Being In The Spotlight…or not

If you want to learn how to perform, there is just no substitute for getting up in front of people and actually trying it. You can practice in your living room, in your car, in front of your dog, in the mirror or on top of a mountain, but once you step out in front of people…something happens and it’s just not the same. There’s no shortcut or workaround. It’s a skill you can only develop and get good at by doing.

So what can make you so anxious at the thought of performing? Perhaps it’s being afraid of looking foolish, or making mistakes in front of people, or feeling so exposed. Yes it’s true that these things can happen, but as they say: “At least it’s not brain surgery.” The good news is that no one will die or be scarred for life if you are not perfect. The important thing is to have the right size expectations, take care of yourself before and be generous with yourself after. Sometimes for me just living through the experience to be able to tell the tale is a triumph in itself. For instance…

When I was in college, I had to perform a classical piano piece on a huge stage in front of all the other piano students and the piano faculty. I was freaked out at the prospect and had not been given enough preparation for such a demanding performance. I blanked out in the middle of the piece and wound up in the wrong key. Somehow I kept playing although I was just making up what I played. I think the audience applauded for me just because I had the chutzpah to keep going even when I was way off course. I ran out as soon as I finished. I felt horrible and just cried on the ride home. Needless to say, this was not a positive experience…but see, I lived through it and here I am telling you about it. I even went on and continued performing again and again and again. (“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Japanese proverb) Ultimately, I became comfortable being in front of an audience and grew to love it.

As a singer, however, you are in a position that is both very powerful and also completely transparent and vulnerable. This is especially true if you step out from the crowd or chorus and perform as a soloist or a lead singer with a band. Unlike a pianist or trumpet player, you ARE the instrument itself. There’s nothing between you and your listeners so you have to actually make a boundary for yourself. If people don’t like what they hear, it can be difficult to separate yourself from your voice and not take it as directed at you as a person. Some people are more aware of this than others and for some it can be downright terrifying. Getting comfortable under the microscope of performing is often a life-long journey. Some thrive on the attention and others struggle to stay grounded through the experience. It’s really about getting comfortable with yourself as you are. Period.

When I work with students who are practicing performing, I make sure to create a safe environment in which they will not receive any negative criticism or be made to feel embarrassed. What each person needs is an experience that will help to build their confidence. I give students encouragement for what they are doing right and direct feedback about what they can work on that will help them improve.

Here are some suggestions that have worked for me:

1. Do all that you can to be fully prepared. Practice, practice, practice until you are sure you know the words, the tune, how to start and end the tune, and the order of verses, chorus and bridge. Sing your song with the TV on or some other distraction so you can get used to maintaining your focus. Once you have done all you can to get ready then you can do your best.

2. Make sure that you feel good about what you are trying to accomplish and be realistic about your expectations. Let your primary goal be to satisfy yourself and not to try to get everyone to like what you are doing. I subscribe to the philosophy from the 1972 song “Garden Party” written by Ricky Nelson: “It’s all right now. I learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.”

3. Know what symptoms you exhibit when you are nervous. I get cold hands, sweaty arm pits and my mind can go blank. This happened once to me as I was starting a song and I couldn’t remember the first words. I had left my book of lyrics at home so I had to scratch that song the night. And what were the words I couldn’t remember? They were: “Where do you start?” from a song with that very title. So now I never perform without having my lyrics somewhere handy…just in case.

Here are a few common stress reactions: racing pulse and rapid breathing, not getting enough air, dry mouth, tight throat, trembling hands/knees/lips/voice, sweaty and cold hands, nausea and an uneasy feeling in your stomach, vision changes, mind going blank. Be proactive and do what you can to take care of yourself in advance. Examples: Eat a good meal that day. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. Try taking some deep breaths to get yourself grounded. Shake out your hands, arms and legs to loosen any tension. Jump up and down to get your blood moving.

4. Clearly your self-talk can be a huge sabotage. You’ll need something to help combat the monsters inside your head that sometimes seem hell-bent on bringing you down. They are just trying to protect you (in a convoluted way) and they need to know that “you’ve got this.” So, to counteract the negative scripts, I recommend creating a best case scenario of what you want to happen when you are singing in front of your audience. Be detailed. Include the lighting, what you are wearing, who’s in the front row and the expression on their faces, feel the weight of the microphone, imagine the joy you feel as you are singing, hear the sound your voice filling up the room, imagine the applause when you are done. Write it all out and then read it to yourself (out loud if you can) for several days before you perform.

5. Just before you are about to sing, you may feel a flood of energy in your body that you are not accustomed to. It can be overwhelming when you are not used to dealing with this much energy. It’s adrenaline. Don’t try to stop it. If you try to make it go away, it will generally turn into fear because it’s not something you can eliminate. It’s actually a good thing and you need it because you are about to do something you don’t do every day. Call it excitement and let it flow through you, and as you sing send it out to your audience. They will send it back to you and this will create a cycle of giving and receiving that will lift you up. It can be a truly wonderful experience.

4. Here are some excellent books that I often recommend to singers. They have strategies for dealing with the chattering mind, insights into how to stay focused and first hand accounts from professional artists:

A Soprano On Her Head – Eloise Ristad

The Inner Voice – Renée Fleming

A Life in the Arts – Eric Maisel

The Singer’s Ego – Lynn Eustis

The Centered Skier – Denise McCluggage

I can validate from my own experience that performing as a vocalist involves a certain amount of pressure. So why would anyone choose to put themselves through this? You just have to love it and if you do, well, let’s face it – it’s a total high. Once you master it, you’ll find it’s empowering and builds your self confidence. However, whether or not the stress is worth it, is a decision only you can make for yourself. If singing is your calling and you can get on the other side of the anxiety and be in the moment as you perform, you’ll find yourself plugged in to a part of yourself that longs to be expressed. Right before I go out on stage I generally begin to saying to myself: “What was I thinking?! This is crazy. I just want to go home and relax and watch TV.” Then I walk out and begin to sing and I feel at home and I know that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

If you feel that your life would be totally fulfilled without performing and having to deal with this pressure, then perhaps it would be. Not everyone is cut out for this and if it’s not for you, then it’s important to own that. Maybe a low-key singing group would be perfect for you. I just know that singing for an audience gives me a way to move people and touch their hearts. This brings meaning to my life…so for me, it’s all worth it.

4 thoughts on “Being In The Spotlight…or not

  1. Ellen, I love your blog. So informative and well written! I’ve thought of solo performing but would be terrified. Thank you for taking this on, you are a great teacher.

  2. What an awesome blog and so well-written! I can totally relate to everything you said, but you express it much more eloquently than I ever could! Thanks for sharing your stories — and your vulnerability. 🙂

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