beautiful. With this comes the acknowledgement that music is not static. Mistakes will be made. And, there will often be another opportunity to sing or play that line differently. My world did not end because I couldn’t sing that high A. There are simply too many beautiful songs to be thwarted by shame!
Share your shame and music story. For extra credit, find a way to reframe the experience that empowers you to move on and engage in music, however you choose!
“If I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers
Shame is the opposite of that statement. It is that self-loathing experience of not feeling good enough. If I had a magic wand and the ability to create an immediate change in people, I would wave it to help recognize shame and transform it to love and acceptance of self. This does not absolve us of our wrongdoings; on the contrary, it gives us the opportunity to change rather being stuck in our shame.
I owe much of my enlightenment on this topic of shame to Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW. Millions have viewed her Ted Talks on vulnerability and shame.
Brown’s books, especially The Gifts of Imperfection, offer an even more in-depth look at shame, shame resilience, and how to live wholehearted lives.
Brown uses the terms guilt and shame in specific ways to help clarify the emotional experiences of our situations. Simply speaking, she references the internal dialog of shame as "I am bad" and guilt as "I did something bad." It is important to clarify these specific meanings of the terms as the words shame and guilt are often used interchangeably in everyday language.
When I am stuck in shame, I mostly feel awful and believe there is nowhere to go but to continue feeling bad. For me, shame is an achy feeling in my stomach. Others may have a different sensory experience of that shame feeling. For some it is a nagging voice in their heads telling them how worthless they are, for others it is a visual that depicts them as very small.
When I recognize and identify my feeling as shame, I have an opportunity to move through my experience. I can realize that I am not a horrible person, but perhaps I have done something horrible. I can then work to make amends or vow to be more aware of my actions in the future. When I remain stuck with a feeling of shame, I continue to feel bad, the focus remains on myself, and the situation has little opportunity to transform or heal.
When we shame others, we give her or him little room for change. For example, "you are sexist," rather than "that was a sexist comment," gives little room to change and forces the person into feeling bad about him or herself. When the feeling of shame is experienced and not recognized or identified, it can be too painful and thus transformed into anger before an opportunity to address it is realized. I believe that many reactionary or angry outbursts, verbal and physical, begin as a shame experience.
Noticing and addressing shame allows for ownership of actions (guilt),
rather than the experience of self-loathing and self-centeredness (shame).
Talking about shame is challenging. In fact, the topic is a great conversation stopper at parties. I have found this out first-hand on more than one occasion! We seem to spend so much time and money on ways to feel better, from exercise classes to travel to massage… yet few seem interested in actually talking about shame or acknowledging its existence in our lives.
Recognizing and addressing shame presents a way to fast track finding comfort in our own skin and
moving forward as wholeheartedly as possible.