I don’t know what I’m doing

— April 2, 2021 —

Can you recall a time when you had no idea what you were doing?

(I have these moments, like, all the time.)

Say you are learning something new, or practicing something, or in a rehearsal, and those dreaded words bubble up from your mind:

I have no idea what I’m doing. And I SHOULD know how to do this.

But what is really happening? You may not know how. Yet. Unfortunately, our ego turns this around into some kind of argument, and we tend to start wagging our own finger at ourselves.

You should know! You are failing! You are not capable!

(Oof, that last one hurts a little.)

I have observed that singers, in this situation of Not Knowing, tend toward one of two responses. They either play Offense or Defense.

To play Offense means you approach these uncertain moments with arms swinging, ready to pounce on any problem, to make it disappear as soon as possible. Which typically manifests as over-efforting in singing.

To play Defense means to back down, to leave the situation, to pull our voice back and play it as safe as possible, guard up, and volume down. Which typically manifests as under-efforting in singing. (Right here!)

I do not need to explain that I am hugely overgeneralizing here. My aim is to help you clarify how unconscious fears of not being capable show up in our practice.

And crucially: to pull back the veil on our invisible tendencies so that we can feel more safe, secure, and capable when we sing, no matter our relative aptitude to do the task set before us.

We could choose to close our eyes or run away in the face of uncertainty. We will only exacerbate our fears and reinstate our lack of agency in these moments that are most vital to our learning and growth. 

So what’s the hack? If you know me at all, you know that I appreciate simple and elegant solutions. (Less blunt than a hack.)

The transformation happens in three steps:

First: Notice when you get triggered. Begin to observe when you tense up, push forward, or pull back. Are you playing Offense or Defense? Become aware of these statements if they pop up in your practice: I don’t know what I’m doing. I should know better. I can’t do this.

Second: Zoom your awareness into that moment. (It will only hurt for a second.) Imagine a time-lapse video of your self, and internally observe yourself heading into the situation. Did you blackout for a second? Did your gut tighten? Did your eyes close? Did you start judging yourself? Did your voice stop or falter? Did you look away from the score?

Third: Maintain your inner awareness on your breath through every microsecond of that time-lapse video. Be a hawk about it, don’t look away. Keep the breath flowing, no matter how much you want to leave the situation. 

Maintaining awareness of the breath will keep you in the present moment: exactly where you need to be in order to keep unconscious dialogue from barreling through the scene, and sabotaging your learning process.

Your one task will be to maintain the steady flow of breath energy, which will allow you to manage—both internally and externally—whatever vocal task is on your plate. 

Awareness is key to becoming aware of your fear-based tendencies. And then, all of a sudden, not knowing isn’t such a big deal? 



IMAGE: Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

Allison Mondel
Allison Mondel is a musician, philosopher, advocate, and mentor. Her greatest delight is to understand how things work, and share her hard-won wisdom with others. She writes about the higher nature of music and the voice, alchemizing personal roadblocks, and the pursuit of one's creative vocation.

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