Recently I picked up a book by the Indian philosopher and sage Jiddu Krishnamurti called “Life Ahead,” reflections on the mature life. He spoke about fear in a way that so deeply affected me, I wrote two pages of his wisdom in my journal. As someone who gives singing lessons for kids and adults, I was struck by how his words could speak to performers with stage anxiety.
Here is what he wrote: “Contentment comes from understanding what you actually are and do not pursue what you should be.”
He later says: “Through the process of envy (which pushes us to want more, to be more) you hope to arrive at contentment…Contentment is a state of creativeness in which there is the understanding of what actually is. If you begin to understand what you actually are from moment to moment, from day to day, you will find that out of this understanding there comes an extraordinary feeling of vastness, of limitless comprehension. That is, if you are greedy, what matters is to understand your greed and not try to become non-greedy; because the very desire to become non-greedy is still a form of greed.”
And lastly, “The religious mind seeks to understand the full significance of what is. That’s why it is very important to understand yourself, which is to perceive the workings of your own mind: the motives, the intentions, the longings, the desires, the constant pressure for pursuance, which creates envy, acquisitiveness and comparison.”
The constant striving for acquisitiveness, the psychic space between what is and what you feel you should be, in my opinion, creates fear.
I have been meditating on what he means by “understanding” versus knowledge, defined as mental constructs such as book learning or memorization. He frames “understanding” as a wordless knowing, such as deeply knowing you are loved by your spouse or family. Some people “just know” that God exists – a deep understanding. Others rely on faith, which seems to also encapsulate its opposite, doubt, and therefore triggers a need for will power (or at least reassurance.)
So, I have embarked on looking at my motivations and relationship with
envy and striving in many areas of my life, including my music. What I have discovered are two “nut” intentions that I feel lead to fear: My need for security and my need for attention. And, just saying “no, you don’t need that” doesn’t help, he says. Acknowledging that these two needs are driving forces in my actions has really helped to calm me and keep me present with “what is.”
Here’s an example from a long time ago: I was hired to sing a wedding, which I find very stressful because I have to sit there, waiting to sing and then when it’s time, usually at the highpoint of the ceremony, I have to deliver an awesome “Ave Maria” or whatever has been requested. I was super-nervous and worried that my nerves would affect my voice. Right before I was supposed to sing I had the realization that I was expecting myself to sound like Leontyne Price or another famous opera singer when I opened my mouth. Once I understood that this wasn’t going to happen in 10 minutes, my whole body calmed and acceptance seeped in. I sang really well.
Your voice in this moment is “what is.” It doesn’t mean that down the road your voice won’t sound like that famous opera singer or whomever you admire, but right in this moment we are where we are. And we do the best we can with that. This is also linked with the need for security: Singing well makes us feel more secure as a person, like we’re getting somewhere in our art or work. When we don’t sing well, we feel uncertain of our path as singers, like we’ll never get to where we want to be. And so it goes…
More recently I was helping out as a rehearsal pianist in a show. I’m a pretty good pianist, playing shows myself and doing fine. But I’m not anywhere near “concert pianist” caliber. I found myself getting anxious about whether I would be asked to play the show because during rehearsals I messed up some runs. Even though I got lots of kudos for my work during rehearsal, I feared that I wouldn’t be asked. Here’s the clincher: I enjoy playing shows but don’t really want to practice the piano at the moment. It’s not my main instrument like the voice is. So, “what is” is that I am a darn good piano player BUT if it’s not the level the music director wants, that’s it. I can’t be that level in a month AND, more important, I don’t really want to do the work now to get there if I weren’t as good as necessary. Suddenly my anxiety went away, and I felt much more empowered by that “understanding.”
This, of course, doesn’t mean we stop doing the work. If anything, it’s the work in the moment, being clear with “what is,” one moment after another, that gets us from Point A to Fabulous in our voice lessons. (In the Alexander Technique we call it staying with “the means whereby.”)
And, if you think about it, burning envy of another singer, perhaps someone who is technically or theatrically better or gets the part you wanted, is about that non-acceptance of your “what is.” We get even crazier when it comes to casting because often directors cast by look or type and there are some things we simply can’t change. We want to be taller, younger, a different voice type – we’d rather make ourselves crazy or try to sway the director – rather than accept “what is.”
Krishnamurti says: When we fully understand “the workings of our mind” and bring such comparison to an end, “only then will we know true religion, what God is.” My bet is that when we start to understand what we really are musically, only then can we shed fear, gain acceptance, and become a calmer, happier and, yes, better singer.