e·qua·nim·i·ty /ˌikwəˈnɪmɪti, ˌɛkwə-/ –noun
Mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium. Synonyms: serenity, self-possession, aplomb.
Equanimity is a fundamental skill for self-exploration and emotional intelligence. It is a deep and subtle concept frequently misunderstood and easily confused with suppression of feeling, apathy or inexpressiveness…[it] means attempting to let go of negative judgments about what you are experiencing and replacing them with an attitude of loving acceptance and gentle matter-of-factness.
Singing is an incredibly fulfilling practice, but it is also quite humbling. As I recently commented in a New Forum for Classical Singers post, singing is an open-ended endeavor. However great your technique and artistry become, each new success reveals a higher potential level of achievement. You have to become capable of simultaneously celebrating your success and acknowledging how much you still have to learn.
On a grand scale, this means that while your debut in a major new role may be a huge triumph, performing it for the first time reveals how much more depth and nuance there is to be found as you become increasingly familiar with it. On a more private scale, a technical breakthrough in the practice room or a voice lesson is a definitely a personal triumph – but it also swiftly gives you an idea of what the next challenge is going to be!
Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a singer, or as a person, really, is cultivate the ability to respond with equanimity to all your triumphs and your challenges, great and small.
A good way to work on this is monitoring your reactions to your own voice when you're practicing technical exercises or learning repertoire.
I've been thinking about the frequency with which many of my students express disappointment or frustration with themselves in small habitual ways after each repetition of an exercise – a dismissive grimace, a shake of the head, a muttered expletive – despite the fact that in my view, what they had just done was quite successful!
Why do so many singers do this?
Well, no matter how awesome you may be, you come to me because you want to get even better. Getting better usually means changing something. So I teach you an exercise designed to help you make a useful change; I explain what it is for; and I direct your attention to the movements and qualities that will determine whether you've done it successfully. Because I'm asking you to do something that is different from what you are used to doing, it may result in sensations and sounds that are unfamiliar, unstable and/or uncomfortable to you, even if when you later listen to the recording of your lesson you realize that in fact you were making a spectacular sound. The law of homeostasis says that we are programmed to react negatively to change of any kind, so even though you're paying me good money to get you to do something different, your subjective reaction to successfully making changes may initially be one of great discomfort.
You may also criticize your attempt at the exercise if you think you didn't do it right, but the true success of the exercise isn't really determined by whether you executed it perfectly. It lies in your making your best attempt to perform the exercise and then notice what happened when you tried.
Your job is to form a clear intention, attempt the exercise, and then notice what happened. You lose this crucial opportunity if immediately after performing an exercise you negatively assess your own sound, balk at an unfamiliar sensation, or criticize yourself for doing it "wrong" because your awareness is not being directed at the thing you intend to change.
Awareness by itself is often curative. Say you habitually close your jaw on an [i] (ee) vowel. If you're trying to redefine your [i] so that your jaw stays relaxed but find that you somehow still can't seem to help closing your jaw, the most important thing you can do is catch yourself in the act of closing your jaw when you don't intend to. If you can observe yourself doing in real time something that had previously been an unconscious, habitual movement, you're that much closer to being capable of making a choice not to do it and choose to do something else instead. But if your inner monologue goes "damnit I closed my jaw again," or "that sounds terrible", you've missed the chance to get valuable information about how to make the change you want to make.
Making any change in your life almost always begins by trying, failing, learning from the failure, and trying again. Seth Godin eloquently explains the reasons that the most successful people are the ones who fail most often in this blog post. A great example of the truth of this is the career of baseball legend Ty Cobb, who still holds the highest career batting average of all time: .366. The highest career batting average belongs to a guy who hit the ball less than 4 out of every 10 times at bat.
So here is how I'd like you to think about it: Included in the price of your voice lesson is permission to fail, as well as absolution from all harsh self-judgement, for the 60 minutes that we're working together.
For the hour that you're with your teacher, let us direct your awareness and assess the success of what you're doing.
With practice, you'll become capable of doing more of this for yourself. Give yourself permission to fail and absolve yourself from harsh self-judgement. With greater equanimity, you will become better able to direct your own awareness and skillfully assess your work in a way that will not only make practice much more enjoyable but will massively speed up your progress.