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Episode 15: When You’re Stuck

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When You're Stuck

Getting stuck on a project happens, including when you’re developing your voice. I’ll discuss some different kinds of “stuck” and share what’s helped me and my students get moving again. There aren’t any magic bullets, but a little trial and error, some curiosity and self-compassion will help you find what you need. 

Michèle Voillequé is a singer and a voice teacher living in Berkeley, California. 

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts. If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com.

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.

The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

A couple of students have asked me lately about feeling stuck, about not wanting to practice, not knowing what to practice, feeling like it just doesn’t matter.

There are different kinds of stuck. But they all, but stuck seems to cover it. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Starting with, I think, stuck happens. Stuck is a thing. Stuck is a part of a, of an unfolding process of growing.

I think just by virtue of being people living in the world with some kind of aspiration, some kind of goal, some kind of desire to do something, to accomplish something, to learn a song, a specific song, maybe, or just generally get better at singing, get better at speaking in front of other people. Learn to knit. You know, just some kind of process.

There are going to be points when we get stuck. There are points along the way when we have learned, we’ve acquired some new information, some new skills, some new habits maybe. And then there’s, I think it’s a necessary pause in the system when we integrate those things.

So, I want to begin by saying that stuck is not always evidence of a problem, but is a sign that you are integrating. You’re solidifying a newer version of yourself. You can be stuck and nothing can be the matter. Everything can be as it should be.

That’s maybe the first question to ask yourself, “Am I burnt out? Am I stuck because it’s just time for a break?” And that could be a break for a day, for an hour, for a week, a month. I think asking yourself the question, “Do I just need a break?” and listening to your body’s answer.

Do your shoulders relax a little bit? Does your heart kind of sigh? Do you feel like a little better immediately? “Do I need a break?” “Oh yeah, I need a break.” Take a break.

Well, ask yourself, since that question worked, try another one. “What kind of a break do I need? How long of a break? What would be fun? What do I need instead of this thing that I’m pushing at, striving at, what do I need instead?” And see where that gets you.

There are other kinds of stuck that are not about needing a break, but needing a path, needing a sign, needing a clue. What should happen next?

When it comes to singing, I feel it’s worth well, getting a little geeky about what sound making is. Sound making is a continuum. The smallest singing kind of sound we can make is a hum.

And when you’re humming, you want to be sure your back teeth are apart and that your lips are gently together – you’re not pressing on them. And you might try sucking in your cheeks a little bit. So the whole thing might look like what I call “surprised old lady face,” when, when the old lady is also a supermodel, sucking in her cheeks.

So that humming, [mmmm], is the smallest sound our voices can make. After that, next biggest step is to make a vowel sound. So, for example, an AH, [AH], so the hum, [ mmmm, AHHH]. I’m AH-ing in the same kind of space as I was humming.

My teeth are apart. My cheeks are a little, my cheeks are relaxed, my mouth is in as much of an oval shape as it can be, and the tip of my tongue is against my lightly, against my bottom teeth. And I’m just making an ah sound. AH, and you can do the other vowels, ee, oh, ooh, eh, ah, öh. There’s a variety for you to try out.

And then the next thing along the sound making continuum would be adding in other phonemes would be adding in consonants. So, [la, la, la, la, la]. For example, sticking an L at the beginning of everything, or da, da, da, wee, wee, wee, a little W kind of sound, wee, wee, wee, uh, zoo, zoo, zoo, things like that.

I break it down like this because what singing actually is, is producing a series of phonemes, a series of sound parts. So a vowel is a phoneme, vowel sound, and a consonant is a phoneme.

So we try to make those sounds, those various sounds in the right order so that they can get assembled into words and phrases and maybe even sentences in the mind of the person who’s listening to us sing.

It’s really helpful to not think about words, especially if you’ve been stuck, but to think about sounds. What kind of sounds do you want to be making?

And so if you’re looking for a thing to practice, a way in. You know, you’re stuck, you think you should be practicing, you don’t know what to practice or how to practice exactly, and you’re spending money on voice lessons and like, is it all going to waste because you won’t practice…

When you have that train running in your head, you can take a song, if you have one, that you’re interested in singing, or that you’d like to learn, something that’s interesting to you. It can be something your teacher’s told you to do, or just something that you like. It really doesn’t matter. So you have some kind of a song, and pick, I would say, either a hum or a vowel, and just make noises. Just make sounds on the melody, for example.

So if you have, right now it’s the end of the year, there are all kinds of Christmas songs, holiday songs. If we take Deck the Hall, it’s a nice descending scale, [da da da da da da da da da]. And just hum that, maybe [mmmm].

Finding that as a way in, being more interested in how it feels and how it, what it’s like to be making sound rather than judging whether it’s any good, whether it sounds like the final product is supposed to sound. Take all the goals off of it and let your attention be just making sound. I’m just gonna make sound.

I guess another title, for this section of How to Get Over Being Stuck might be Lower Your Expectations. Look at a hum. Look at a vowel. You can alternate vowels. So I just da, da, da-ed. But you can also wee oh, wee oh, wee oh, wee oh. I’m just alternating vowels. That also works. It’s, it’s great for your brain.

When you’re humming, before I move on to other things, well, when you’re doing any of this, but particularly when you’re humming, try not to make extra H’s. By which I mean, try not to hum like this [mm mm mm mm mm] Where you’re trying to make every note distinct. Much better is to hum like this [mmmmmm].

It may feel really loosey goosey. It may feel like you’re not sure you’re singing the right notes. That’s fine. It may feel even scary to do that, and you may have to slow things way, way down to connect one note to another in a sliding kind of way.

You may have to go [mmmmm] like that, and just feel what that’s like in your body. If you spend only a minute, only two minutes, paying attention to that – humming in a really slidey, soupy, super connected way – that is excellent practice. You can give yourself a gold star for having practiced if you do just that.

So thinking about the song you’re learning and how to play with it, either in a humming way, in a singing-only-vowels kind of way, in a singing quote unquote “nonsense syllable” kind of way, that may help get you unstuck. It may turn it more into a game or it might give you a more playful way in to the project than you had before.

A third kind of stuck comes when there’s an emotional roadblock of some kind. You’re not able to sing or work on the speech because it makes you cry. You’re aware that you’re not doing the thing because you’re avoiding feeling something.

A lot of times it’s sadness or grief. Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes it’s just hard to sit down and focus on something. Your attention is being pulled in some other kind of direction, and it doesn’t really have to do with the singing or the speaking so much. It doesn’t have to do with the project, but something else that’s pulling your attention.

Again, it’s worth saying grief is normal. Feelings are normal. Feelings happen. Distractions happen. It doesn’t mean necessarily that anything’s gone wrong.

And if you’re feeling compelled to move through it, a good way to deal with that is to try to name the thing that is up for you, and to pour it a cup of tea, and to sit down with it, and say, “Hey, sadness, what do you have to tell me?”

Engage in an inner dialogue, but I do recommend that you write down what sadness has to tell you, and see if you can get, get some more information about what’s happening, about what’s distracting you, about what’s putting up a roadblock, about what the feelings are about.

I find that going for a walk is really, really useful. When I feel stuck and I’m not practicing or I’m not, like I’m not working on the thing I need to work on, going out for a walk, and just asking, “What are all the things that are around this resistance I’m having?”

Being physically in motion helps those ideas, those feelings come to the surface in a way that, so that at least I can acknowledge them. At least now I learn that they’re there.

Before I go for a walk, before I do anything to engage the part that’s stuck, it’s just in my consciousness, like, like a deep, dark fog, or something that’s fuzzy and fuzzy and ambiguous, not necessarily, not necessarily black, but like there’s no light. It’s like a dark spot. It’s like a blind spot in the car that I can’t see around.

But once I get my body moving, once I get some open hearted, compassionate questions going, it can move, it can reveal itself, and I at least feel clearer about what’s going on. And often by the end of the walk, I’m ready to work on the piece of music that I need to work on. I’m ready to do something about it, something on it.

And how I work on things is very much like I just described with humming, singing on single vowels, writing down all the words. Writing the lyrics out like a poem, like you’d find them online maybe, or in liner notes. But then also writing the words out, if the piece lends itself, in sentences.

So taking out the line breaks and just looking for the sentences. And so I’m not vocalizing at all, but I am working. I’m integrating part of the song into my brain and body in a different way. And that’s progress. That indeed is progress.

Sometimes we get stuck. We notice we feel stuck. And then when we think back, when I think back, “Okay, when was the last time I really let myself just make all kinds of sounds? And when was the last time I just sang full out, didn’t care what anybody thought? When was the last time I did this and I, I didn’t care about the outcome?”

Like the kind of singing you do when you’re in the shower, when you’re in the car, when you’re doing dishes, when maybe people are listening, but you don’t really care, or if they are listening, you hope they’re stunned. You know, when there’s a little bit of chutzpah about you.

When was the last time that happened, you know? And it may be a while. But, when did it happen? Where were you when that happened? Were you in the shower? Were you in the car? Were you doing dishes? Were you on a walk? Were you in the woods? Were you at the ocean? Where were you? And can you transport yourself back there, literally or in your imagination, and be there again?

Sometime when you’re not stuck, a really good habit to develop is to notice when things are going really well, when you feel good, when it’s just good, it’s just like you’d imagined, whatever it is that you’re doing.

You could be baking bread – doesn’t have to be using your voice at all. But when you’re doing a thing and it’s going really well, notice how you feel in your body try to memorize that feeling.

Look around. What’s the color of the walls? What time of day is it? What are you wearing? Who else is with you? What else is going on? Is the window open? Can you hear birds outside? Are you listening to a particular kind of music? Or talk radio? Or a podcast?

When things are going really well, try to memorize what that feels like, and, if you’ve watched Sherlock, put it in your “mind palace.” File it away, in your mind, in your heart, for when things feel a little off, for when things just feel meh, so that you can call back that collection of sensations in your body, that collection of thoughts, that collection of behaviors that were really good. So that you can try them again.

If you did it once, you can do it again. This is the whole premise of motor learning, right? – which basically, singing and using your voice is. It’s a motor skill. So, if you got it right once, you can get it right again. And it’s so good when we can remember how we got it right before. It saves us time. It saves us time.

You may be stuck because you’re working on something that is now boring you to death. Or you’re just irritated with, you just don’t like it anymore, and you haven’t noticed. So this is kind of related to the first question, like maybe you need a break? Maybe you need to do something totally different.

This is when it’s handy to have a list on paper, in a note or a playlist in an app, of songs that are comfort songs. Songs you just love to sing, it doesn’t matter, you know, you just, you love them, you’re great at them, or not, but they just feed your soul. Just sing comfort songs.

Sing them however you want, like well or not, you know? If you’re taking voice lessons and you’re working on a new kind of technique and you’re trying to change this or tweak that or whatever, this lady on the internet is giving you permission to put that to the side if you’re stuck. If you’re stuck, put that to the side and just, just sing. Sing some songs that make you happy.

One of the things that we forget, I think, is we need companionship. We need other people. And if you’re stuck, another way out of your stuckness may be to find a friend, to find a companion, to talk to your voice teacher if you have one, and say, hey, I’m feeling, you know, talk about how you’re feeling.

And if you’re in a teaching learning relationship with a person and you feel like you can’t say that, that’s a problem. That’s a problem. May you have teachers you can be real and honest with, and not punished for just being a person.

Getting stuck is part of being a person. Being in a funk – part of being a person. The more yourself, the more real you can be with your teachers, the faster progress I believe you’ll make.

So, kinds of companionship: a friend to sing with, a friend to go to karaoke with, a friend to just invite over and, hey, let’s make dinner and sing, along to the radio, along to the stereo, you bring your guitar, I’ll play the mandolin.

Let’s just make some sounds. Let’s just have fun.

But inviting somebody else in to have fun can get you unstuck in the fastest and most glorious of ways, because you’ll probably crack each other up. You’ll probably end up maybe even laughing more than you sing, and that itself is therapeutic.

I have students whose cats love their singing and whose cats hate their singing. So, I don’t have any students right now with dogs who have opinions about their singing. But, you know, partnering with a pet, partnering with a teacher.

Even just going to an open mic, not intending to sing, but just going to an open mic and listening, being in an audience, and partnering with a performer. Being open to what it is they’re offering, opening your heart, opening your ears.

Being a good audience member is a way to partner and to help you yourself get unstuck. Because you’ll probably hear something you like. And something you think you could do better. And something that really blows your mind. Like, oh, you’d love to be able to do that.

You can come home from experiences like that inspired and renewed, and able to move on with your own stuff.

Things that are like open mics: any other public performance, uh, school plays, school concerts, kids busking in front of grocery stores, anybody busking, people at the farmer’s market, any street musician anywhere.

You can foster your own creativity by intentionally opening to the creative offerings of others. Rather than rushing by, just slowing down, listening, appreciating creativity where you find it, looking for it in other people. I find it a great way to get unstuck.

You might also be needing a treat. You might need a carrot. Sometimes we try to motivate ourselves with sticks. The fear of public humiliation is a great one. Deadlines are a big one, right?

That can inspire a person to work. I don’t know if that inspires us to get unstuck, but it certainly can inspire some kind of productivity, whether it’s the most joyful kind of productivity, I’m not so sure.

But if you are stuck, ask yourself, do you need a treat? Do you need, okay, I’m going to spend five minutes working on this thing, and then I get a treat. Maybe the treat is getting to listen to a favorite song. Maybe the treat is a piece of chocolate. Whatever. You decide your own treats. And, you know, what you need to do to deserve them.

I think, honestly, five minutes of attention paid to how you’re using your voice or learning a bit of a song, that’s enough to deserve a reward. You don’t have to put in four hours. Even two, right?

Changing the voice, working with the voice, happens best in small little bits. So ask yourself, do you need a treat?

And one final thing I’ll say, although it feels like a whole other can of worms, that, I guess may turn into a longer episode at some point.

When we’re stuck, it’s because we’re in some way, not being true to ourselves, true to what we value, true to the person we really want to become. And that can be painful. Uh, that can feel really awkward and really terrible.

An exercise you might try if you suspect that this is what’s going on, that you’re stuck in some kind of existential way, is to make a list of what everyone else thinks about what you’re doing, or what you’re wanting to do.

Just take an inventory of all the voices in your head, from things that real people have said to you and things that you think that they would say to you, what your fifth grade teacher would think about what you’re doing, what the high school counselor would think about what you’re doing or trying to do.

Just make a list of everybody else’s opinion, so that you can have it in front of you, and separate it from your own opinion. Just to put some distance between what you think and what you think everybody else thinks. And notice how different those things may be. Notice how much you may, how much attention you may have been paying to what other people think and not to what you think.

So after you write down, you know, everybody else’s opinion about what you’re doing, what everybody else thinks of your life, your choices, your job, the state of your home, make a list of what you think about that.

What do you think about this project? What do you think about your voice? What do you think about the song? What do you think about your job? What do you think about your vacation plans? What do you think about it? Just you.

And how does it relate? so the project that you’re stuck with, stuck on, how does your singing, how does your speaking relate to the person you want to become?

Is it that you want more creativity in your life, and this is a way to express your creativity? Do you want more connection in your life, and this is a way to connect more authentically with other people?

Do you want to feel more artistic?

Do you want to feel more compassionate? The option is available to you to learn more self compassion anytime you learn how to do anything new, or anything even slightly differently.

Do you want more clarity in your life? Do you want to be clearer about who you are and why you’re here, and does working on your voice feed that in some way?

Are you curious about the kind of life you might have if your voice was different, or if you sang more, or if you gave that speech, or if you  whatever? Do you still have some curiosity about it?

Or maybe you’re interested in this project because you just want to feel your capacities expand. You want to feel like you can do more. You’re intentionally trying to stretch yourself and you just forgot that for a moment.

“Oh, right. I’m doing this because it’s a stretch. Right.” So you’re not actually stuck. You’re just, you forgot that it was gonna be a little hard. That it was going to be a stretch.

So sitting with yourself and your values, reminding yourself of your, the deeper reasons why you thought this was a good idea in the first place – that can really help you get unstuck.

And it can reveal to you that maybe the thing that you’re stuck about isn’t for you right now. It’s something to put on a back burner or it’s something you’ve grown beyond. It’s, it’s not for you anymore. You hadn’t noticed that you changed. It’s good to stop and take stock and notice is that, or is this thing on my plate, do I still want it on my plate?

So I hope this is helpful. I can vouch that parts of this conversation were useful for students of mine in recent days. I would love to hear if it’s helpful for you too, or how you think about stuck when you’re stuck, and how, what are your solutions? I don’t pretend to have listed them all here.

I hope if you’re hearing this when it’s released that you’re having a wonderful, easy end to 2023. Thank you so much for listening.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com.

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com.

Transcripts and show notes are available on my website. You can subscribe to my newsletter there, too. Can’t Wait to Hear You is produced in conjunction with Particulate Media. I’m your host, Michèle Voillequé. I can’t wait to hear you.

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