Episode 104 – Let’s Sing Stupid

Learning to sing involves breaking down and examining the voice – which can lead to overthinking and self-criticism.

In this episode, John discusses why you need to keep finding the joy and to occasionally “sing stupid!”

Episode Transcript

Episode 104 – Let’s Sing Stupid

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Okay, I don’t usually give out recommendations for things to listen to and watch on this podcast, but I’m going to do so. I just had a bit of a summer break, a little bit of downtime, was able to relax, haven’t had podcasts coming out quite as frequently, which is fine. This is summer. People are doing different things. But the Emmy nominations just came out, and I was really happy to see that both Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams were nominated for the FX series, Fosse Verdon. And if you haven’t seen this, you must see this. This is about Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon, who were both titans of the Broadway stage. Bob Fosse also directed Cabaret as well as Lenny, and one of my favorite movies, All That Jazz. Just a brilliant yet tortured artist. And it’s a rather unflinching view, and their performances are just staggering, really incredible, especially Michelle Williams as she shows Gwen Verdon’s voice aging, not– the characters don’t just age, her voice ages, which is rather incredible. Her singing voice and everything. So I highly, highly recommend that you watch that.

Alright, today I want to talk about not being intelligent, but rather being stupid, or as my dad would always say, Hey, stupid. My dad was a big Scotsman, anytime I would say the word stupid, he would correct me and say, it’s stupid. So my T’s, if you listen are sometimes a mess of saying a hard American T or the ch, which would be more Scottish. So sometimes I’ll say tube and sometimes I’ll say chube, I’ll say stupid, I’ll say stupid. So in memory of my dad today I shall say stupid. So let’s sing stupid. What does that mean? Well, I get this from the ice skating commentator and former, I believe he was Olympic gold medalist, I’m sure, Scott Hamilton. And he was this, was a number of years ago, but he was commenting on the Olympics and someone was doing their routine, and he said, “At this level of the competition, you need to skate stupid.” And that just struck me because what he meant was that you’ve worked this and you’ve worked this and now you just have to let the muscle memory take over and you need to shut down your act of mind. You need to close the chatter and the self judgment and you need to just skate. Just get into that flow, into that zone and allow your muscles to do their job.

Just trust yourself. And the same thing is with singing and so much of what I talk about in this podcast is really breaking down everything you do. And some of it is on an emotional level, but a lot of it is on an intellectual level and really understanding your instrument. And if you have issues, what is happening? Why it’s happening? And then how you can fix it? And those are always my three questions. What, why and how. What is happening? Why is it happening? How do we fix it? And that’s how I operate as a teacher. It forms the basis of my teaching triangle that I use in my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy. That’s online if you want information on that, just go to johnhenny.com and click teacher training up at the top. Alright that ends the commercial. But this idea of just really breaking down the voice, focusing on the voice, understanding the voice, but then you need to forget all that.

You just need to sing, and I don’t care what development of your singing, at what points you are in your development. You need to allow periods of time where you just sing. You sing it perfectly, or you sing well, but you’d need to remind yourself why you do this. All of this training and running scales and balances and vowel tuning, etc., extending your range. This is not why people listen to other people sing. Sure, higher notes are thrilling, but the audience doesn’t care about the technique. You really don’t. Years ago I used to work in a makeup effects studio. I think I’ve mentioned this before in the podcast, and you will actually see my name pop up in credits for movies. Probably the most well known one would be Hocus Pocus. So around Halloween time if you’re watching Hocus Pocus, you will see my name in the credits if you watch through them.

But anyway I worked for a few years in the film business while I was getting my original band up and going. And for a long time there was, I saw firsthand and experienced firsthand so much the intensity and the stress and just all the moving parts of making movies that I couldn’t enjoy movies for a while. Any time that I saw this amazing scene, I just saw everything outside of the frame and all of the people and all of the stress and all of the work that went into it. And it took me a while to come back to the place where I could just enjoy it as a viewer and just allow film to envelop me again. Mark Twain talked about this, where he was a navigator, I believe was the term for riverboats and that’s actually where he got his name.

They would mark the depth and they would shout out, you know, Mark Twain. It was a measurement of I think two fathoms or whatever it was. I certainly am not a captain of a ship. But he always liked the sound of that, but he said, you know, once he had to learn the river and all the parts of the river and where the sand banks were and the different depths, the beauty of the river began to be lost to him. And so we deal with that as singers, and certainly as a voice teacher. I sometimes have to remind myself just to be enveloped again in the beauty of singing and not always be analyzing and I’ve gotten quite good at that. I can turn this on and off.

But you as a singer, as you keep intellectually breaking down your voice and spending time in the practice room, it is so easy to get inside your head and when you go to sing, you’re going to start analyzing and thinking, am I doing this right? And is this vowel right? And you may experience it. As a matter of fact, it’s quite common when you really start studying the voice. You will experience a period of maybe not singing as well or it will feel that you’re not singing as well and what’s happening is your concepts about good singing are growing and your technical knowledge is growing. And then your brain starts to judge and analyze and measure every time you sing and it can feel like you’re getting worse even though you are improving just how you think of singing.

And what you think of as good singing is expanding and so when you measure up against that, you start to find yourself lacking. But even beyond that, you need to turn that off because you have to connect with the joy of singing. You have to connect with why we sing in the first place so that you can connect with the audience. And I will see this in students. We’ll start to work on a song and they’ll go to sing a more difficult phrase and suddenly you see it in their eyes, they’re analyzing and you can see their face scrunching up and they’re judging and they’re not liking and what that causes them to do is to pull back, is to not trust themselves and this critical voice can get out of control. So what you need to do at whatever point you are at is set aside time to purely sing.

Now I’ve known voice teachers — and I’ve done this myself for a little while, but I didn’t find it effective — where they will tell students, you are not going to sing songs for a while. You are just going to work on technique. And I’m not going to debate that. All I will say is for me, that removes the singer from singing and you’re breaking a really sacred bond with our connection to singing. And so you want to find songs that aren’t too difficult. There’s always that magic spot. You know, if something’s far too difficult, you’re not going to experience improvement. You’re just going to be discouraged and frustrated and possibly even get worse because you’re trying things that are outside of your zone. But if things are too easy you’re not progressing either. So you gotta kind of find that sweet spot of things that are just hard enough.

But you want to find some songs that are on the easier side of just hard enough so that you can allow yourself to sing. And when you sing, turn off your brain. Just be dumb, sing out a tune, sing wrong. Maybe it gets a little shouty. The vowels aren’t dialed in, right? Something gets a little tight, it’s okay. You’re not going to spend your entire practice time doing this, but it’s going to allow you to just reconnect with the joy of singing. I’m positive I’ve told this story before, but the one thing that really struck me, I remember walking the streets in Camden area of London, and there was a bar, and as I passed by, the entire bar was singing an Oasis song and I believe it was Don’t Look Back in Anger, and they’re just screaming the ‘Sally can wait’ section.

And it was a bunch of happily intoxicated people shouting this out at the top of their lungs and they were having a blast, an absolute blast, pure joy. And the sad thing is I see people working on singing and they don’t connect to that. They’ve almost set that aside, like they don’t deserve it. They’re not good enough. They have to constantly judge and measure and it breaks my heart. You can’t lose that. I don’t care if it sounds good or not. It’s that idea of dancing like no one’s watching, you know, singing like no one’s listening. I did a podcast with that title. And you can get these songs, portions of songs, and just pour yourself into them. Listen, if you cross over the line, if you’re a little rough with your voice, if you push a little bit, if you’re cracking or breaking, you’re not going to damage your voice unless you’re doing something really, really extreme, so don’t worry about it.

The other thing I see is when singers and they learn like, “Hey, shouting in my upper register is not good and it’s ultimately not healthy and I need to change that behavior.” Well then they become just terrified of it or I’ve seen singers who have had nodules and maybe sung that way for a while, then experienced a bit of vocal issues and they’re so afraid, they think they’re going to go right back there. Listen, singing wrong here or there is not going to knock your voice out. You’re going to be okay. Give yourself that opportunity. Give yourself that connection. Give yourself the absolute joy of singing. And then what you can do is after you run it maybe once or twice with the absolute joy, then go back and start dissecting, breaking apart, adjusting things.

You need to have portions of your practice where you’re just singing stupidly. Sing like a drunk at a bar. Yeah, have that fun. Then go back, break it down, do all of those things. If you’ve ever written anything, creative writing or you’re writing music, you know that there are times where you just have to let ideas flow without judgment when you’re brainstorming. A lot of times as you really start to get towards the end of this brainstorming session and you push a little further without judgment, ideas will come that may seem a little crazy in the moment. But you allow them, and then you come back and some of those ideas are your best ideas. And some of these connections and these emotions and these explorations that you will find when you’re singing with your brain turned off, when you come back to really breaking down — and in writing, that’s when you’re rewriting and critically going through things and editing — when you come back to that, you may find things that are little treasures, little imperfect treasures that you can polish. So to wrap this up, turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. Just sing. Sing stupidly. Sing with abandon. Sing with joy.

Hey, if you want to know more about me check out my website, johnhenny.com. I’ve got some courses there for singers. I have a free straw warmup course that you can get, so check that out. You can also get my book Teaching Contemporary Singing at Amazon. Just look that up by John Henny and until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.