“Where am I Going, and Where Have I Been?”: What I Learned From Reviewing Six Years of Past Performances

I have compulsively taken audio recordings of every voice lesson I’ve had over the last four years, as well as recordings of most auditions and a handful of rehearsals. I’ve made it a habit and feel the strong need to be recording whenever I’m doing anything with my voice. Funny enough, I rarely end up listening back to these recordings– I’ve probably listened to less than a third of the entire library of recordings I’ve made with the app Voice Record Pro.

For fun I recently listened to some of the first recordings. These were from my freshman year of college, a time in which I was very insecure in my voice, and still very green in my vocal training overall. I was struck by the difference in those audios from the most recent ones! I was excited about the prospect of growth, and ended up mentioning the fact to my therapist. She was very excited with my discovery, and asked that I take it a step further.

Her assignment was to put together a “master recording” of as many notable recordings as I could find, from the earliest recording I had to the most recent possible.

I was somewhat wary of this assignment. When she had first suggested it I was just wrapping up a performance that for me was all about personal growth, and so I felt that I didn’t really need another reminder that I’ve grown. It took a bit of convincing, but finally I decided it was worth the elbow grease it would take to track down all the clips.

The project ended up being not only fun and meaningful from a therapeutic standpoint, but also very informative from a performance standpoint.

My first recording was from spring 2014– my sophomore year of high school. This was the first time I had a role that required singing. The second was from the next year’s musical, and the third from the next, which was my senior year in 2016. The next two recordings were from college recitals, one in fall of 2016 and one from December of 2017. After that, the clips were all from theatre-related events: an audition in February of 2018, rehearsals for a show in June 2019, a performance in January 2020, and an audition from February 2020. (At the time of writing, that audition was exactly a week ago.)

Obviously there was a lot of growth to be found among the six years of clips represented. Good as it felt to see this growth, and own the fact that I had worked really hard to get to the point I am now, this exercise was especially useful for determining where my weaknesses lie– weaknesses that might seem fleeting in the moment, but more glaring when viewing so many instances across so many years.

The most obvious thing I noticed was a consistent issue with intonation. In college a professor noted this to me, and I frequently felt the problem myself, so I had an inkling that this issue existed. Across these clips, it was very clear. The issue becomes less apparent after the first few clips, but I realize now that this is a long-term shortcoming I will need to address. Now that I’ve determined the problem, working out the solution is relatively easy– a topic I’ve written on before.

The exercise was also very useful for determining patterns of behavior and their effects on my performances.

For instance, in the clip from my senior year musical, my singing sounds very forced. I sound uncomfortable, and like I’m working really hard to sing. I remember feeling frustrated with my voice during that show. I had an image in mind of how I wanted the songs to sound, and I had a lot of trouble getting my voice to match up.

Fast forward from spring of 2016 to late 2019. In this clip, I also sound like I’m working really hard, and while I still think it sounds good, it’s also evident to me that I’m missing the mark I was aiming for. I was also frustrated with my voice during this show, and tried to fix my problems by singing louder or “bigger”, and instead made many problems worse. Now that I’ve recognized this tendency and seen firsthand how it does not really help, I’ll be aware of when I’m missing my mark in the future and have a better idea of what do to when that occurs.

As I mentioned, the project was also informative for the purposes of therapy. What I learned about myself, as it turns out, can also inform my performing as well.

A clip that I could not track down to add to this collection was from a college recital in Spring of 2017. I hate the recording, not so much for the quality of the performance (all things considered, the performance is just fine) but for the context around it. This was my last recital before I changed my major from music, when I was really feeling the attrition of being underprepared and behind in all my classes. I felt like an utter disappointment of a performer. I didn’t particularly like the song I was singing, and felt especially unprepared to perform it because it wasn’t a comfortable song for me.

This lost clip is, in some ways, similar to the February 2019 clip. In this audition recording, I’ve chosen a song I’m not particularly comfortable with and am feeling underprepared. I picked the song to try to match the tone of the show– A well-intentioned choice. Nerves are high, given I’m auditioning for a new director, so it seemed like a good idea. However, being unable to really manage this song as well as I’d like, this was a poor choice. Around this time, I’d joined an advanced choir at school, one that was really beyond the realm of my abilities, and was feeling insecure about my performing abilities in general.

Both of these clips can be directly compared to two others.

The lost spring 2017 clip is a far cry from the December 2017 clip. I love the December recording. This is my first non-major recital at college– performed soon after changing my major from music. My fall semester in my new major had gone great, and I’d made peace with my performance skills now that they were not subject to the scrutiny of the rigorous music program. I picked a song I liked for this recital, rather than one I didn’t like but chose due to feeling like I needed to prove something. This is still one of my absolute favorite recordings of my singing. I love the song, and love performing it, and you can hear it in my voice.

While tracking down this recording on Facebook, I noticed my voice lesson teacher at the time had commented to tell me how much more confident my voice sounded.

The February 2019 clip naturally corresponds with the February 2020 clip. These are two auditions at the same time of year, for the same director– except this time, I love the song I’m singing. I chose it because I knew I could do it well, and so I did. The director would specifically comment at the end of this audition that I had improved a lot, and that  my voice sounded very confident compared to the last audition.

The takeaway that my therapist and I explored, which applies to both my performing and personal lives, is this: I know what is best for me. 

When insecurities made me feel like I needed to prove something to the people around me, I fell flat. When I picked songs I had doubts about, I didn’t perform them well. In contrast, when I felt confident about my song choice, that confidence came through in my performance. When I trusted myself enough to rely on standbys instead of seeking risks to make statements, everything worked out well.

Knowing yourself and knowing what will be best for you is a crucial skill for all performers. While moving outside your comfort zone can be good, consistently operating outside your zone of optimal performance, especially in high-stakes situations like auditions or recitals, will be more damaging than beneficial. I found that the recordings I disliked the most were from times I generally felt down about my abilities. Taking repeated blows to your performer ego can only ever reduce your confidence, and reduce your performance as a result.

Performers: find what works for you. Find your “sweet spot,” and then trust yourself enough to stay in it. Aim for growth and improvement in everything you do, yes, but consider working on the bulk of this self-improvement in private rehearsal and personal voice lessons. Give yourself permission to play it a little safe in performance by preparing as fully as possible beforehand. Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is great– setting yourself up for failure is not.

I also highly recommend gathering recordings of yourself performing! You will learn far more than you think.

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