The “3 Good Things” Hack

The “3 Good Things” Hack

The “3 Good Things” Hack

When I first starting vocal coaching in the theatre realm, I suppose my assumption was that my job would be 95% technician and 5% pleasant interaction...

These performers had already made it to the West End stage, so I blithely assumed that they would just need a little support finding their way around tricky parts of the score and maintaining their voices.  It very quickly became apparent that I was wrong.  Time after time, I found that my coaching sessions were dominated by discussions about self-confidence, performance anxiety and mental resilience, and that only when those topics had been aired could my students successfully apply the techniques we were developing.  It went deeper than that though: only after those topics had been explored could my students give themselves permission to sing.

I can’t emphasise enough how crucial permission to sing is to a performer.  Without it there is always a brake on the performance, a sense of holding back.  It appears to affect learning too, without that fundamental acceptance that you are allowed to be doing what you’re doing, the brain seems less able to engage in the acquisition of skills, and experiencing a joyful performance is just a pipe dream.

I believe there’s a fundamental problem with how we train performers.  Learning, right from an early age, is focussed on the identification of weaknesses and then the relentless pursuit of rectifying those weaknesses.  It implies the notion that there is a state of technical perfection which can be achieved.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t help our students to improve, but it seems from my experience and the testimony of those I have taught, that in seeking that improvement it is all too easy to give the impression that the student’s strengths are irrelevant.  The result is a performer who doesn’t acknowledge or even understand their strengths and is unable to evaluate their own performances without focussing on the weakest elements.  We’re not teaching students how to form a balanced evaluation of their performance, so that they can build and maintain their self-esteem in order to give themselves permission to go ahead and sing.

I run a performance workshop called Secret Sing.  The idea is a sort of vocal Fight Club; what you see and hear in the room stays in the room.  Every performer at the workshop has to tell me Three Good Things at the end of their performance, and I am constantly reminded of how important this aspect of teaching is when I see them search frantically for something they feel they can compliment (some stand frozen on the spot looking for all the world as if they would prefer to have teeth removed than compliment their own performance).  So we start with the basics.  Performing, as we all know, is a high level plate-spinning endeavour.  There are so many plates to keep your eye on; pitch, rhythm, timing, ensemble, choreography, blocking, intention, story telling… and that’s before you’ve considered that you’re on stage with other humans who are spinning their own plates and whose cues and offers you need to reciprocate.  As we train and develop our skills it’s easy to forget how many you’ve already developed which have become like motor skills that your brain processes and deals with without you consciously making decisions in real time.  Secret Sing performers have to learn how to go back to basics and acknowledge the work their brain was doing in the background, processing pitch, rhythm, articulation, phrasing, lyrics, meaning and so much more.  They learn to value those skills as being every bit as important as the technique required to deliver the big belt note, or the detailed cadenza.  After all, an impressive voice is nothing if you can’t deliver the melody!  It’s hard for them at first; that relentless pursuit of what is essentially perfection that I mentioned before prevents them being able to see past the gaps they perceive in their skills.  Week by week though they also acquire the skill of truthfully evaluating their performance, for the good and the not-so-good.  As they strengthen the skill I watch their confidence improve, and with the confidence comes a new ease with standing up and sharing their skills.  With confidence comes permission to sing.

Building this skill also allows the performer to start to change their mental script.  Invariably the script reads something like “don’t forget the words” or “don’t make that awful noise on that note” or “don’t crack the belt note”, and guess what happens?  If I ask you to not think of a grey elephant from Denmark, I’m pretty sure you’re immediately going to have the image of a grey elephant from Denmark which you’re frantically trying to scrub from your mind’s eye. The same happens with performance; a mental script which includes the word “don’t” is more likely to reinforce the bad habit than to eliminate it.  Three Good Things allows the performer to focus on their strengths, and by doing so they are able to capitalise on those strengths and come much closer to the performance they truly want to give.

For teachers and coaches like me, asking our student to name Three Good Things is an opportunity for us to understand what is important to them.  We can always find things to improve, can’t we?  That’s our job!  But what we see as pressing and what the student perceives as pressing can be miles apart.  When you ask for Three Good Things, you’re invariably given so much more information, and you can then tailor your coaching to fit what’s important to you both.  You’re also opening the door to a potentially crucial conversation that might just free your student to do their best work.

It seems like such a simple trick, a gimmick thrown around in the pursuit of mindfulness, that it’s hard to believe such fundamental changes could occur just from naming Three Good Things.  I promise you though, for the performer Three Good Things can change everything, and for the teacher you’ll watch your student flourish.  There’s nothing better than that is there?

Claire Underwood

Claire Underwood

Vocal and Performance Coach for West End Theatre and the TV & Film Industry

Claire's Website

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