People are always saying, “You gotta break out of your comfort zone.” And I believe that is true. Growth comes from trying new things, taking risks, doing what’s outside the box.
A very common graphic that is used in psychology and in personal coaching is one showing the four zones involved in growth.
- The comfort zone is described as the place where we’re safe, we’re comfortable, we know exactly what we’re doing. Musically, the comfort zone could be described as spending the rest of your life singing the 26 Italian Songs. Or in musical theater, singing only legit OR belt and not developing the rest of your instrument.
- The fear zone is a place of discomfort, both in terms of knowing that the comfort zone is holding us back and we’re no longer comfortable there, but maybe we’re not quite sure of how to break out of it or what will happen when we do. Maybe it’s deciding to sing lieder, and not being comfortable with German. Or maybe starting to work on finding your belt mix or your head voice. Will you ever get it? Is it worth it? It’s scary!
- The learning zone is where you’re doing it. You’re figuring it out, you’re starting to feel confident; you’ve GOT this. Or at least, you’re GETTING it, and it’s almost there. You’re taking the necessary steps to get there.
- The growth zone is where you’ve made it. You’ve mastered the task, and you’re at the next level. And after awhile, that level becomes your comfort zone, and you need to start all over to grow some more!
But what if you skip a step? Or two? Or three? What if you decide to skip straight from the comfort zone to a growth zone that is beyond your capabilities right now? What you’ve been singing “Caro mio ben” and your teacher or coach tells you, “Hey, this sounds good. You’re ready to sing some Wagner.”
If this happens, my friends, RUN FOR THE HILLS. Because you are heading for:
And despite what Kenny Loggins says, the danger zone isn’t a place of growth. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a danger zone is:
an area in which there is a high risk of harm, especially where this risk has been officially identified.“this is a danger zone where any one of us can step on a landmine”
There are all kinds of landmines, not just ones in battlefields. Some vocal landmines include:
- Vocal abuse
- Screaming and yelling
- Coughing and throat clearing
- Vocal misuse
- Singing in the wrong fach
- Speaking too low or too high than your natural pitch
- Vocal overuse
- Talking or singing too much without a break
- Illness and environment
- Medication side effects
- Excessively dry environment, whether climate-related (i.e., Arizona) or room-related (dry hotel rooms, excessive air conditioning, lack of a humidifier)
- Neurological disorders
Let’s focus on singing right now, specifically singing in the wrong fach or one that’s beyond you right now.
Your technique is a work in progress. I’m all for classical singers learning to belt and belters learning to sing legit. I wish I’d done it earlier, myself.
But it is a process and to leap into what would be considered an elite level of singing, whether it’s singing opera or a high musical theater belt, when you have not mastered coloratura, register changes, or even a rudimentary facility with belt, is a sure journey to the danger zone.
HIgh belts are all the rage these days. People call it “screlting” – “scream-belting.” It started out as a derivative term and has become an industry term, which many people loathe, including NYC-based composer/teaching artist David Cisco, who is also the founder of the blog ContemporaryMusicTheatre.com. He has written a series of three blogposts about the topic of screlting, entitled “Screlting – or Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” In the second of the blogposts, he writes:
There comes a time when each of us has to stop and say, “I can screlt and have a great career for about 5-10 years, or I can take more responsible roles and have a solid career for over 40 years.
If you are a young high-school or early college-aged singer and you want to sing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca or the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, YOU HAVE TIME. Consider something else first. Want to sing Puccini or Mozart and your teacher thinks you’re ready for the challenge? Maybe start with “O mio babbino caro” or “Un moto di gioia.”
If you are a young singer who wants to sing “Once upon a time” from Brooklyn or “Dead girl walking” from Heathers (the equivalent of Wagner for the beginning classical singer!), and you haven’t done any kind of belting before, ease into it! Start out with “Johnny One Note,” work your way up from there into “A Change in Me,” maybe “Someone like you” or “Astonishing.”
Training wheels, folks. They’re not just for bikes.
In “You don’t have to be out of your comfort zone all the time!,” writer Julia Clavien calls the “danger zone,” at least in terms of exercise, the “snap zone,” the one where you are prone to injury or burnout (she uses the terms “consolidation and stretch” regarding the positive zones, and her description seems to me to refer to stretch as a combination of the fear and learning zones, and consolidation as the growth zone). The term “snap zone” conjures up a particularly terrifying visual when it comes to vocal folds!
If you have put in the work in the fear/learning/stretch zones, and are in the growth/consolidation zone technique-wise, then by all means, take on that new piece that will challenge you, that will take you outside the box. But do it wisely, and don’t do it for a competition or a performance until you’ve mastered it and can do it healthfully and without fear of “snapping” anything.