We all want to avoid mistakes, especially when singing. Who wants to sound terrible?

Yet mistakes are one of the best ways to learn, providing you use them to your benefit.

In this episode, John discusses why making mistakes is all a part of the learning process and the problems with trying to avoid them.

Episode Transcript

Episode 58 – You Must Make Mistakes

Hey, this is John Henny. Thank you for being a listener of the Intelligent Vocalist.

Today, I want to talk about why you need to make mistakes – why you need to allow mistakes. Let me give you a back story about on where this came from and why I feel this is important.

I’ve been doing this work recently with high-powered executives. I’ve teamed up with an executive coach, and created a program where we go in and help these executives with their communication skills. Also with their speaking voice, being able to address larger groups, being able to have their intentions really heard.

There was an exercise that we did where these executives had to choose an emotionally charged incident from their life, and then pick a song to sing to the person/s involved in this incident. When it was assigned, it was just looks of sheer terror and fear, “I can’t sing, I don’t have a good singing voice” we got all of these. Yet, when it came time and they stood up to do it, everyone did it. I was really amazed. You could just see the emotion, as they began to sing, take over.

There is something so primal and so magic about singing. It is such a direct conduit to our true emotional core, that when you begin to sing you almost can’t stop the emotions.  The amount of just raw tears and almost-breakdowns that I witnessed in really powerful people – and these are people who have worked to control their emotions to constantly be in the positions of authority and have others follow them. They allow themselves to go there completely. The amount of respect that they got from everyone else in the room just lifted up unbelievably. It’s really quite magical.

Once they began to sing and they began to have the breakthroughs, no one protested that they can’t sing. They allowed the gift of song to be theirs.

Singing is something that has been with us for so long during our journey on this planet. This is something that’s so primal and so necessary, and I’m just saddened that people don’t give themselves that gift. We sing like the whale sing, like the bird sing. It is a connection to our ancient wisdom. It is a connection to our core. Whales don’t worry about if they have a good voice or not. There is no judgment. There is no judgment with the birds. We’re the only beings that judge and criticize, and shutdown ourselves and shutdown others. It is just this fear of not being perfect. It’s just this fear of being judged that is troubling. But it’s part of our condition.

I wrote to my email list about this. And if you’re not on my email list, I kind of think you should be. It’s not your typical email list. I really do share a lot of things about singing, teaching and approaching this career. Just go to my website – you can actually go to this podcast johnhenny.com/58 (for Episode 58) and you’ll see right there on show notes, there will be a place where you can sign up for my email list.

But jumping back to it, I shared this story. And a teacher wrote back of how frustrated she is with students that keep themselves so bottled up, and so worried about being perfect, that it’s hard for her to teach and hard for her to get a breakthrough.

I recently done a Facebook post where I said (oh gosh, what exactly did I say?) “The hardest student to teach is the one most afraid of making a mistake.” And I did it in that thing where you can put a colored background so my quote seems really profound but it did get quite a bit of likes. I do judge my life by how many likes I get on social media. So I did feel good about myself for a day until the next day when I didn’t as many likes, and then my life wasn’t as good. But there is always another post and another chance to be liked.

But anyway, a lot of voice teachers actually commented on it as well. And it’s really true. When you are studying voice, you have to make mistakes. You have to embrace your mistakes. And I’ll tell you the number one reason why – if you don’t make your mistake, if you don’t show me what your voice is really doing, I can’t fix it. If you’re constantly trying to be perfect, you’re not going to really learn.

When you go to a voice lesson, we all want to do our best. We all wanted a gold star. We all want approval. We all want to feel that esteemed. But allowing yourself to have a less-than-perfect lesson, allowing yourself to give the flaws, to trust your teacher, and for them to correct it, is vitally important. And if you’re teaching yourself, you’re going to have to allow yourself to not be perfect you’re going to have to figure what the issues are, so that they can be fixed. You can’t fix something if you’re not putting it out there.

Now let’s talk about the nature of making mistakes, themselves.

This is what I often see with students. I’ve seen it with myself as well. None of us is immune from this. But we’re going to work on an exercise, we’re going to work on a song. We have a certain results in mind. “I want to hit this note. I want to hold the sustain, I want a nice spinny vibrato.”

You hit the note, you don’t get that result. It’s either they’re flat, or the note cracks, or is weaker than you want, or there’s no vibrato – whatever the issues are, what we tend to do is we just get frustrated, we dismiss the event, and then we try it again. And then we get frustrated, we dismiss it, and then we start trying a little more aggressively. And we start taking corrective measures that are too far. So one time the note flips and is weak. And the next time you try it and suddenly it’s strained and squeezing, and you’re going back and forth in the seesaw. The next thing you know, you’re throwing your books across your room and say “I quit singing”, which I’m not going to admit that I’ve done that at least two or three times in my singing life because that would be really petty. I’ve always been in control of my voice. No, of course not – this instrument I’ve quit this more than any other instrument I’ve played. I played professionally as a drummer. I can play a fair amount of piano, at least enough to teach. And I’ve dabbled around a guitar.

But this instrument, this voice – oh please, it’s so very very frustrating because the mistakes that we made aren’t obvious. And what we need to do is use this idea of deliberate practice.

Now what is deliberate practice? Well it’s very core is you need to pick an objective, and you have a goal. So my goal is to hit this note without it straining. Then you have the event – I go ahead and take a try at it. And then I have to, and this is very important, I have to analyze that event. So let’s say I hit the note, and I just squeezed the heck out of it and feel strained, I want to then just dismiss that event. I’m frustrated. I don’t want to deal with it. I simply want to try it again.

No. Don’t waste the event. Don’t waste your mistake. Your mistakes are important. Why are they important? – because they are information. And you can utilize this information to improve. So if rather than getting frustrated, I can take that event and I can say “Okay, I squeezed, I strained. That is what happened.” Then the very very important next question is, “Why did that happened?”

The more you learn about voice, the more you understand your voice, the better the why you will get. But whatever your why is, get one. Even if it’s fuzzy, try and understand what happened. “Hmm, I felt that really get squeezy because maybe I’m pressing my vocal cords together too hard. So let me try and do it without pressing my vocal cords together too hard.” So this gives me how I’m going to fix this. This is now my next event. So I try the note again. Now the note falls apart. Rather than getting frustrated, I now need to go “Hmm, I moved away from my goal but in the other direction. So that was not the right approach. Perhaps there’s something else going on.”

Now, I analyze the event. Maybe I’m even recording my practicing, which I think is a good idea because now I can stop and listen to it then go “Hey, that vowel actually sounds a little bit shouty. What if I readjusted that vowel and tried it again?” And so I take another attempt at it, and this time I’m closer to my goal. “It’s actually the note sounds better, it was a little easier to hit. Maybe there’s a tiny little bit of squeeze, but maybe that’s just residual muscle because I’ve been so used to yelling it.”

So then I can go “Hey, I’m closer to my goal. I’m going to keep this vowel the same, but I’m going to try and see maybe I can flow a little more air and I can back off the amount of muscle I’m using at the vocal fold, and then see if that gets me closer to my goal or further away. If I get closer, I’m on the right track.”

“Let’s say I try it and I go a little over light. Well then, I can go and listen. Perhaps I just over let go on the vocal folds. Can I find that medium? Maybe I pushed too much air.”

But you see, as you analyze, you begin to refine your approach. You don’t waste the mistake. Your mistakes are golden in that they’re going to give your teacher things to fix and correct their information. And they are going to give you information to fix and correct. We as humans, we don’t like making mistakes. We tend to beat ourselves up. And that is the other Bs that you have to deal as your inner critic.

When I was working with these executives, I said to them “You’re in a voice. You’re in a critic. If there was anyone in your life that spoke to you the way your inner voice speaks to you, you would be tempted to punch them square in the face. And you would be likely to find ways to cut them out of your life because we are so horribly mean and awful to ourselves. There’s nothing to be gained from it.

Every great singer has embraced and worked through their mistakes. The mistakes are there because they haven’t been fixed yet. If you just dismissed them and get frustrated, they remain there waiting to be fixed. So either you get in there, you analyze them calmly, you get more information about the voice, you learn more about the voice. You learn a bit more about vocal science.

And here is an another debate – can you study vocal science to become a great singer? No. Vocal science isn’t going to give you that. It’s experiential. But what vocal science does, and just at least a practical understanding of it not that you need to become a voice researcher, but a practical understanding of the vocal science is when you go to analyze the event, and raise that all-important question – Why is this happening? You get a better answer, you can get a more succinct answer. So then your next attempt, the prescription that you give yourself, the adjustments that you make, are going to be more refined and more precised. Then when you analyze the dreaded mistake again, but they’re not going to be dreaded because you’re going to embrace the mistake, you can again analyze more clearly and get better answers. And this internal dialogue, rather than being this beaten up, this critiqued, this frustration, and this throwing-of-the-book, quitting this instrument (like I embarrassingly gone), you can become your own teacher.

I don’t care who you study with. Ultimately you have to become your own teacher, and you’re going to become a better teacher. You are going to have better lessons. And when you allow your teacher to hear your mistakes, then they can be fixed. And when you go to perform don’t worry about mistakes. Worry about connection. Worry about communicating. Worry about giving the audience, the person, that is taking the time.

Even if you’re singing for free, that person is giving of their time and attention, which in this day and age is extremely rare, in our stimulus-addictive brain where we constantly checking phones, alerts, and all of these things, for another human to actually focus on you for a period of time, even just a few minutes, is precious. And it’s not about you at that moment, or not making mistakes, or over-controlling your voice. It’s about you giving that person an emotional experience and you communicating with them.

So you’ve got to let go of this idea of perfection. You have to absolutely embrace your mistakes. Your mistakes are beautiful. Your mistakes can teach you. And when you are singing and you’re singing from a place of honesty and a place of pure expression, your mistakes are part of that. Your mistakes are part of your humanity.

Not that you can get by without a base level of singing. I don’t want you to be those embarrassing American Idol audition that they exploit for laughs and ridicule. Get yourself where you can feel confident, and know that you can at least deliver to people on a certain level.

But let your mistakes go. And when you’re performing and your mistake happens, you got to just let it go. It’s already passed. You can’t fix it. Don’t let your brain stay there. Stay in the moment. Communicate. Embrace your humanity. If you crack on a note, keep singing. If you flat, keep singing. You will learn how to fix it. And you will sing, you will express, you will have this gift that so many of us deny ourselves. And the magic of being able to express yourself emotionally is just so vitally beautiful and important.

I thank you for listening to my babbling. If you want to find out more about me go to johnhenny.com. I also have, if you’re interested in learning to be a voice teacher, I have online teacher training that you can take at your pace. You can just click on the tab on my website that says TEACHER TRAINING. You can go to this episode johnhenny.com/58 for the show notes. I will have the full transcript there.

And you can also get on my email list. I’m pretty passionate about emailing my list and just sharing what I’m discovering about singing. I don’t send out a bunch of sales emails. I will occasionally let you know about offers that I have. But for the most part I just really want to communicate with my list. If you connect with me on this podcast, I think you’ll connect with me on the list.

If you want to study with me, again, go to johnhenny.com. You can find out about lessons. I find this podcast is the greatest screening device I’ve had for working with people. Again, if these ramblings make sense to you as you listen to my podcast then I think we’re going to connect on a level of making you a better singer and helping you reach your goals.

So again, thank you so much for listening. And until next time, to better singing! Bye.