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Tips for Singers:
"Permission To Sing"
(To sing or not to sing . . . you already know the answer)

by Mark Baxter"Oz never gave nothin' to the Tin Man, that he didn't already have." That line from a song by a group called America is a perfect summery of what I do for a living. People come to me on a daily basis for permission to sing. They ask if they are good enough; if they have what it takes. I always answer that everyone has what it takes provided they are willing to work. When I tell people this they seem a bit disappointed, it sounds too simple. It's hard for them to imagine that a big, glorious voice is buried inside. Well, it isn't that simple. What they have is their instrument, flaws and all, and excepting that is the first step to improvement.

What people are really asking me to do is convince their internal critic that they should sing. I wouldn't dare. I don't want to dignify its presence with a response. Besides, it knows you too well. Your internal critic is armed with all the emotional baggage necessary to win any dispute. It keeps a file of every past disappointment, and will bring one up in a flash if you start thinking something crazy like you can improve your voice. Arguing with the critic is fruitless. The good news is you don't have to in order to move forward.

What makes the internal critic so powerful is that we have come to believe that it is the voice of reason. That's not true. Most likely that voice came from some authority figure in your past, like a parent or teacher. As children, we were required to ask permission before we did anything on our own. Over time we figured out that permission was only needed for fun. No need to ask if it was okay to clean the dishes; you already knew the answer. However, if there was a party coming up the timing had to be just right. Ask at the wrong moment and your desire seemed unreasonable. Request denied. Fast forward to the present and the same permission is required to do anything enjoyable. Only now it's you asking you. It's time to let your inner child have some fun. Or, at least compromise: Sing while doing the dishes!

The reason it's important to learn to live with your internal critic is that it will never go away. Yup. You read that right. Even mega super-stars deal with that little demon. They dragged it kicking and screaming all the way to the top. They didn't wait for it or anyone else to grant them permission to follow their dream. Even though it's been done a thousand times before there is no map for success. The stories of those who reached the top always sound courageous. While it was unfolding, though, they were just as scared as you and I would have been. The only difference was, they went ahead and did it anyway. In general, the length of a warm up should be in opposite proportion to the performance. If you're going to be singing all night, a quick check of your instrument will do. Usually, singers are still warming up during the first couple songs of a set. But if you're only up there for a song or two, the stage is no place to deal with stiff muscles. Short performances require lengthy warm ups. That way, you'll be loosened up and in control when it's time to sing.

Ignoring the advice of your internal critic does not mean ignoring the effect it has on your instrument. After all, it plays a great role in determining the physical character of your voice. It can easily restrict things like range and volume. Personality is a good example of this. Shy people don't give themselves permission to talk, let alone draw attention to their singing! This means there is very little stimulation of the vocal muscles from day to day. Introverted people tend to be shallow breathers as well. The result is that their voices will have much less projecting power then, say, a blabber mouth. While this may seem like a given, all is not lost. Shyness is not genetic. It's the product of a frightened internal critic. This doesn't mean that introverts should head for a psychiatrist; it means they'll have to work to change the underlying behaviors they have attached to singing. It means they should head for a voice teacher!

The physical work of developing a voice is a two step process: Release and strengthen. First, restrictive tensions are pealed away and then stimulation is needed to make the smaller muscles within the larynx stronger. There are usually many layers of tensions to get rid of before things start sounding better. To speed up release, it's important to realize that simple tensions may be driven by your internal critic. Belief systems can tighten muscles, forming a protective barrier against our fears. Don't let this hold your voice hostage! Talk to yourself. Negotiate with your critic as you vocalize. Tell it there's nothing to be afraid of; you're just playing around. (You might want to do this when alone so people don't think you're crazy). Remember: First things first. You're not trying to convince yourself that you have a great voice; you're just trying to loosen your jaw.

Another way we sabotage the process is by asking, "Where's the beef?" Looking for power too early will cause you to push undeveloped muscles, making them tense in reaction. The more you push the more tense they'll get. This, too, is the work of the dastardly critic! It knows you're not ready to be compared to other, more advanced singers. It will use the obvious short coming as ammo against your desire to improve. It's the same game we play when joining a gym. People want big muscles immediately. They over extend themselves right off the bat and when things don't change in a week they quit. Instead, give yourself permission to explore the potential of your instrument at a moderate volume. You'll get far more power out of your voice later once your muscles are relaxed and coordinated.

What makes these head games so perplexing is that, deep down, you don't agree with the internal critic. If you really believed those negative feelings you wouldn't have read this article. You would have calmly pursued other interests. There would be no guilt or jealous feelings nagging you each time you heard a great voice; just pure enjoyment. Instead, the desire to sing remains, for years perhaps, unfulfilled, unchallenged and unexplored. Why you won't give the need to sing as much attention as the need to walk the dog is definitely worth exploring. It's holding you back emotionally and physically. There's a wonderful book by Julia Cameron called, "The Artist's Way," which I strongly recommend. What's important right now is that you start taking the steps necessary to develop a better voice. Just because you've got nothing better to do! That way, should you ever give yourself permission to sing well you'll have an instrument that's ready and able.

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002. Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Mark Baxter

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