The Judges

Banishing Negative Self-Talkangry judges

For the first several years after I started my job as music director, I had a lot of anxiety about the job. I often came home on Sunday afternoons and cried. My husband will tell you that I would spend hours obsessing over something I said or something that I did in rehearsal that might not have come out right. My imaginary judges were constant companions.

Saturday nights were the worst. I would spend a lot of time preparing for the Sunday morning rehearsal, learning every single part. There were many sleepless Saturday nights and many anxious nightmares. The negative voices in my head were deafening. I told myself “You’re not good enough for this job. You don’t have the skills to lead a choir. The choir members don’t like you.” The judges in my head were loud and persistent.

Slowly, I came to realize that this kind of negative self talk was not making the music better. In fact, it was holding me back from joyful expression.

Now, 13 years into the job, I would like to say that the judges are completely gone, but they aren’t. I still have moments of self-doubt. But I’m learning to stare the judges in the eye, ask them to be kind, and listen to the constructive ideas they have for me.

I think most musicians are familiar with inner judges.

We must have a certain amount of self-reflection to correct mistakes during practice. Because music eaves us very vulnerable when performing or working with a teacher, negative self-talk can cause performance anxiety.

A loud inner dialog takes up a lot of space in the brain. We can only remember four to seven things at once. Playing a musical instrument or singing uses a lot of bandwidth as we shift from thinking about the body to the music to the instrument. If the brain is overloaded with inner conflict, the music will suffer. There is a limit to how many things we can be doing and remembering at once.

The first step in solving any problem is to recognize what the problem is.

Notice as you go through your music practice and your day what narrative is going on inside yourself. Listen to the voice within. Are there particular things that trigger negative self-talk?

A Soprano on Her Head

In her book A Soprano on Her Head, Eloise Ristad offers ways to confront the judges. She suggests an exercise, asking us to imagine the judges as people sitting around us.

If we stand in the center of our circle. We can look around at each judge with a sense of detachment and curiosity and find out what each one is telling us. We can also take the initiative and talk back to them; we can ask them to be more supportive and just stop tyrannizing us. We can let their cold imperiousness turn the judges into ice, then let a tiny warm glow at our center intensify little by little until our judges begin to melt away….

We can lessen the power of these nagging, bothers some judges that continually defeat us and stifle are spontaneity. We aren’t doomed to constant censorship from these commentators on our every act and thought. There’s even a chance that we can come to terms with them and find the good in them.

In her book, Eloise Ristad offers many exercises for diminishing the effect of these judges, including asking them to speak kindly or taking their power away. If your inner judges are loud, I urge you to read her book and work through the exercises Ristad suggests in Chapter 2.

When you hear your judges, counteract their negativity with affirmations.

“I am good enough; I am doing enough; I am loved.”kids playing music

Reflection can be a useful tool for growth, but it must be done with love and compassion.

Too much judgment holds us back from experiencing life in the moment. It keeps us frozen in the past because we are afraid of failure. Negative self-talk often causes performance anxiety for musicians and it prevents us from fully expressing ourselves artistically.

Finally, I believe that recognizing and counteracting judgmental self-talk is a kind of spiritual practice. It has helped me be happier in my career and in my personal life. But I have to keep practicing because the judges change form as I face new challenges. I try to stay aware of the voice within me, ever vigilant that my judges are fair and kind.

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir… And for Life!

3 Listening Lessons for the Choir

As part of an ongoing series about spiritual practice and music, this blog post will focus on the art of listening.

Music practice is an awesome place to explore larger ideas. When we practice music, we create time for working on ourselves as well as our songs. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and so it’s my hope that these skills will translate into other parts of your life.  This deepens our connection with music and offers another kind of spiritual practice.

1. Listen to yourself.

With a critical, but not judgmental ear, listen carefully to the sound you were making. Ask yourself “Is this the best tone I can make today?” If not, play around with all of the variables to see if changing one thing makes the sound better or worse. Concentrate on the physical action of the body. Assess if you are moving from a place of comfort or discomfort. When practicing, focus your complete attention on the music. Can you relate to the mood of the piece? Always be searching for ways to connect breath to sound and stay active with your listening. Practice non-judgement by not allowing the negative voices to diminish you. Instead, turn the inner judges into voices that offer encouragement and gentle, constructive observations.

2. Listen to others.

Try focusing on a different vocal part, perhaps even one across the room. Or listen to the singers on either side of you. Can you listen so intensely that your neighbors sound louder than you? Be mindful of the blend of the entire choir. Notice when the group wants to change tempo, change dynamics, or where people are taking breaths.

3. Be playful and curious.

By engaging your inner child, the music will always stay interesting. Imagine that you have ears in the far corner of the room. Try listening from those ears, not the ones on your head. Listen to how the sound is bouncing off the walls or people or the furniture in the room. Maybe you will notice if something is sympathetically vibrating. Continue to play with all of the variables in your body that change the sound. Give yourself permission to think out of the box. For example, how does the sound change if you curl your toes in your shoes?

listening to a soprano on her head

A Soprano on Her Head

The playful approach to music-making is inspired by Eloisa Ristad and her book A Soprano On Her Head. It is an inspiring work that has been an inspiration for my teaching since I first read it in 1996.

Other blog posts related to this topic:

Hearing vs. Listening

Reinvigorating Flute Practice

Music as a Spiritual Practice