Don’t Be A Dobby, Get Yourself A Rose Book!

A while back, I wrote about becoming a positive listener and the importance of being able to hear the positive things that are being said to us in a singing lesson.

Sometimes the need of training positive listening stretches outside of the singing lesson. We might not only be unable to hear the positive things that are being said to us in a lesson, but we might also be deaf or “immune” towards other positive comments or feedback about our singing in general, or about the shows and concerts we give.

I was reminded of this today, when I worked with a fabulous singer. She has her own show and is touring with it internationally, something many singers are dreaming of doing. Not only does she have a singing career that leaves many singers jealous, she can “sing the stars off the sky” – as the Dutch saying goes (“de sterren van de hemel zingen”). In other words, she can sing challenging repertoire including “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, like many singers would only dream of singing.

I’ve been working with this singer for a while and I can recognize when her “Inner Censor” is kicking in during the singing lessons, analyzing and making opinions about her own singing as the song proceeds. She’s like many other singers I know, making comments while we are singing (either verbally: “that sounded awful”… “that was supposed to sound different”…. or non-verbally, by rolling eyes or with various cringing facial expressions).

What breaks my heart is not only that she doesn’t believe my positive comments about her singing, but also that she is like so many other singers out there who keep telling themselves they absolutely suck at everything, despite all the positive comments they receive from their audiences, teachers or peers. It’s as if there’s this whole bunch of singers who act like Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter, who keeps punishing himself. Instead of taking in the positive comments, we like to do this to ourselves:

 

DON’T BE A DOBBY, PLEASE…

I’d like to share another tip for becoming a positive listener with you, because we talked about it today with the singer I worked with. It’s a simple and powerful strategy: you document and keep track of all the positive feedback and comments you receive (about your singing, or sometimes even about other things). Keep doing this at least for one month.

This is especially good for people whose ‘Inner Critic Voice’ has become way too loud. And in case you wonder if your ‘Inner Critic Voice’ has become too loud, you’ll recognize this if:

  • people tell you they loved your show
  • if you keep being booked to do the job again and again
  • if your vocal coach tells you what you’re doing is great
  • people in your audience are touched or moved to tears
  • or similar things

…but you still can come up with 1000 reasons why you are not satisfied with ANYTHING AT ALL about your singing.

 

photo credit: studio-d via photopin cc

photo credit: studio-d via photopin cc

 

THE ROSE BOOK

Christina Kürstein-Lecocq, who was one of my teachers at Complete Vocal Institute, once called a collection of positive comments “The Rose Book”, and because I really like that name I keep calling it the same. “The Rose Book” could be a notebook or journal (or iPhone/iPad app) in which you write down ALL the positive comments and feedback you receive. Think about those positive comments, and now imagine someone giving you a bunch of roses after a performance you’ve had (see why I love the name?).

…and now, I challenge you to keep a Rose Book for the coming month! 

Here’s how it goes:

Write down every compliment you receive during the coming month. It might be a compliment about your singing. Or it might be a compliment about other things. Read your Rose Book and your compliments daily, or at least once a week. 

Don’t be a Dobby, get started today!

Become A Confident Singer By Working On Your Listening Skills

Why is it often easier for us to say what we don’t like about our (singing) voice, than saying what we do like about it? Why is it easier for some to accept negative feedback than to genuinely take in positive feedback?

Some time back, I decided to ask all the singers I worked with what they like (or think is beautiful) about their voice. Most of them could not answer the question. Instead, they started laughing or blushing and became all uncomfortable even thinking about the possibility that they could think or say something positive about their own voice. They said they had never even thought about it.

I used to be like that. I did not even think there existed such a possibility as me having my own positive opinion about my own voice. That would have felt arrogant. I allowed other people to have an opinion about my voice, be it negative or positive. But not myself…unless it was a negative opinion.

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Photo credit: jpellgen via Photopin.com

Suffering From Selective Hearing

I find a positive learning environment extremely important, but I also do believe the teacher is not the only one responsible. The singer is responsible too, for their own reactions, thoughts – and for their hearing!

I used to think I was being ‘realistic’ if I thought negative things about my singing. But boy was it confronting to find out I was actually a negative listener!  I realized I suffered from selective hearing, meaning I had a difficulty hearing the positive things being said to me because my mind decided to only listen for negative things.

I found out I was paying lip service to ‘accepting positive feedback’, while actually constantly fishing for negative remarks. If there were no negative remarks, I’d ASK for one (“for the sake of getting it even better” of “for the sake of my development”). Can you believe it?! That’s like asking someone to slap you in the face, just because you have heard it ‘helps build character’!

If you are suffering from selective hearing, like I did, it can be a hard habit to break. It will require some serious training, and thought-stopping. But it is possible. Do yourself a favor and stop slapping yourself in the face. You deserve so much better.

Becoming a Positive Listener

In their book ‘Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers’ Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas write about the importance of becoming a positive listener.

Very often, because of the nature of their training, singers may have an inclination to hear only the negative things that are spoken to them. The ability to hear the positive things that are being said is an important skill to learn.

 

Does “Inclination to hear only the negative things” sound familiar to you? Here are some tips for developing positive listening skills (Emmons & Thomas 1998, p. 105):

Listen for the positive things that are said to you. No matter how small they seem, they are important to you.

Set yourself this goal before you go to your lesson or coaching: to listen for and hear the positive things that are said to you

Try to practice this skill in all areas of your life […] so that you become accustomed to what it feels like.

Always acknowledge any compliments that are paid to you, no matter how small or who has said them. Get used to saying, “Thank you,” without feeling embarrassed. […] Do not fall into the trap of saying, “Thank you, but my —- wasn’t very good today.” Take the positive compliment for what it is worth and feel good.

 

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Being A Diva In Your Own Garden

Last week I received a message from a singer I have been coaching:

Hi Katja, I just wanted to let you know that my last rehearsal went much better. Being in ‘my own garden’ helped me a lot.

In our session, we had been working on how to deal with nerves and staying centered. This singer is soon going to perform as a solist with a big choir and band, and one of her problems was that she did not get along with the conductor very well. She felt he was rushing her, and the negative, impatient vibes made her feel it was difficult to stay centered while singing. Her solo included some technically challenging passages, that we had been working on in the sessions. After two sessions focusing completely on technique things were going smoother, but in her rehearsal the situation with the conductor made her became nervous again and she couldn’t perform optimally.

Balance

We talked about how to feel grounded, and put some extra attention to balance.

Imagine there are magnets under your feet pulling you towards the ground, keeping you attached to the ground no matter how you change your balance, sway from side to side, and so on. Another image that works for some singers is imagining having roots under your feet. Mind you, however, that ‘having magnets or roots under your feet’ does not mean you have to stand in a rigid position while singing. We tried out the effect our knees have on our balance, and experimented with the difference between the knees being locked and unlocked. Locked knees will also lock your energy and will get you off balance faster.

It is also not important what picture or mental image you use, what is important is that it helps you achieve the desired thing: being balanced and centered. Other balancing exercises I like to do with singers are the yoga mountain pose (tadasana) and tree pose (vrksasana).

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Photo credit: Gulfu via Photopin

Not letting yourself be influenced by external factors

For singers, in order to be able to deliver a performance, it is important to learn how to create your ‘own space’ that allows you to block out external factors, such as negative vibes and stressful energy from other band members, conductors you work with, and so on. There are many techniques you can apply, I will share one exercise we did with this singer in question.

Imagine yourself being surrounded by a protective shield / wrapped up in a protective bubble, from your head to toes. This shield bounces off any negative or stressful energy that you might feel coming from people around you. I asked the singer if this image made any sense to her. If she would have answered no, we would have set out looking for another way. The shield did make sense to her, however, and she remembered having done a similar exercise before. In the lesson, she literally drew this shield around herself.

After this, we tried out another variation of the ‘protective shield’ exercise.

In order to be able to communicate with band members and conductors, we cannot block out all energy but do have to stay partly open. Also, I believe all people working together in a music performance share the same positive wish of making the performance as good as possible. Most of the time people transmit negative energy and stress not because they intentionally want to sabotage your performance, but because they are nervous or insecure themselves. If we can connect to the positive wish and focus on the positive energy, instead of the negative, we are far better off.If the shield exercise feels like you are blocking out all energy, you might want to try out the following:

Imagine yourself standing in a little garden. Into this garden, you want to invite good friends (the good / positive energy coming from people you work with). You want to keep out all that is not good for your garden (the negative and stressful energy). When you feel bad energy around yourself, instead of blocking all incoming ‘energy streams’ completely, imagine yourself surrounded by a big bunch of flowers. In this way, you don’t allow the negative energy to come to you, but you do send positive energy to the outside. That positive energy will invite the positive energy in others to enter ‘your garden’.

The singer I worked with liked this idea a lot. She said it felt good to think “You can look at these flowers, but as long as you behave like an ***hole you’re not allowed inside my garden.”

If imagining flowers and gardens don’t make any sense to you, you’re welcome to invent a variation that suits you better. Please do share your suggestions and experiences by commenting on this blog, I’d love to hear from you!

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Photo credit: Alex Gooi via Photopin

Connect to your inner Diva / Divo

It might help to imagine protective shields and bunches of flowers, but let’s face it – we are human and if we feel frustrated about something that frustration can sabotage all our attempts in being all ‘zen’ about the situation. The last thing we talked about with the singer was how to turn the frustration she felt into power she could use in her interpretation, and even physically for singing the technically demanding phrases. This requires something I like to refer to as ‘diva behavior’.

Sometimes I hear singers say “I want people to feel comfortable when they work together with me. I definitely don’t want them to think of me as some kind of a diva.” Actually, I have thought like that myself. At some point I started thinking about how all things come with a positive and a negative meaning. I realized that I had been focusing on the negative meaning of the word ‘diva’. I associated this word with behavior such as taking up all the space, being ‘sharp-elbowed’, making a big scene about minor issues, ‘being difficult’, and so on.

But when I looked at the positive characters of the word ‘diva’, I found out that it included aspects like:

  • knowing what you want
  • self-confident
  • being clear about your boundaries and what you don’t want
  • taking the space or time you need in order to feel comfortable

By the way, did you know that the basic sense of the term ‘diva’ is goddess? There’s nothing negative about that, I’d say.

The ‘diva behavior’ also means you look for solutions instead of surrendering to things that don’t feel good to you. Does ‘making people feel comfortable around you’ mean you allow them to treat you without respect or push your boundaries?  Sometimes a good ‘I’ll show you what I’ve got’ attitude can help us a long way. Don’t be afraid to show some ‘diva behavior’, take your space, and speak out if you have to. Think about the origin of the term ‘diva’ and become a god(dess) who knows what s/he wants, is clear about his/her boundaries, and spreads only positive energy around yourself. Then, go out there and shine!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

Originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in March 2012

On thoughts and fears and practicing

Today, in one of my vocal coaching sessions, I worked with a classical singer who is preparing for a series of concerts. One of the songs she is singing is Norma’s aria Casta Diva (by Bellini).

We had been working on fine-tuning some technical aspects of the song already before Christmas break. She is a trained singer and technically skilled. Still, she felt that some of the passages were heavy to sing and some of the high notes felt, in her own words, like she “didn’t own them”.

We had worked on economizing her breath support, as she had been using active breath support in parts of the song where she did not need to support. She had discovered the twang to be a very useful tool for her. By twanging (more) she could access the center of the mode with more ease. The notes became crystal clear, her pitching was wonderful and it seemed all so much easier.

In today’s session things were going much better thanks to her previous work. The singer was very happy about her progress. Her sound was better. The higher notes were flying out with more ease than before. But everything was not easy all the time. I asked her what it felt like. “It’s so much work!”

The problem was not that she wasn’t working enough. The problem was that she was working too much. Perhaps not even physically. But mentally. I had looked at her face while she was singing. I could see the technical concentration on her face. Not only her facial muscles, but her whole body was ‘seriously singing’. This was beautiful music. But was she enjoying herself? A thought came into my head. Maybe it was all too serious? “Smile!” I said.

 

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Smiling is one of the tricks to access the (necessary) twang we need in order to sing the notes in the center of the mode and with more ease. She needed to be reminded of the tool she had discovered in our last session, because the technique had not become part of her muscle memory yet. But there’s more to smiling than just technical benefits. I believe smiling has a huge impact on the psychology of singing – both as a physical tool to access the twang, as well as a thought, a mental picture or state of mind.

A lot of thoughts can cross our mind while we sing a (challenging) piece of music.“There’s that high note again! That tiring passage. That place where I feel like I almost run out of breath every time I sing it. That rhythm that doesn’t just ‘sit’ quite right. And of course: I should have learned it by now!! How can I be that stupid and untalented that I’m till struggling with this…”

Have you ever caught yourself thinking or saying these kind of things to yourself while singing or practicing? I have. God knows how many times. That’s not exactly kind talk towards yourself!

 

Your thoughts matter!

I am not suggesting that we can magically solve technical difficulties by ‘thinking happy thoughts’. Naturally, we need to work on the correct technique. I will write more about technique in future blog posts. But for now, let’s say we have been practicing on the technical aspects like the singer I worked with today. It’s getting better and we are noticing results, and that way, we know we are doing the right things and we are on the right path. But it is still difficult.

Here are two things worth while checking:

1) Ask yourself, hand on your heart, how do I practice?

Are you experiencing difficulty because the (new) technique has not become part of your muscle memory yet? If you are practicing the right things but not noticing results, you might be rushing through the exercises.

Kenny Werner writes in his book “Effortless Mastery” about Fear-based practicing. Fear can ruin our practicing by

…rushing you through the material, rendering you unable to absorb anything. You try to cover too much ground every time you practice, barely skimming the surface of each item, then moving on. You ignore the fact that you can barely execute the material, because you have no time to notice that. After all, there’s so much to practice and so little time!

Allow yourself time to grow. (Re)-building muscle memory does not happen overnight. Yes, when performed correctly, a technique should have the desired effect right away, that way we know we are doing the right things. But it takes time to work a (new) technique into a habit.

Fear-based practicing can sabotage not only technique practice, but all other kinds of practice as well. We might rush through our runs, not being quite sure about every note we have to sing. So that one particular run will always feel a bit difficult. Or we might be rushing through rhythmically difficult passages. Every time we have to sing that specific rhythm it’s not quite right, because we have not worked it into a habit. And every time we experience the difficulty again, we end up sabotaging ourselves with more negative thoughts.

 

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2) Are you making it (more) difficult because you think it (has to be) difficult?

Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes we are ‘beating ourselves up’ as we sing, constantly internally commenting on the things we do (technically, sound-wise, and so on). This is self-sabotage and not leading us anywhere (except to frustration).

Some singers I have worked with are beating themselves up already before they even make a sound. They imagine what the sound should come out like, and by doing this they create pressure on ‘sounding perfect’. Even if it’s just an exercise they are singing! I used to be like that myself. For every ‘not perfect sound’ that came out of my mouth, I was internally beating my head against the wall like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter. Did that for instance make it easier to give the exercise another shot? No.

So be kind to yourself! Learn to say and think “This is unfamiliar – not difficult”. And so what if you miss a note, or if the sound that comes out of your mouth is not perfect. It’s just a note! You are still alive and well. Try to be a bit kinder towards yourself when you make ‘mistakes’, and you might find that learning becomes easier.

I’ll quote Kenny Werner again:

Mastery is available to everyone.
It’s true that it comes to some people more easily, but mastery comes to all who wait for it. The ego may taunt you with thoughts like, “You should have learned that by now”, or “You should be playing better by now”, but focused work habits, determination, and a positive outlook will compensate for talent to a surprising degree.

I can sing sounds that my Ego finds beautiful, or I can produce sounds that it’s not satisfied with. By no means am I an enlightened singer who is never tormented by negative self-talk. But I am learning one thing. The kinder I am to myself, the easier it seems to get.

Let’s return to the singer from today’s session. What happened when she smiled?

Suddenly the problems were gone. The smile might have added that necessary twang to her singing. But one thing was for sure. When she started smiling and thought about the beautiful music and lyrics she was singing, she was enjoying herself. Out went the difficult thoughts, and perhaps they were replaced by the joy of making music and some kindness towards herself. She could feel the difference, and I could both see it and hear it.

 

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What are your experiences on these things? How important do you think the role of ‘positive thoughts’ is to practicing or performing music? Have you experienced getting stuck in fear-based practicing? Have you been sabotaging yourself with negative thoughts? What helped you get on another track?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

 

This article was originally published in my blog katjamariamusic in January 2012

 

Photo credits: DarkB4Dawn, WFilmLiquidnight via Photopin

How do you practice?

In this blog post I will share some thoughts and tips on practicing singing – especially on how we practice.

1. Focus

Set a focus for your practice session. Know what you want to work on, and don’t try to work on too many things at the same time. For singers this means knowing what the ‘problem areas’ in your songs are. A singing teacher can help you find out what the cause of your issue is, give you suggestions and tools on how to solve it, and assign you exercises to practice new skills.

Let’s say, that you are experiencing wobbly endings on notes and phrases, and your singing teacher has presented you with solutions and exercises for this problem. You could start your practice session by setting ‘endings’ as a theme for your session. Set the following intention: ‘I will focus on how I finish my notes and phrases’. Then, using the tools your singing teacher has taught you, work on your endings in a focused way. Setting an intention or a focus for your session is like zooming in on a specific detail on a photo. You are aware of the whole picture, but choose for a while to look at only one part of it.

Choir directors and coaches can also choose a theme for the session or rehearsal. Examples of technique themes are: vibrato, volume, twang, raising the larynx, etc. Setting a focus also means that we are aware of not introducing too many tools or tasks at the same time. It is not effective practice to ask the singers to focus on a technique related issue, while also expecting them to focus on timing, or choir choreography.

2. Quality, not quantity

In order to get quality out of our exercises, we need to set clear goals for our practice. Whatever it is that we practice, it is better to perform simple exercises with a clear goal, than to perform many (complicated) exercises without a clear goal. This means avoiding automated “la-la-la-la exercises”, and having a look at what the intention with the exercise is.

Especially when we are introduced to a new technique or sound, it is better to sing simple exercises with less notes than to sing complicated arpeggios, intervals or scales. We need to be able to master singing one note with the new technique, before we can move on to scales, interval leaps, and so on.

 

Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Degas: La répétition de chant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3. Keep it short enough

In order to stay focused throughout your practice session, make sure the length of the session is allowing you to stay focused. Shorter and focused practice sessions with clear goals are far more effective than mindless, long practice or endless repetition of the same song or phrase. Also, when possible, try to focus your practice sessions to times of day when you have the most energy.

4. Keep track

Another way to practice effectively is to keep track of your goals and findings. If something works out, make a note of what it is that you did, so that you can return to it another time. Your “clues” are depending on your individual learning style. Some people might focus on the position of their tongue, while others focus on a mental image. Auditive learners benefit from recording their practice sessions and voice lessons, so that they can hear the difference between what works and what doesn’t.

5. Bring the exercises back to the song

Singing is not about being able to perform exercises well. Exercises are not useful, unless we are able to put the skills we learn into practice within the context of the songs we sing. Choose your exercises based on the issues you encounter in your songs, and always try out if the skills you have learned through an exercise stand the test of putting it back into the context of the song. When things don’t go like you want them to, keep track of what it is that you did or did not do. That way you can go back and correct the problem. Sometimes you might have to adjust your exercise, or the way you perform the exercise.

 

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An Italian Family, etching by Samuel Alken after Rowlandson, 1785. Wikimedia Commons.

6. Vary practice with making music

Finally, it is important that we vary practice sessions with making music.

This is how I like to think about it: singers have a split personality of some sorts! There is a singer or an ‘artist’ in us, that wants to sing and make music because we have something to express, because it makes us feel good, because we love music, and so on. There is also another part in us – let’s call it the ‘technician’. The technician wants to practice, learn new skills and develop. It is focused on details like technique, sound, timing, intonation, and so on. These two parts need to co-exist, but they cannot be equally present all the time. Can you identify yourself in this “split personality description”?

A common reason for ineffective practice, next to not having clear enough goals, is mixing the desire to practice with the desire to make music. It might help to make a deal with yourself, and choose to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to practice. Being focused when you practice means saying ‘yes’ to practice, and telling the ‘singer inside ourselves’ that it needs to step aside and allow the ‘technician’ to operate for a while.

On the other hand, give yourself permission to sometimes say a clear ‘no’ to practice. Saying ‘no’ to practice means you allow yourself to sing and make music without focusing on technique or other details. It means singing songs because you feel like singing, singing for the sake of expression. Saying ‘no’ to practice means telling the ‘technician’ inside ourselves that it has to step to the side for a while.

Also, be aware of when it is that you are saying ‘maybe’ to practice. This might happen more often than you think. ‘Maybe’ is when you are not quite clear about our intentions. It is an in-between state where a part of you ‘just wants to sing’, and a part of you wants to practice. ‘Maybe’ results in an unhappy singer, an unhappy ‘technician’, and ineffective practice. So satisfy your inner ‘technician’ with focused practice, and make your inner singer happy by making music and regularly singing your heart out!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

 

This article was originally published in Vocal Blog

 

 

Fear Of Sounding Bad

A while ago I read an interesting blog post by Bill Plake on Two Habits Of Thinking That Will Limit Your Growth As A Musician. One of the limiting thoughts he elaborates on is:

I won’t let myself sound bad.

I spot this limiting thought in a lot of the singers I coach. And I know it pretty well from being a singer myself too. “I won’t let myself sound bad” and other fear-based thoughts are part of the talk of our “internal parrot”.

Some singers block already before opening their mouths to produce a sound, because they have already told themselves that the sound coming out needs to be good – or even worse, “perfect”. Others make excuses afterwards. “Sorry, that sounded horrible.”

 

 

But think about this:

 

If you want to develop or change something in your sound, you have to be prepared to go through the process of learning – which means it will not sound “perfect” right away.

When you try out something new, it’s pretty much like throwing darts. We don’t necessarily hit bullseye right away. But if you don’t allow yourself to hit the dartboard at all, there is not even a chance of getting anywhere near bullseye.

“Perfect” is not interesting. It’s the road of getting there that is. And on that road, through allowing yourself to “sound bad” or make mistakes, you might even discover new things that add depth to your voice and expression. Discoveries often happen through “mistakes”.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.  – Albert Einstein

I’ve been thinking about where this fear of sounding bad comes from. I think we can blame that “inner parrot” for a big part of it. If we examine this “inner parrot talk” closer, we will very often find out that the fear of sounding bad is based in a fear of failure. Fear of failure is based in a fear of non-acceptance, which in its turn is rooted in the fear of not being liked or loved. We connect our sound to our person, and put so much value on what other people think about the way we sound, that it blocks us from developing (or in the worst case, from opening our mouths at all).

We can analyze the roots of these fears in many ways, and if you think it helps you move on with your development, go ahead and analyze. But do keep in mind the problem of over-analyzing, which can become a block of its own. My best advise would be, recognize the fear, and then do it anyway. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that can happen if I sound bad? You will find out that ‘horrible things’ like if your voice “flips” or “breaks”, or sounding flat, sharp, a bit constricted, wobbly, uncontrolled, [insert your favorite word to describe a ‘bad sound’ here] etc…are not the end of the world. These things can (and do) happen to everyone at some point of their singing careers, and to everyone brave enough to step out of their safety zone and explore new sounds and techniques.

Allow yourself to “sound bad” and learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are good because they can point you in the direction of what you should be doing differently in order to get closer to bullseye. You are doing it in order to develop, aren’t you?

So what should you do if the fear of sounding bad is blocking you from developing as a singer?

1. Recognize the fear.

2. Define what is the worst thing that can happen if you do sound ‘bad’.

3. Acknowledge that feeling these (silly) fears is human, not sounding ‘perfect’ is a necessary step in a learning process, and mistakes and ‘imperfect sounds’  happen to everyone.

4. Remember that without making mistakes, we cannot learn.

5. If you’re still blocking because of fear of sounding bad, follow this piece of advice from Bob Newhart.

This blog post was originally posted on my blog/website katjamariamusic in February 2012 

 

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte