Reach for the Volume

Is your self-talk a friend or an enemy?  It’s time to be curious about the power of your communication with yourself and how it can positively shape your singing and performing in the future.  You have more control over your own thoughts than you realise!

Imagine this…it’s a new day.  You get in the car, or insert your ear buds, press play, and…woah!!  Was it really that loud when you turned it off yesterday? Your hand shoots for the volume control and your heartrate lowers as the music assumes an acceptable early-morning decibel level.

This phenomenon is called the Lombard effect.  It occurs when our central nervous system adjusts to the background noise against which we are speaking, singing or listening.  Ingo Titze describes it this way: “We generally need to speak louder when we are in noisy environments, want to emphasise something, need to be heard at greater distances, or are angry.  Much of this loudness variation is controlled subconsciously.”

Controlled subconsciously…what if there is a “noisy environment” in our minds that we manage in a similar manner?  What if there is a sort of Lombard Effect going on with your personal self-talk…the messages that inform how you do life, how you see yourself or others, who you think you are?  What if you get so used to hearing your own negative messaging that you turn it up to hear it more clearly, drowning out the positive messages until all you hear are subversive, undermining jibes?  Even worse…what if you get so used to it that you stop noticing it all together?

How does self-talk change our singing?

Your inner self-talk can actually be altering the way that you sing.  It is no mystery that most musicians believe that their craft is fundamentally psychological.  This is never truer than when we are singing and performing, where every thought we have shapes our instrument and influences the pitch, length, timbre and clarity of our tone.

According to Dr David Roland in his excellent book The Confident Performer, “At every waking moment we ‘talk’ to ourselves about our experiences and things happening around us. We might think ‘It’s a nice day today’ or ‘I’m feeling fantastic today.’  Likewise, as a performer, you are talking to yourself about your perception of you as a performer, such as ‘I feel really prepared for this performance’, ‘I’m looking forward to my solo’, ‘I’m dreading this performance’.”

So what does yourinner voice sound like? Do you tell yourself positive, empowering, encouraging things?  Or do you plant seeds of self-doubt that undermine your vocal health and joy?  How loud are these voices?  And does their volume change in different situations?

In his interview with Brent Vaartstra, psychologist and professional jazz musician Rodney Brim uses the analogy of an instructor to describe our self-talk. He said, “if you could take your self-talk out of you and put it as an instructor and embody it separate from you, would that instructor be pretty affirming or mostly notice things you screwed up on or be slow to give compliments or go ‘good grief you still didn’t get those high notes’…?”  

Would your inner instructor lead you to confidence and satisfaction in your singing, or lead you to reinforce your self-doubt, perhaps evening causing you to sabotage your own efforts?

Stop now and identify your self-talk

It is possible to choose the messages we take on board and how loud we play those messages to ourselves.  Whether internal or external, each voice has the potential to be both helpful AND unhelpful, possibly even on the same day!  Learning to speak truth to yourself can lead to discovering and developing more of your musical voice.

Which of the following external and internal sources of self-talk influence you?



Now, take a moment to recognise which of these sources provide helpful messages, and which are unhelpful.

Logically, it follows that turning down the volume on negative, unhelpful or un-useful messages will be better for us; and turning up the volume on empowering, true and respectful messages will also be better for us.  Helpful voices are those that motivate us to make holistically healthy choices – for our whole self, including our vocal and creative self.  Unhelpful voices are those that hinder our balance and skew us into a lopsided version of ourselves.  Perhaps blurring our “song” and distorting our “voice”.

How can you change your self-talk?

  1. Start paying attention – mindfully move from your self-talk being an unconscious habit to being a conscious habit
  2. Make conscious choices to eliminate the obviously destructive and untrue statements and suggestions you hear.  Dr Roland proposes writing down the things you think of in the various stages of performing (preparation, immediately before, during and after).  Then experiment with converting them into more positive statements that are more uplifting and realistic.  
  3. Now start replacing the half-truths and subtle deceptions that aren’t quite so obvious.  Change how you phrase things.  For example, use Dr Roland’s sentence starters to practice converting negative expressions to their positive counterparts:
    • I always -> I often
    • I never -> I rarely
    • I must -> I prefer
    • I need -> I want
    • I can’t -> I would find it difficult or I choose not to
    • I can never -> In the past, I have found it difficult to
  4. Practice being your own empowering instructor – it’s a muscle that needs some strengthening, so use it daily!  Brim proposes: “Ok, this time, notice at least three times when your intonation is perfect and you really like the resonance.” Start coaching yourself over what things you want to pay attention to.  Or try recording yourself and force yourself to notice the things you did that you really enjoyed.  Repeat this until the first thing you notice is what went right, rather than what went wrong.
  5. Try journaling about your self-discovery, or talking to someone you trust who will be supportive.  Make it real and make it last.

Imposter Syndrome

A final thought…musicians are well known for experiencing imposter syndrome(the feeling that you don’t belong or aren’t qualified or good enough to be doing what you’re doing).  In these moments, Christopher Sutton proposes that you:

  1. Remind yourself of your qualifications and experience.
  2. Remind yourself of why you play music.  
  3. Be honest with yourself and others about where you’re at. Play at the level you’re at and be happy with that.  You will ALWAYS be improving.
  4. Keep a record of the positive feedback you’ve gotten. If you’re only paying attention to the negative feedback, you’ll disregard or discount positives.
  5. Realise that mistakes don’t make you a failure. Everything is a situation you can learn from.
  6. Keep a journal about your musical performances. Get what’s in your head onto paper. What happened and how did you feel about it?


What if self-talk can actually empower you to have fun?  After all, isn’t that why you became a musician in the first place?  Start noticing what moves you when you sing.  “An audience wants to be moved too, so find the meaning in what you are doing, not just ways to create something you perceive as technically perfect”, says Rodney Brim.  

Reach for the volume…turn it to silent for a while and evaluate the voices you’re listening to.  Like what you’re starting to hear?  You are unique, resilient, capable and hopeful.  You are a musician.  You play your voice.  You have a place.  Turn the volume up on that!!

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Conversations with Christopher van der Wielen, March-April 2019

Gorrie, J. (2009). Performing in the

Robinson, D. K. (2018).  YouTube clip: The Lombard Effect: Speaking in loud environments 

Roland, D. (1997).  The Confident Performer.  Currency Press, Sydney.

Sutton, C. (2019). “How to Stop Doubting and Start Performing”, The Musicality Podcast, 12 March.

Titze, I.R. (2000). Principles of Voice Production.National Center for Voice and Speech, Iowa.

Vaartstra, B. (2019). “Brain Hacking for Speeding Up Your Jazz Improv Success”,Learn Jazz Standards Podcast.Episode 159. 

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