Singing in a Culture of Judgement

Woman looking unimpressed
Touring musician, session singer and vocal studies lecturer Jenn Clempner takes on the culture of comparison.

I am privileged to work with a plethora of enormously talented vocalists.

But I never cease to be amazed, despite their gift and graft, by how many of them lack confidence in their ability and their sound.

Often, I find my lessons need to be geared towards challenging the comparison they make of themselves to others – and working to rebuild self-esteem.

It’s all very well that I remark upon this as a teacher, but if I am honest, I am guilty of doing the same myself.

In fact, I compare myself to my students all the time! Am I ‘good enough’ a singer to be their teacher? Am I just an imposter in a world of singers who are better than me?

‘The Imposter Syndrome’, as it has been popularly dubbed, is rife within western culture.

Photo by Jonathan Farber
Jenn Clempner in performance

What Professional Singers Say About It

Just to make sure my suspicion on the significance of this issue was right, I ran a survey for 40 professional singers.

The results were astonishing, comforting and significant.

Curiously, the highest answer to “What boosts your confidence the most as a singer?” was “feeling free vocally”.

The majority of participants also answered that a singer’s success is not completely owing to their technique.

This indicated to me that a sense of ease and assurance is of greater value to the professional singer, than precise singing.

Unsurprisingly, an overwhelming majority remarked that they deeply care about what others think of them.

We desperately want to feel good about our singing voices but we also desperately want others to like our voices too.

But here were two answers that confirmed we are in a culture of judgment:

When asked “What do you think lowers confidence in singers the most?”, the top answer was ‘Comparison’.

When asked “What is your worst fear when it comes to singing in front of others?”, the top answer was ‘Judgement’.

I hazard a guess that if this survey continued and was widened across differing generations, cultures and genres of singers, the outcomes to the above two questions would remain largely the same.

What Do We Do About This?

We all have a responsibility to work against this culture of judgement and alter the perceptions that cause singers to react, recoil and retreat with anxiety.

Here are 3 ways, in my opinion, that we can all work to counter-act this Culture of Judgement:

1. When You Hear Good Singing, Compliment the Singer

Don’t hold back because you think someone doesn’t need to hear it. Are you guilty of not saying ‘That was amazing’ to a singer you envy, because you assume they hear it all the time and don’t need their ego massaging? You know what they say about assumptions: they make an a** out of ‘u’ and me!

2. Create a Culture of Shared Learning

None of us know everything, but between us we have a powerhouse of expertise on the art of singing. It can be difficult, however, to receive ideas from one another when we are feeling vulnerable. Therefore try to ask another singer a specific question, such as “What do you do to reach your top end of your range?”. It may be that all you get in return is the assurance that others struggle with the same things as you do, but just hearing that can be useful, help us feel more secure and less inferior in our practice.

3.  Resist Having Favorites

This is one for the teachers amongst us… ‘Favoritism’ closely followed ‘Comparison’ was listed as the main reason for lowered confidence in singers in my survey. We are only human; we are bound to be subjective, but we have a duty of responsibility to not hold some singers in blatant higher regard to others. There have been occasions that I have warmed to a student because they worked hard yet missed how hard others were working, because they didn’t openly demonstrate this. It can really dent a student’s confidence when they sense that others are being more rewarded for their work. Keep on the lookout for effort that is being made and note it across the board.

Finally, when I asked my survey takers “What do you find most helpful in a singing teacher?”, one of the top answers was ‘Reassurance and understanding’.

It is evident that our comparison of one another is crippling our confidence, warping our perceptions, artistically and creatively stifling us and robbing us of the joy of our profession.

It is a privilege to have the gift of singing, so let’s share in that, not steal it from one another.

Written By
Jenn Clempner is a Singer, Pianist, Music Director and Vocal Tutor. Her first professional work as a Musician came in 2007 when she toured throughout the UK and Europe with indie-pop outfit The Hoosiers (Sony BMG) as a Session Musician (backing vocals, keyboards and percussion). Jenn was awarded a platinum album for the sale of 300,000 copies of ‘The Trick To Life’ and her work with The Hoosiers. Jenn is a Vocal Tutor and Lecturer at the Royal Northern College of Music on the Popular Music degree programme, but also consults as a music professional and continues to sing and play within the live music arena. Find out more at: jennclempner.com