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English Language Article : priorities and the right to say no

It’s essential for each of us to set priorities - we all know this to be true and god knows Youtube is full of videos on how to do this, how to write to do lists and how to organise your life. However you do it, setting priorities becomes especially important if you feel that you’re blocked where your voice is concerned, or that you aren’t progressing.

So many singers that I work with tell me ‘I don’t have the time to work on my voice each day’ or ‘I really want to be more vocally proactive, but I’m always rushing from one place to the next’ - I’m sure many of us recognise ourselves in these phrases. My usual response is to suggest a slight vocabulary change - I ask the person to turn the sentence around so that instead of saying ‘I don’t have the time to (x)’ we say ‘(x) is not a priority for me’ - this little change seems so insignificant, but it really packs a sting because ‘I don’t have time to warm-up’ or ‘I don’t have time to do my steam inhalations in the morning’ gets turned into something like ‘My vocal health is not a priority for me’ - ouch! That’s a kick in the cricoid!

In truth, we all do have enough time - we have the same amount of time every day. Everyone - you, me, Beyoncé, even that UKIP git - gets 24 hours in a day. Then the next day again, and again until there’s no more time left. So it really doesn’t make any sense to say ‘I haven’t enough time to do it’ because that implies that we somehow have fewer hours in the day than everyone else - which manifestly isn’t true. What changes from one person to another is the way we choose to invest those 24 hours.

Whenever I start to go down this path, I always get quite a bit of resistance (that’s polite talk for ‘I get told to piss-off’...) because each person is convinced that whilst this is a logical argument and certainly true for everyone else - it isn’t true for them because ‘I’m just so busy!’ or ‘I have so much to do - I really don’t have a choice’. But - if you put aside your resistance for just a minute (see previous brackets) - you do. You do have a choice. Our priorities inform our choices - we choose to work because we have financial priorities (by that I mean that ‘not dying from lack of food’ and ‘not getting dragged howling from the house by bailiffs’ feature fairly prominently on our list of priorities), maybe we choose to be in a local play because we want to support our friend who is directing it - but no one is actually forcing us to do any of this and if one of our so-called ‘obligations’ ceases to be a priority for us, we can absolutely choose to say no (for example, if standing in your nightie in the street with your cheeks burning with shame whilst a hairy-armed brute tots up the value of your furniture isn’t a big deal for you, you can totally stop paying your rent...*). Now of course, for our basic needs (housing, food, gin...) it’s fairly unlikely that we’d ever stop prioritising them, but when it comes to freer, more leisurely things such as working on your voice, going to the cinema, learning to cook or binge-watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix (which I definitely did not do...) - we absolutely can - and should - choose.

I meet so many worn-out, heart-heavy singers who say to me ‘please help me - I’m getting so tired vocally and I really need my voice’ then follow up with ‘I haven’t much time to work on exercises and stuff, mind, because I’m in four groups, I teach singing at the weekend and three times a month I sing in a piano bar’. When you listen to these two phrases side by side, you really feel for the person (and maybe you recognise yourself a bit too) - it sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? All that running around sounds truly wearing (running in general terrifies me - I believe adults should only run if they have left a cake in a taxi - but that’s just me). Everyone will sympathise with this person, but everyone will also accept that it’s normal, that this is just how life is.  However, if we apply my vocabulary change rule, we end up with something along the lines of ‘I use my voice loads - in fact it’s how I avoid the cheek-burning bailiff incident, but I can’t take time to work on it because its longevity is not a priority for me’ - when we (brutally) phrase it like that, the absurdity of the notion becomes painfully apparent. Why then are there so many of us who say precisely that kind of thing?

I believe it is because we do not think in terms of priorities - at least, not frequently enough. We should define our priorities clearly and before choosing to do something (there’s that word again - choose...) we should ask ourselves if it’s truly a priority or not - to put it another way, before choosing to invest some of our precious time in a project, we should check to see if that project is on our priority list. Also - it’s best not to try to trick yourself when you do this: honest talk time - no one has 53 actual priorities (winky smiley or other internet based way of implying 'haha, aren't we all just jokey friends together here?!').

This is hard to do because modern society fosters a culture of automatic obligation - if you don’t actively say no, your ‘yes’ is implicit and you end up doing all kinds of stuff you don’t really want to do because you feel obliged. Our society is based on saying ‘yes’, the right to say ‘no’ is frowned upon and so, because we don’t want to offend, we just go along with it all and end up having tons of ‘obligations’ that people will later remind us of with a side-eyed ‘but you said you’d do it’... (As a side note, the whole ‘can do’ attitude thing makes me want to be sick - it’s basically a way of saying ‘you’re a good person if you never say no’ - I feel a well placed kick up the arse would do the can-do lauders a world of good)

So if you recognise yourself in this (and if you don’t, you’re probably either a unicorn or Beyoncé - in which case, as you were) or if you find yourself saying ‘I’m disappointed in my voice and my progress’ just ask yourself if you’ve actively made your voice a priority. If the answer is no, ask yourself ‘is my voice really a priority for me at the moment’ if again the answer is no, that’s ok, it just means other things are more pressing at the moment (but you have to stop being disappointed in your progress - only people actively working hard at something are allowed to be disappointed when they’re not getting anywhere). On the other hand, if you conclude that your voice is indeed a priority at the moment, take a long hard look at the list of 'obligations' you’re currently dealing with and decide which of those things is an imposter, taking precious time from your life without being one of your priorities - then get rid of it.

Remember - if you don’t define your own priorities - someone else will do it for you.

Have fun!



* Don’t do that. Don’t stop paying your rent.