Through practice, we can develop what may be one of the two or three most fundamental skills that any human being can acquire, which I call Skill at Feeling. It’s a skill that they not only did not teach you in school, they never talked about it. But once feeling, be it emotional in origin, physiological in origin, or purely physical and mechanical - once feeling can be made tangible in terms of body sensation, then we have at least the potential of being able to experience feeling completely.
– Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment
If you read my blog, you love singing. But how do you actually feel about performing? About the sound of your voice? Your artistry and accomplishments? Your overall technical facility?
In a previous post I stated that opera singers “must develop the personal depth and vulnerability to channel the extremes of human emotion through their voices at will.” This is arguably the most significant of the many skills a singer needs. The most satisfying and effective performances occur when you are deeply emotionally invested. But how do you develop this skill?
When singers discuss the role their feelings play in opera and song, it is usually in the service of dramatic interpretation – getting to the bottom of characters' motivations for behaving as they do and how to best imbue their utterances with the appropriate emotional quality. If a director or coach employs Method Acting or similar techniques, they may ask you to reference your own past feelings and experiences and allow them to inform the dramatic situation. But tapping your personal relationship history in order to bring life to the way Donna Elvira behaves around Don Giovanni is not what I mean by “skill at feeling”.
By “skill at feeling,” I’m referring to the ability to experience, express, and regulate the flow of your feelings in real-time.
Fully experiencing your feelings requires keen self-awareness and radical self-acceptance.
Expressing feelings clearly to others requires good communication skills, confidence, and an absence of conflict about your feelings and your decision to express them.
Regulating the flow of your feelings means balancing the need to acknowledge, tolerate and process feelings as they arise with the ability to choose whether and how to express them.
I'm not suggesting this is easy (or even possible) to fully master. However, it is possible to improve your skill at feeling, and doing so will enhance not only your vocal artistry but also all your life experiences.
What are feelings? If you ask a psychologist, an artist and a neurobiologist, you’ll get quite a range of responses, but it’s the neurobiologist’s perspective that is the most useful for working with feelings: Feelings are essentially body sensations.
Equating feelings with body sensations makes it possible to observe and experience their ebb and flow to a high degree of specificity. You can note the location, intensity, and quality of sensation, leading to greater self-awareness. You can also note your reaction to them – whether you greet these sensations with equanimity, resist them, or judge them.
Cultivating equanimity with your feelings rather than judging them or meeting them with resistance is essential for communicating feelings effectively. Otherwise you end up conveying them with an extra charge, giving mixed signals, or seeming less than fully honest.
Cultivating equanimity with your feelings doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily communicate them calmly. Honest communication of excitement or anger demands an appropriate level of energy. But if you judge yourself for being angry or are uncomfortable with a high level of excitement, you’ll need to push past some resistance in order to express yourself. The added charge will distort your message and you may end up coming off as scary or confusing – after all, the person you’re talking to is having feelings/body sensations of their own in response to what you’re communicating.
Healthy regulation of feelings also requires self-awareness and equanimity. Feelings are one thing; deciding whether, when and how to express them is something else. People with poor skill at feeling may react to intolerable body sensations with spontaneous outbursts or actions they later regret; alternately, they may shut down their feelings or avoid situations that would excite them in order to prevent such outbursts or actions, unnecessarily depriving themselves of a rich emotional life and meaningful experiences. For example, feelings of attraction are intensely pleasant and expansive, but if experiencing these sensations necessitates acting on them and creating undesirable consequences, the only way to prevent that outcome is by shutting down your feelings or avoiding situations where they would likely arise. Conversely, if you are skillful at regulating your feelings, you can enjoy these pleasant sensations and engage in meaningful relationships with the people who inspire them without completely screwing up your life.
Skill at feeling has a number of specific applications for your singing technique and career, the most obvious being that access to a wide range and depth of feelings expands your expressive palate. But let’s return to the questions that I posed at the head of this column:
How do you feel about performing?
The sound of your voice?
Your artistry and accomplishments?
Your overall technical facility?
What body sensations arise for you as you consider these questions?
Access to a wide range and depth of feelings may expand your expressive palate, but you also need enough skill to be able to sense and contend with feelings that arise in relation to your voice, your technique and your career.
If you want to make swift progress in technique and artistry, you must contend skillfully with the emotions that inevitably arise in response to advice and criticism from teachers, coaches, and your experiences in the practice room. When you’re told that your intonation is a bit off, it’s likely to produce some interesting body sensations. You need to be able to greet these sensations with equanimity in order to remain focused on improving your intonation. If instead you freak out, you not only miss an opportunity to improve your technique but you come to associate intolerable negative emotions with the problem at hand.
Singers regularly encounter rejection and criticism from opera companies, critics, and – potentially most challenging – the voices inside their own heads. If you handle it by growing a thick skin, that emotional callous will end up muffling your artistry as well. Your success and perseverance depend on your ability to remain simultaneously vulnerable and strong in the face of criticism. That's no small achievement, and it may be that many gifted artists give up solely because they lack this ability.
Performance anxiety can arise for a number of reasons, but whatever its source it remains a feeling – a flavor of body sensation. Most things are beyond your control in performance situations, so it’s vital that you cultivate equanimity with the feelings that arise when things don’t go according to plan. Any successful strategy for dealing with performance anxiety has at its core a system for developing skill at feeling.
How do you develop skill at feeling?
By paying attention.
Notice how your feelings manifest as body sensations. Try to welcome them rather than resisting them, judging them, or judging yourself for having them. Watch them arising and passing. Notice (and mistrust) the thoughts that form in your mind in response to your body sensations and realize that these thoughts are distinct from the sensations. Notice your impulses to speak or take action in response to these sensations, understanding that you have a choice whether to act on these impulses. Notice whether you allow the sensations to flow freely or attempt to shut them down.
Of course, paying attention is a skill unto itself. A meditation practice can improve your attention and feeling skills at the same time if you choose emotionally charged body sensations as your object of meditation. Shinzen Young's lecture series The Science of Enlightenment is an outstanding introduction to meditation theory and technique, and his ideas on how to develop skill at feeling are the foundation for my own.
Throughout the day, our feelings flow uninterrupted and largely unexamined. When we do examine our feelings it is often a conceptual exercise – we rationalize, interpret, or argue with them. But feelings are there to be experienced, not conceptualized.
Learning to experience your feelings fully and to greet them with radical acceptance is one of the most valuable things you can possibly do for yourself, your singing and your audience. Become capable of channeling the extremes of human emotion through your voice at will, and you will stir your listeners to greater depths of feeling as well.
Rather than being a slave to your emotions, you can use them to create masterpieces, both in the opera house and in your life.
If you want to be able to channel the flow of your feelings into your singing, you need a technique designed to serve this process. Email me at clf1-at-jhu-dot-edu or schedule a lesson on my Appointment Quest site to discover how my methods can serve your artistry.