Reflections on Music and Life
“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!