If you google “Fear to sing,” “How to get over stage fright when singing,” “How to overcome performance anxiety,” or “Why am I afraid to sing?” you will discover that the fear of singing is pretty huge, at least in the English speaking world. And, people are longing to get over it. Solutions abound on the internet, and they all sound pretty similar: Be better prepared. Give yourself affirmations. Perform a lot. Sing for friends and family. Meditate.
Where do you start?
My Experience with Stage Fright
People gave me all the same advice for years, since long before googling even became a word. I wanted it to work so badly, and I tried it all. I LOVED making music of all kinds… but my performance anxiety decreased the quality of my playing and singing so much that I never DREAMED of trying to make a career as a performer. I mostly felt the need to apologize for myself, and keep my music private.
Then, adulthood hit, and if I couldn’t make money making music, I didn’t figure I had time to dedicate to improving my musical abilities. I was who I was as a musician – amateur and enjoying it mostly in private – and I figured that’s how it would always be. Fast forward to now… I am devoted to making a career as a singer/songwriter. What changed? What did I do? I will say, I didn’t google “How to get over stage fright” and then start following the same old advice. I didn’t even believe it was worth my time. After all, if no one wanted to hear me sing, then why should I do it? Why should I get over my fears and anxieties?
Cultural roots to stage fright
It’s no wonder that this fear is so commonplace, when the phrase, “She loves the sound of her own voice” is used as an insult. That means that if you want to sing, you are supposed to NOT love the sound of your voice, but expect other people to love it. How is that even possible? I think the culture around this phrase creates an inner emptiness. I don’t know about you, but for many years I had a craving to hear people tell me that I had a nice voice, just to motivate me to keep singing. I depended on the outside world to determine whether or not I had a right to sing in public.
Welcome to the roller coaster…
The fact is, I did find lots of opportunities both to sing and play cello as an adult, and my shakiness and extreme fear did decrease (yes, doing it lots DOES help). But for me, there was also a deeper issue at hand. I couldn’t shed that reliance on outside approval, and I couldn’t stand the feeling of that inner emptiness. It created an emotional roller coaster every time I sang, and it wasn’t fun.
I took a voice lesson with a woman when I was 18 who heard my mousy, shy voice, then looked at my bone structure, and got very animated and excited. “Oh my gosh!” she said, “Your body is the equivalent of a Stradivarius! You could be a high coloratura soprano. You actually have a very BIG voice hiding in there!!!” Of course, this felt absolutely AMAZING to hear. And I remembered it years later when I looked that exact teacher up and started taking voice lessons with her. After all, it felt like she was the ONLY person who had seen great value in my voice. So I leaned on her as my cheerleader, and when she moved to Mexico, I hit a wall. I stopped dreaming of performing, and took my singing private, again.
A few years earlier, after going on a couple dates with a guy, I went over to his house and listened with him to a Bob Dylan record we both loved. I started singing along very quietly and he said, “I love your voice.” Boy! That was it for me. I was ready to get married. Never mind that I was lesbian and hadn’t figured it out yet. He loved my VOICE. What more could I want? I definitely couldn’t want to love my own voice…. That would be narcissistic.
So, even though by the time I hit my late twenties and early thirties I had people telling me they might actually like to hear me sing, and my voice wasn’t always so shaky that I embarrassed myself, years of feeling like I was unworthy to be heard in public and selfish to want to sing couldn’t just be erased. I was dependent on OTHER PEOPLE’S PRAISE to pursue my music and seek to improve my craft. So my efforts were shotty at best.
You are better than a Stradivarius
Remember that voice teacher’s compliment? That my body is the equivalent of a Stradivarius? In case you don’t know, Stradivarius was supposed to be one of the best violin-makers of all time, and Stradivarius violins sell for millions of dollars. Because they sound AMAZING. But, you know what violin makers are trying to do when they perfect their art, right? They are trying to make an instrument that is so beautiful it can mimic the qualities of the human voice. They do that because it is the human voice that pulls at our heart-strings, and makes us melt inside.
While it felt great to receive that compliment at the time, the “rare species” myth that it perpetuates is B.S. It’s not a compliment. EVERY human body is infinitely more complex and full of powerful musical potential than any musical instrument ever will be. It’s like me telling my son he’s as smart as a computer… nope, I’m sorry, ALL human brains are still capable of more than a computer. We are alive, after all. It was actually a compliment to Stradivarius that he made an instrument that sounds ALMOST as beautiful as a human.
“But,” you say, “there are plenty of people whose voices don’t sound as nice as a fine violin or a cello!” Remember, my friend, when you are hearing a fine violin or cello played well, it is being played by someone who is in love with the sound of their instrument. And in a culture that fears bodies full of pleasure, that fears self-love, it’s far easier to love the sound of an instrument we purchase and play than it is to love the sound of our own voice. Although it may not be obvious what you are hearing, you can hear that quality of self-love, or lack there-of, in a voice. Our magnificent voices reveal SO MUCH of what we are feeling. What makes us melt, I am going to be brash enough to propose, is the sound of love.
How I overcame my stage fright
So, what did I do? I fell in love. I love the sound of my own voice. That’s the basic, very basic, first step I need to even decide that it’s a worthwhile use of my time to keep singing, writing songs, and improving my craft. How on earth do you fall in love? It’s not simple, is it? You can’t just listen to yourself sing and be like, “I’ve heard millions of other singers I like better, but I am going to LOVE you anyway.” Just deciding to love yourself can be pretty tough.
For me, it came down to pleasure. Because, after all, the bread and butter of a loving relationship is spending time together, feeling good. People in healthy relationships enjoy creating pleasure for each other. When I realized that I am creating pleasure INSIDE my body with the vibrations of my voice, I was able to start to set aside all those judgments of what sound was reaching my ears and potentially the ears of others. I decided that beauty is the sound of pleasure, and that perhaps, just perhaps, if I was having a good time when I sang, other people would, too.
From everything I’d learned about meditation and spiritual practices, I created my own meditations around pleasure. Then, I started to gradually retrain my brain to come back to my own pleasure again, and again, and again, and my stage fright began to dissipate. It is still a work in progress, but within a year I started singing MY OWN songs in public (super vulnerable) and I fell in love with my voice so much that I committed to making her my life partner and my business partner. Not bad, I’d say!
So… Shed the Shame and Brew Up Some Self-love!
Many of us deal with EONS of conditioning telling us that it can actually be dangerous to value, and center, our own body’s pleasure (hello racism, sexism, and homophobia). But in my world, you can’t make music without it. So I am all about unlearning shame and guilt around pleasure so that we can stop being afraid of a simple, harmless, and extremely nourishing thing like SINGING. After all, singing feels almost as good as sex. But you won’t catch any STD’s or get pregnant (unless it’s with a brand new baby song!) So it’s time to get over our freaking fear to sing and our performance anxiety for the sake of our own body’s good time. The self-love I am brewing over here is contagious. Are you ready to catch some? Stick around 🙂
MB Bolin, The Mystic Bard
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