Why Singers Need to Burn their Boats

Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli by Edward Moran

“Hang on a tick! What have boats got to do with singing?” I hear you cry. Well, let’s just ignore the entire history of sea shanties, side-step my love of the sea in general and glorious old sailing ships in particular, and skip straight to the metaphor! Where does that expression come from, “burn the boats”? It derives from an old tale of a 16th-Century Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who overthrew the Aztec Empire and conquered Mexico as a prize for Spain. On landing in Mexico, he ordered all of his ships burned, except for one which he sent back to Spain. This meant that he and his men had no choice but to do what they went there for, and conquer the country. There was no escape route, no Plan B, nothing to fall back on. (And yes, they succeeded).

All too often, we put things off in life. We swerve the things that make us uncomfortable. We love the easy route, and we conveniently forget that growth is what happens just outside of the comfort zone. Singers do this all the time: they play it safe, they stick with the familiar, and crucially, they practise what they already know, because it makes them feel good.

Developing new skills or correcting faults takes commitment, time, effort, and no small amount of courage. So we don’t do it. We know that the ships are right there, waiting to take us back to safety, so there’s no motivation to face the problem and deal with it.

I run a very large community choir, Voices Unlimited (otherwise known as The Mighty VU) and like most choirs in the Spring of 2020, we’re not able to rehearse because everyone’s under covid-19 lockdown rules, and large gatherings are forbidden for the time being. Like most other choir leaders, I’ve taken rehearsals online, and although we’re having a lot of fun it’s not the same, because the singers can’t hear each other (for the uninitiated, it’s not possible for two or more singers or musicians to be perfectly in sync with each other in an online rehearsal, because there’s always a small time delay). Everyone has to work with their mic muted so all they can hear is themselves and the track they’re singing over. So OK, it’s unavoidable, we can’t hear each other during rehearsal. Boo. We can’t hear how the new material is developing, or how it might sound once we’re all back together in a rehearsal room. It kinda sucks, but it’s all we’ve got. Or is it?

We had five new arrangements on the go just before lockdown. The singers were learning them but we hadn’t started rehearsing them yet. So a week ago, I put forward the idea that each member record their part of one of the new songs, send me the audio files, and then I’d mix them all together so that we can hear where it’s going. It’s not the same as being in the room but hey, we live in interesting times so we have to do things in “interesting” ways!

Now, to a professional musician, this is water off a duck’s back. Record a part and send it to you? Of course, no problem. But to 120 largely technophobic amateur singers who have never recorded themselves before, it’s a monumental task, and a scary one at that. “How do I record myself?” “What equipment do I need?” What if I sound bad?” OH MY GOD YOU’LL BE ABLE TO HEAR WHAT I SOUND LIKE!” All of these things and more were offered up as potential obstacles. But – reluctantly in some cases – they agreed to give it a go. “How long can we have to do it?” they asked. “A week”, I replied. More gasps of horror. But here’s the thing…

There was no option. I asked them to burn the boats, so they just had to get on with it. Burning the boats means you either have to face your enemy – the unknown, the challenging, the thing that takes you way out of your comfort zone – or give up without even trying and then feel like a failure.

The week isn’t up yet, there’s still 3 days to go. Some have already sent me their recordings. Others are working on them. Many have had a bit of a scrap with the technology, and struggled with having to confront their own voice, played back to them raw and exposed. It’s not been a comfortable journey so far, and it’s not over yet.

So what’s the benefit here? Why burn the boats? Why not play it safe and keep everyone happy? Life’s stressful enough at the moment, surely?

I’m willing to bet that every single one of those singers will be celebrating, this time next week (when I’ve finished mixing all those voices together)! Many of them will have learned several new skills. They’ll have battled with technology and defeated it – maybe even realised that it’s not as complicated as they thought. And they’ll each have done something very scary indeed: hearing your voice without any accompaniment, recorded “raw” and lacking any of the warmth that the mix brings, can be pretty anxiety-inducing even for top-class singers with years of recording experience. (Most people don’t like the sound of their own speaking voice when they hear it recorded. Multiply that by a million for the singing voice)! But when they hear the final recording, it will remind them of how they sound when they’re all together, and they’ll know for sure that they made a meaningful contribution to that amazing sound. They’ll have stepped out of their comfort zone and found it wasn’t as scary as they thought. And they’ll have grown considerably in confidence, whether they know it or not, at first.

So, singers, what challenges have you been avoiding? What are you not quite getting around to, in terms of your vocal development? As the saying goes, if you keep doing the same old thing, you’ll keep getting the same old results. Force yourself out of your comfort zone. Try something that makes you just a little bit anxious. Burn the boats.

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