All singers, whether you are a professional, hobbyist, or volunteer, will encounter times when creating music just won’t come easily for various reasons. The most obvious reason will be because of an emotional event that has happened to us or someone we know. This has happened a few times for me when asked to sing at funerals or weddings (yes, weddings – a happy event, but one filled with high expectations!).
The most challenging time was when I was asked to sing at the funeral of a woman I had known at church for many years. She was an amazing lady who struggled with health issues all of her life, but was as sharp as a tack and lived her life with wit, humour, and determination. When her family asked that I and another person sing at her funeral, I knew that of course I had to do it, even though my guts were churning. You see, that was the first time I had to sing at a funeral – ever.
So what do you do if others appreciate the gift of your voice and service – and that is a lovely thing – but you are then asked to sing at momentous life occasions and find that you either just don’t feel up to it if you are too emotional, or you don’t feel good enough to do it? This is when perfectionism and raw feelings can erupt for a singer.
Let’s take a closer look at funerals, as I believe that this is the most challenging time for singers. Before I sang at my church friend’s funeral, I spent days agonizing over whether I really could do it. I knew that I would be upset. I knew that I didn’t want to refuse the family, but I also did not want to wreck it by crying, freezing, or being too nervous. I knew that I wanted to be able to get through the hymns without cracking up. Our voices are very delicate, and they are definitely affected by our bodies, temperament, mind, and feelings. Every nuance, sentiment, and intention while you sing a song can be heard through an amplified sound system.
So others spent time convincing me that I had to do it because the family was expecting it, and I could not let these poor people down in their time of grief. I also remembered my friend commenting positively about our singing, so she would be disappointed if I said no. I knew that I would also regret it for the rest of my life (no pressure, right?). So of course I had to do it. Being the analytical geek that I am, I consulted Google to see how others handled singing at funerals and found some useful solutions:
- Don’t look at the coffin while you are singing.
- Remember the person as they were and focus on positive things about them eg. their smile, etc.
- Focus on an inanimate object at the church.
- Go into detached mode eg. ‘I’m doing this as a service’ or some paid musicians might say ‘I’m doing this as a professional job’. (This sounded cold to me, but sometimes you just have to do whatever feels best to relax).
- Sing in honour of the person who died, as your gift to them.
- Remember that the person is with God.
- Focus on the music and the lyrics, not on anyone or anything else.
And so on. All good suggestions.
Just a few days before the funeral, I was praying in my backyard on a warm spring day and asked the lady who died that if she would give me a sign that God would give me the strength to sing at her funeral, then I would go. The sign I asked for was that a large orange butterfly with coloured dots on it would to come into the yard and fly around (I know, I know, I shouldn’t test God like this but I was still worrying and trying to decide…).
Almost immediately, a large orange butterfly with coloured dots came into the yard – no kidding. I caught my breath. It flew around the trees and looked stunning against the bright blue sky in the sun. Its gorgeous wings spread out as it floated freely. I had never seen anything like it before. Coincidence? Maybe, but I didn’t think so. I felt a sense of relaxation overcome me.
Arriving at the church a few days later, I glanced at the coffin in front of the sanctuary. Feeling like my chest was tied up in knots, I stood in my familiar singer’s spot and immediately switched into ‘musician mode’. I exchanged brief words with others who also knew this lovely lady but then focused on the hymns to be sung, checked over my sheet music, set up the microphones, spoke with the accompanist, and warmed up with a few deep breaths.
Did I feel emotional? Absolutely. Did I feel like crying? Oh goodness, yes. But I knew that I was prepared as always due to my personal practice times and trusted, deep down, that I could do it. I knew the hymns backwards. Sometimes, you just have to dive in. I fixed my eyes on one of the organ’s wooden ornaments and got into it. Did some of my high notes wobble with emotion when singing her favourite requested hymn at the end? Yes. Even now, years later, I still think of her whenever I sing that hymn. But I am so glad that I did it and would have regretted it if I had not. The family were appreciative, but more importantly, I will remember that as I was singing that final hymn, I made myself watch her coffin leave the church doors and said a silent goodbye.
Sometimes as musicians, and especially as vocalists, there will be times when you just can’t ‘get out of’ a singing occasion, even if you might dread it or be avoiding it due to high emotion, pressure, or whatever makes you fear or doubt yourself and your abilities. But, you see, it is precisely at these times that the beauty of music is needed – and your voice especially – because people want to remember those occasions the most. The funerals, weddings, celebrations, and most beautiful Masses we treasure throughout the liturgical year. Music makes all the difference. The words you sing have the power to move people’s hearts more than ever. They need your courage.
What if you are going through a deeply personal crisis or emotional event in your own life, but you still need to show up to maintain a regular singing service? Or what if you wake up that day and realise that you are too upset or depressed to sing? What if your joy has disappeared? It depends on the circumstance.
If it is a personal tragedy you absolutely need to stop and take a break. Your soul, mind, health, and overall wellbeing will be affected and if you push ahead it will absolutely affect your singing. Singing won’t matter in those moments. But if you are facing a situation which is not so drastic, and you are able to sing, you may find that the music will help you along and heal you. It is entirely up to you.
I have found that if I am in physical pain, again depending on what it is, then I won’t sing. If I don’t feel right mentally or emotionally, the music and singing always lifts me out of any funk that I find myself in. The key is that you must look after yourself because, yes, that old saying is true – you are your instrument.
Singing is such an emotional activity. It is so deeply intertwined with our souls, mindsets, bodies, and our very existence. If you love how music makes you feel, you will know what I mean. If you find yourself knowing one day that you just cannot sing because you do not feel like it, be kind to yourself and make a decision that is best for you.
Music is like the waves of the ocean – it can wash over you, it can soothe you, it can drown you, or it can carry you along and transport you to amazing places in your life. It is mesmerizing and will always call you back when you are ready.
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