The power of a person’s will; control exerted to do something demanding or to restrain one’s impulses.
—Oxford English Dictionary
Happy New Year, readers!
This morning I kicked off 2023 with an hour or so of stretching and self-myofascial release. As I focused my awareness on where I was feeling tight and considered how it might feel good to move, I began to feel deeply grateful—not only for the fitness and anatomy background that enables me to care for myself in this particular way, but also for the fact that I genuinely want to. Exercise isn’t something I have to make myself do—it’s a luxury that has become a daily indulgence.
It wasn’t always like this for me. Growing up, gym class was an ongoing source of trauma, compounded by the bullying I endured for being “chubby” and uncoordinated. By my mid teens I decided I’d had enough. I started living on iceberg lettuce and cottage cheese and performing as many sit-ups as I could manage every day. I exerted my will over myself in order to engage in exercises I found unpleasant and to restrain the impulse to consume more than 900 calories a day. Whenever my willpower was insufficient to override my impulses, I ended up binging on whatever food I could get my hands on and vomiting it up again, while feeling deep shame and self-loathing for my lack of willpower.
On this New Year’s Day, I am reflecting on what it took for me to go from an insecure teenager with an eating disorder to becoming the wellness advocate I am now. I am also considering why so many of us become so disconnected from our own physical needs and impulses that we force ourselves to override them, engage in self-destructive behavior, and call this process “Willpower.”
I believe that on some level, we always know how we want to move. We know what to eat in order to fuel our movements and facilitate our various metabolic needs. But we learn to mistrust and override the feedback our bodies use to communicate that information to us, in order to engage in behavior that we hope will win us status and the approval of our peers.
This mistrust isn’t the fault of any single institution—it’s the way our culture has evolved. But it is easy to see how spectacularly certain institutions benefit when we trust their messaging in preference to our own impulses. We think we don’t know how to move, so we pay fitness experts (i.e. the fitness industry) to tell us. We think we don’t know how to eat, so we pay nutrition experts (i.e. the diet industry) to tell us. We find it very challenging to develop adequate willpower to stick to the regimens they sell us, so we develop shame and self-loathing. We think our lack of willpower signifies a psychological weakness or pathology, so we pay mental health experts (i.e. the coaching industry) to tell us why our willpower is so crappy and how to bolster it.
I’m not saying that there are no ethical fitness, nutrition, or mental health experts we can turn to when we need them. I am saying that the ethical ones are fewer and much harder to find, within the context of a culture that makes it so profitable to market to our learned insecurities and self-loathing around the way we look, move, eat, and feel. This learned self-mistrust makes us vulnerable to their marketing while also making it increasingly difficult to tune into our own genuine impulses and desires.
I’m a voice teacher and a fitness trainer. There is a lot of overlap among the skill sets that I teach. Both involve teaching sequences of physical movements designed to instill and strengthen patterns of coordination. Meaningful progress at both will require the student’s enthusiasm for practicing and reinforcing those movements in between our sessions.
Enthusiasm for practice. Not willpower.
I have always loved to practice music. I am fortunate, in that I enjoy both exploring expressive phrasing and woodshedding my technical skills. But my internal motivation for practice contrasts sharply with the motivation that the external culture and many of my teachers sought to impose upon me.
I remember how, week after week, my first clarinet teacher would have me perform whatever étude he had assigned me, shake his head, and mutter, “This still needs a lotta lotta lotta lotta work.” That was practically his entire pedagogy. The message: My motivation for practice is to minimize the number of “lotta’s” in his expression of disappointment.
I remember the weekly “challenges” at my summer music camp, in which the clarinetists would seek to “beat each other out” and vie for a higher position within the section, by demonstrating the technical skill to perform a challenging passage better than their peers. The message: My motivation for practice is to triumph over my peers and avoid the humiliation of having them triumph over me.
None of this bothered me all that much, because I found practicing rewarding in and of itself, and the instruction I was receiving supported my practice well enough that I continued to improve at a satisfying pace. It was only when I took up singing that toxic forms of external motivation began to seriously mess with my love of practice.
I remember a series of voice teachers whose entire teaching consisted of having singers perform the same exercises they themselves had performed as students, with no explanation as to how this would help us improve. This approach to vocal pedagogy is known as Survivorship Bias: “This worked for me, so it will also work for you.” But it didn’t work for all of us. Some seemed to get better, while others did not—and still others got worse.
I was one of the ones that got progressively worse.
The more I practiced these exercises, the more entangled my throat became, and the more fiercely I pushed against my tight throat with my breath. Raise your hands if you’ve had a similar experience—I see you. In retrospect, it really feels like I should have known that this wasn’t working. I should have known that not only were these exercises failing to help me improve, they were also harming my voice and making it increasingly difficult to express myself musically. For me to have seen that, however, would have required the ability to trust my own body and my own experiences more than I trusted my voice teachers. For a very long time, I remained in thrall to the conditioned belief that all I needed was sufficient willpower to override the resistance in my body and the tension in my throat.
But as my vocal resources diminished, so did my joy in singing and my love of practice. Inevitably, I had to start trusting the copious feedback I was getting from my own body more than the advice I was getting from my teachers.
Many of you know what happens when you question the wisdom of a voice teacher who trades on Survivorship Bias. Usually the first thing is, they take it personally and excoriate you for your shitty attitude. If that is insufficient motivation to get you to pipe down and resume your unquestioning obedience, eventually you get the lecture about how hard they tried on your behalf, and how disappointing it is to conclude that you just don’t have the aptitude to become a great singer. The message: You have insufficient motivation, because had you truly applied yourself, you would have achieved the desired results.
Well, I knew that message was a lie. I knew how much I loved to practice, when what I was practicing made sense. I knew that my love of musical expression was the greatest source of motivation I have ever experienced. I started listening to the feedback I was getting from my own body, and found a teacher whose pedagogy went beyond delivering a lot of lotta’s. Eventually, I developed a pedagogical approach that centers the way each individual singer likes to move, breathe, explore their voices, and express their musicianship.
I do not believe that the power of your will is expressed by your ability to exert control over yourself in order to do something demanding or to restrain your own impulses.
The power of your will is expressed through your ability to notice when you are being exhorted to do something that makes no sense and/or runs counter to your own interests, and to choose to follow your own desires and instincts instead. The power of your will is expressed through your ability to notice when the emperor has no clothes, and to loudly proclaim that truth. The power of your will is expressed through your ability to transcend your cultural conditioning so that you can move, feel, love, eat, and express yourself however the hell you want to, motivated by the wisdom of your own mind and body.
So for 2023, I invite you to dispense with old, toxic notions of willpower that have to do with exerting control over yourself and restraining your impulses in variously unpleasant ways. Resolve instead to get better at tuning in to your deepest desires and most creative impulses, and then follow them.
It’s not as easy as I wish it were. We’re all so addicted to this idea of willpower that whenever I propose a shift of this nature I get responses that go something like, “If all I do is listen to my own desires and impulses, I will do nothing but lie on the couch eating pizza.” But you won’t.
I mean, you might, for a week or two, while you recover from a lifetime of forcing yourself to do all the things. But if it’s truly your aim to align yourself with your true desires and impulses, you will find that they begin to surface in ways that motivate you to get up off the couch, move your body, express a curiosity, and discover what makes you feel most alive, engaged, connected, and expressive.
May this be the year that your will expresses itself more powerfully and authentically than ever before.
If you’d like to center your own singing practice around the ways you like to move, breathe, explore your voice, and express your musicianship, here are the various ways that I can help.