Why is it so hard to say "no?" Is it our sense of obligation or our sense of guilt that prevents us from often giving the answer that is actually best for us? Are we afraid we'll miss out on an amazing experience if we turn it down? As a performer, I have a hard time saying "no" to a potential performance. As a teacher, it's even harder to say "no" to a student in need. However, as educators and as performers, we often give advice to burgeoning artists that they need to learn how to "advocate" for themselves. I often find myself encouraging a young artist to say "no" to opportunities that may not be in their best interest. So why is it so difficult? Why do we feel we are being selfish when we're trying to promote self care with regards to our craft? I think it's different for everyone, but the bottom line is that we need to give ourselves permission to advocate for ourselves.
One shining example of this act, and society's reception of it, came over the July 4th weekend from Tony award-winner, Ben Platt. He is the star of the runaway Broadway hit, "Dear Evan Hansen," and has received critical acclaim for his emotionally charged, consistently technical performance as the lead character. He has often commented in interviews about how physically and emotionally taxing his role is to perform 6-8 shows a week. So, he took umbrage when some fans used Twitter to complain that he failed to show up at the stage door after the show to sign autographs. His heartfelt and honest response has been causing a buzz on Broadway chat pages:
Back in 1998, I was starting my first year as a Music Education major at Western Michigan University. I had just finished 3 years going to school, touring, recording, and performing with a semi-professional 6-voice Vocal Jazz group run by the legendary Phil Mattson. Little did I know that after touring for 2 weeks with strep throat and then immediately going into the studio to record, I was really hurting my voice. I had been studying classical technique since the age of 16 and still, I ended up with a heartbreaking and terrifying diagnosis - vocal nodules. I knew how to sing properly but necessity and my fear of letting anyone down caused me to tweak my technique and press on, when I should have stopped. I didn't know how to say "no" and I didn't know how much damage I was causing. If I'd known then what Ben Platt already knows at the age of 23, I might have avoided nodules. But, that experience has made me the singer I am today and has shaped my teaching. At least, I can try to help other students avoid the same perils I didn't avoid.
Fortunately for me, I was in the right place at the right time. The faculty at the School of Music at Western Michigan University was kind, nurturing and understanding of my situation and did all they could to help and support me while I healed. I also had access to one of the few Speech Pathology and Audiology programs in the country, during that time, at Western Michigan University. Seven weeks of complete vocal rest/silence; 3 months of vocal/speech therapy to retrain my voice and I slowly recovered. My voice teachers were knowledgeable and didn't make me feel like I was a "bad person" for doing this to myself. My amazing teachers (Linda Trotter-Heger, Grace Mannion, Diana Spradling and Dr. Karen Wicklund) gave me the necessary tools to not only recover but also taught me how to be better at self care when it came to my voice. These lessons are still a part of my daily routine whether I'm doing a show, rehearsing or just keeping my voice in shape. This is a lifelong journey of self care when you choose to use your body as your instrument. I am still learning about ways to more effectively use my voice in a healthy way. The best teachers never stop learning. The journey doesn't end. Remember that and take care of your instrument....you. If taking care of your voice means that you're sometimes a little selfish, then go ahead and be a little selfish.
Ellen Winters is a professional singer and voice teacher living in the Milwaukee area and working in both Milwaukee and Chicago. Ellen has been Adjunct Music Faculty and a Private Voice Instructor at Columbia College Chicago since January of 2007. She works as a jazz, pop and cabaret singer throughout the country and also works as a Guest Artist and Clinician for vocal festivals and camps. She has also been on faculty at the Waukesha County Conservatory of Music (Hartland Music) since August of 2006 and has taught more than 100 private voice students in all genres.