Stage Fright and “Facing The Music”

It’s funny how masochistic artists (especially musicians and actors) can be for the sake of their art. Aside from public speaking, in what other occupation do people willingly put themselves on display in the most raw and vulnerable way, despite “a racing heart, dry mouth, shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating, and nausea”? (Effects of Stage Fright – Wikipedia) If my doctor came into the clinic exhibiting these symptoms, I would ask to see someone else. If my colleague in an office came to work in a similar fashion, they would probably be offered a sick day …  but in the music industry, the show must go on! And audiences really respond to real emotions, so fear can actually be channeled in a really positive way for a performance.

Last night we had a show at The Poor Alex Theatre, here in Toronto, Canada (thanks to The Marcus Walker Quartet for inviting us and The Jilted Lovers Club for joining us). It was the first performance we had done with two new members in the band and it was our first performance of the new year. Having not been on a stage for about a month, I became very reflective of the emotional side of performing that night; both during the set and after. A lot has changed since this time last year and though I still have  a long way to go, I can definitely see a tremendous growth with regards to overcoming performance anxiety / “stage fright”.

One of the most important things in that process for me was letting go of routines, superstitions, traditions, etc. and adopting an “I can play any time, anywhere, under any circumstances” attitude. For a long time, I tried to figure out the best way to warm up, mentally prepare for a show, what time to arrive at the venue, etc. and came to find that the fear of not being adequately prepared was feeding my stage fright more than the performance itself.  What happens when your routine is interrupted or you’re asked to go on earlier than planned? What if you forgot your lucky hat at home and circumstances prevent you from being able to complete your traditional way of preparing for a show? What if you arrive at the venue late and don’t have time to do your breathing exercises? You’re screwed! And WAY more nervous, because not only are you nervous about performing, but you panic about not being ready too. If you believe that you can play any time, anywhere, and under any circumstances, you don’t need to be ready. You just do it.

I adopted this way of thinking after my friend, Ramon Perdigao invited me up from the audience, improptu, to perform with him for a couple of songs during his show. I was not prepared at all and didn’t even have my instruments with me. I was nervous and totally out of my element, but I went up anyway. I felt compelled to challenge myself in this way and after the show he took me aside and told me that he was hoping I would accept the invitation, because real performers seize the moment and can perform at the drop of a dime. That statement changed the way I think of  approaching performance in a big way. I have no routine anymore. I often don’t even take a glass of water on stage with me, because I don’t want to be dependent on it. If I really need it, I’ll just ask someone to get some for me. Fans and friends like to help.

It takes time to integrate a belief though. It takes moments of proof and achievement over time. So I just started going to shows with no routine and forgiving myself when things didn’t go quite right. I couldn’t blame it on not being ready, or my dependence on a routine. There was no cop out. Either I can play any time, anywhere, under any circumstances … or I can’t… yet! There have been a lot of the “yet” performances and I’m still in the “yet” phase, but there are a lot more of the “anytime, anywhere” performances happening now too and they feel awesome!

I’m a lot like Barbara Streisand in the sense that I have a much more difficult time performing in one on one, or small group environments (here is a clip from one of her interviews). I feel silly and totally uncomfortable performing and making eye contact in such intimate surroundings. This has made new song development a problem in the past. I get all weird and goofy when I want to introduce a new song to the musicians I’m working with. I’ll sit in silence for minutes, just looking at them or the floor and open my mouth to attempt to start the song and then close it and laugh at how embarrassed I feel. Once I get the first couple of words out, I’m fine, but making the first sound takes a lot of courage for me. It probably stems from a fear of being judged, because a song is an extension of yourself and if someone doesn’t like your song… in a way, it feels like they are rejecting you. That’s a topic for another blog though!

As Stuart likes to remind me, “Risk makes the soul dance” (a theme from a book called Anam Cara, by John O’Donohue that I have leant to him to read). So I try to embrace that: There is safety in routine; life in risk.

To Sing or Not To Sing?

Robin singing at Leighton Moss RSPB by Gidzy

Robin singing at Leighton Moss RSPB by Gidzy (Creative Commons License 2.0)

I heard one of the most disturbing things the other day: a pair of fellow singer/songwriters proudly taking delight in the fact that they have told band mates and friends to “never sing again” … because they were so “bad” at it. My qualms with this? … First of all, they are vocal students themselves, so I don’t know what makes them think they are an appropriate authority to be determining this and secondly, how insecure must a person be in their own vocal abilities to put down an amateur singer’s expression of love for music in order to justify the “excellence” of their own?

That makes me so mad

As an early adolescent, when I got my first CD and CD player I took them upstairs to my room and learned the songs and sang loud and proud at the top of my lungs … until the day someone told me they could hear me. I thought they were making fun of me. I never sang in front of another person again (unless in jest) until 5 years ago when I couldn’t repress it any longer and decided to take lessons. Luckily I was able to muster up the strength to overcome the insecurities I had developed around the one instrument I was born with; the only instrument that is a physical part of me and is so precious because it IS me. Not everyone will, so be careful when you’re considering mocking or insulting another person’s singing (especially if they haven’t learned how to yet); you are insulting a part of their nature and human being. How dare you? Would you tell a toddler to never try reading again because they can’t do it now? No, of course you wouldn’t… unless you yourself were a pre-schooler who was insecure with your own ability to read.

I know that any person CAN learn to sing because I have seen the results my own vocal coach has produced with clients who most people would consider to be ‘hopeless’ in terms of vocal ability or talent (as well as with people who have talent, but suffered from extreme damage to their vocal chords). Artists and music lovers from all over the world (and all levels of ability) come to work with her. She is nothing short of amazing and I indeed attribute much of my own vocal abilities to her instruction and drive for perfection.

So the issue then isn’t whether or not a person CAN sing, but whether or not they are passionate enough about it to want to LEARN how to do it to the best of their own abilities… which might be better than you expect, given the right teacher. So please never tell another human being that they shouldn’t sing, instead admire their love of vocal expression and ask them if they’ve ever taken vocal lessons. If they haven’t, it will get them thinking about it.

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