A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about a TED talk by Brene Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability.” I was in a place in life when I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take both in my work – giving singing lessons for kids and adults in Marin – and in my private life.
When I was in my 20s after journalism school at NYU and in my first editing jobs at various West Coast newspapers, I was quite cocky. I would never show that I didn’t know what I was doing. I would show irritation if someone told me how to do something. Inside, however, I was like a sponge – soaking in everything people were saying so I could master my craft. When I moved to vocal teaching and music directing, I took this trait with me. As the years went by, however, I realized what a tremendous amount of pressure it was to “hold it together” and not show vulnerability when in a leadership position. I felt as many do, like a fraud.
Then I listened to Brown’s talk and learned that showing vulnerability not only allows us to grow but is a sign of courage and strength. More important, it allows us to be ourselves and authentic. I was music directing an adult show at the time, and one of the cast members was being very difficult, very critical of my work and wanting to do things his way. I sensed that his stance was based on both a profound insecurity but also on much creative energy that wanted to express itself. It was a power struggle. It was then that I allowed myself to show my own vulnerability as a music director, letting go of “being exact, perfect and right,” and allowing that there were other ways of achieving what was required. When I shifted, he shifted. And, most important, the weight of my wanting to make the show “perfect” fell away, contributing to the outcome – a heartfelt production. His creative voice and my desire for excellence could co-exist.
Singing – both learning to sing and teaching – requires us to be vulnerable. How can we expect our students to be vulnerable and open to singing lessons and coaching from us if we are not open to that ourselves?
Recently I shared with a student, who was hugely frustrated because she couldn’t do what she did in the studio at home, about one of my vocal frustrations. For years I have had a break in my lower to middle voice – a common weakness in sopranos – which made me avoid certain songs. Whatever I tried I would snap, crackle and pop on that “passaggio” of the lower voice. To admit that I had this vocal issue was hard for me. I’m the teacher, after all. However, sharing this made my student feel better! And, happily, now that I am working with my own voice teacher on integrating the speaking and singing voices, at last, this break is finally disappearing! And, my own teacher shares her own vocal conundrums with me, which makes me feel better too.
I now feel that allowing myself to be vulnerable – maintaining “beginner’s mind,” as the Buddhist’s call it – is directly linked to my self-esteem as a singer, both when I teach singing to adults and children and my own performing. And finally working out long-standing issues of vocal tension both in my speaking and singing voice in my own voice lessons has brought me great joy. I not only feel a sense of accomplishment and increased knowledge but I am healing the shame that goes with trying to hide something from the world just so I could see myself as “the teacher.” To transform this insecurity, I had to stop defending my old habits. I’m not saying allowing myself to be vulnerable has gotten any easier. But it does make me feel more human and connected to the world. And, my students are the ones to reap the benefits of all the new-found vocal knowledge.