Perfectionism Clips Your Voice’s Wings: And How to Soar

March 4, 2014

“My dear, life is a series of problems that you need to solve. . . and then, we die.  Now go get us some ice cream.”                                                                                                                                            -Maggie Smith as Dowager Lady Grantham, 4th Season of Downton Abbey

If you’re addicted to Downton Abbey—or even if you’re not—you probably know that the venerable Ms. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess gets the very best zingers in just about every scene. And rightly so.

This one struck me as particularly pithy, not only for it’s ironic humor and dry pragmatism, but because it offers a refreshing perspective that modern New Age sentimentalism sometimes likes to skip over:  that the point isn’t always to get it right, or for things to look or sound exactly like I posted on my me-and-the-universe-co-creatin’-vision-board (yeah, I’ve seen The Secret).

I love this quote because the message is: work with what you have.  When it comes to voice, nothing clips your vocal wings faster than longing to sound “perfect,” or like a certain singer you admire.  And nothing can move you ahead faster than really listening to yourself, accepting your imperfectly perfect voice, and developing what’s there.  In this approach, your quirks actually become the jumping off point for your unique sound, and things that you might think of as weaknesses or mistakes become points of curiousity for creative discovery.

I know of what I speak on this one.  My middle name could be Perfectionist. (Try that one on:  Pamela Perfectionist. *shudder*).

I’m an A+ student that likes to get both the big picture and the details just so, and if there’s a project that needs doing—a website, a blog post, an album, a home improvement—it’s worth doing “right,” is how my inner dialogue usually goes.

As a vocalist, I’m always reaching for more resonance, expanded range, subtler nuance; the most precise and heart-reaching lyric or melody line in a song. That is my job as an artist, and anything less than loving devotion toward that intention is sloppiness on my part.  I commit to always learning.

Commitment to being my best in any given moment is one thing. Expecting my voice to conform to a particular way of sounding, and doing it that way exactly the same every single day—with any deviation perceived as failure—well, that’s another thing entirely.  This edges into perfectionism.

A few symptoms of perfectionism: trying to control and manage, spending a lot of energy hiding yourself or compensating for perceived short-comings, and the self-judgment that never lets you remember that you are in fact good enough.

In the body, that state of being often translates into a fight-or-flight-or-freeze response that does not support effective singing or speaking.  The ability to breathe fully is impacted. Muscles that need to be relaxed tense up, and sometimes tensions become chronic.

Perfectionism has the opposite effect of what the perfectionist might hope for:  it can prevent you from sounding like your most awesome, whole-hearted, full-voiced you.

So, from one perfectionist to another (if you’re reading this I think you’ve been there at some point), here are a few tips I’ve discovered:

1. Notice and Accept

A reframe for the quote, “life is a series of problems” is this: life flows and changes and presents new challenges, and our voices follow that flow. Voices change from day-to-day and across the life cycle.  Women’s voices even fluctuate with their hormonal cycles. Notice it. Accept it.

Your voice is a beautiful expressive metaphor for the story of your life. It can tell you if you’re sad, tired, sick, angry, fearful, joyful, excited, grounded.  And as it tells you these things, it can invite you into the deep compassion for self that is your birthright.  Let it.

2.  Get Curious

When you notice your voice going higher or lower in pitch, sounding resonant or sounding squashed, cracking or getting hoarse, or flowing and strong—ask yourself some curious questions.  Who are you with?  How are you feeling?  What activity are you engaged in?  Are you singing, speaking, working, playing? What is the topic of conversation? What posture are you in? What posture is the other person in? What areas of your body are relaxed, or more active, or tense? What images, pictures, memories come to mind?

You might even write about it in a journal, draw a quick picture that represents it, talk it through with a friend, or sing it out with Free Singing (which we explore in the Body Song VoiceShops).

3. Work It, Baby

a.k.a. “There Are No Wrong Notes” OR “Follow That Creak!”

I am now going to reveal one of my top secret techniques for improvising vocally.  Sometimes, my voice does something unexpected. So, what I do is turn it into something purposeful.  The creak my voice just made, or the note I just hit that doesn’t actually exist in the key I’m singing in?  I follow it.  I dive in and see where it takes me.  I let myself creak some more, or move into the “new” scale I just made up.

Sometimes, it leads to a rich vein of expression, of dark and earthy material.  Sometimes it’s a few notes that take me nowhere in particular and I’m back to the mode I was in before my so-called vocal gaff.  Other times, I follow it into the darkness, hang out there for a while, and then emerge absolutely soaring, from a vocal perspective.  It’s a wonderful adventure that I never would experience if I believed that I had made a mistake or hit a wrong note, and let that shame me.

In singing or speaking, if you creak or crack or gaff, instead of doing a quick throat clear or cough to try to cover it up, or stopping altogether, try this instead: dive in, exaggerate it, make it louder or softer, laugh about it with your conversation partner.  See what happens.


As I’ve noted elsewhere, my voice is a Trickster, imperfectly perfect. Some days, it soars to the heights and resonates to the depths.  Some days it will only do one or the other.  And other days it creaks, cracks, slips and makes a fool out of my attempts at perfect pitch. It will happen.

And here I come back to my original quote.  The Dowager’s words are ultimately optimistic:  the problems are there for us to solve.  Solving them is the process of living.  And we also get to celebrate along the way, to go eat ice cream!

The point is to work creatively with what you have, and to work with the energy of seeming difficulty to craft it into a whole and satisfying experience.  Vocally, all sounds, all emotional energies and stories have a place, and if you notice, accept, get curious, and follow the thread, those energies can become powerful fuel for your life. 

ps We are exploring some of these practices in the Body Song VoiceShops.  There’s one coming up Saturday, March 22, 2014.  To register or more info, contact Pamela.


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