Few things can make you feel more exposed and vulnerable than standing up in front of people and singing. Here's how I managed to get past that fear.

"Look over the top of my head and skewer him!" said  Claude Stein. Stein teaches the Natural Singer workshop which I'd been wanting to take for years. Now here I was, trying my best to sing for all I was worth.

My relationship with singing? It's complicated. When I was in high school, I sang in chorales, performed concerts, sang Christmas carols to hospital patients. I even got paid for a little singing work on a demo. I could be shy about a lot of things, but singing wasn't one of them. 

But then I grew up, dived headfirst into my career, moved into my own apartment that didn't have a piano, and pretty much left music behind me, except as something that I listened to. And then I married a singer-songwriter who has music flowing like blood through his veins and a beautiful baritone voice. Singing around him was intimidating, so I didn't do it.

The less I used my voice, the less I knew how to use my voice, until whenever I did open my mouth and sing (when no one else was around) the results sounded squeaky and--horrors!--sometimes off-key. I decided I was bad at singing and should leave it alone.

But then  we moved to the Pacific Northwest and landed in a large community of musicians that assembles several times a week to play music and jam together. Everyone, good and bad, pros and very-much-amateurs, got up and performed. It almost seemed strange not to. Meantime, for my own amusement, I'd been trying to learn to harmonize, mostly with the car radio. But I also started experimenting with harmony lines at the jam sessions, not up on stage, but in whatever corner where I happened to be sitting at, audible only to myself and a couple of people around me.

Even so, people noticed. Some complimented my voice. Eventually, some of the performers started  inviting me to sing backup with them. Only I had a problem. Sitting in a corner of the room, singing along with no one much paying attention, I mostly sounded pretty good. But stand me up onstage in front of a microphone and even a tiny audience, and the squeaky and off-key thing came back. If I was going to do this, I needed a better idea of how to do it, and I needed to be more confident. So here I was at Stein's workshop, hoping for both. When he asked my goal for the workshop, I said I didn't want to freeze onstage anymore.

Up or down?

The song I'd brought to work on was Charlie Terrell's "Broken Man," an obscure song that I love. Its opening lines are: "You left me standing in the middle of the stairs. I didn't know whether to go up or down." The song is mournful, not angry. But Stein has an exquisite ability to ferret out the emotions a singer might be feeling, and he glommed on to those lyrics and didn't let go, having me sing them over and over, marching in place, feeling my own strength, and letting out my voice. As he often does, he began writing new and self-affirming lyrics on the fly for me to sing back to him: "I can climb up these stairs! And I can slide down!"

And then, "Look over the top of my head and skewer him!" Skewer whom? The fictional man in the song? Anyone and everyone who'd ever made me feel self-conscious about anything? Myself, for letting fear and embarrassment stop me from doing something I loved? All of the above, I thought. When it came to singing, I very much was standing in the middle of the stairs. I had to decide which way to go. 

I sang those lines again, this time with some determination to them.

"Did that feel frozen to you?" Stein asked me. 

Well no, it didn't. Here I was in front of a reasonably large audience, the other 39 people in the workshop, and I didn't squeak, and I didn't sing off-key. He'd pushed me to focus on the message of what I was singing, to sing what was true for me at that moment. It took me away from my usual obsessing about whether I was singing well or badly and since I wasn't obsessing, I didn't freeze. And just like that, I felt the shyness and the fear start to drop away.

At the end of the workshop Stein gave me some advice. I told him I'd been backup singing. "It's high time you start singing your own songs," he said. And so I have begun working on a few songs of my own. I haven't worked up the nerve to perform them in front of people yet, but I will, because I know he's right.

I keep thinking about Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite of the 1930s and 40s who was a perfectly terrible singer but rented concert halls and gave performances anyhow. These were usually sold out, mostly to people who were carefully hiding the fact that they found her unselfconscious antics hilarious. It seems likely that she knew she was no good at it, but she kept right on anyhow. "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing," she told a friend. 

That's really all any of us can ever aspire to. Sometimes I may sing well, other times not. Some people may like my voice, others won't even when I'm at my best. We're not in control of any of that, we can only control whether we let the fact that we're frightened and doubtful stop us from getting up on stage, or whether we push ourselves to do it anyway. 

I'm not singing from the corners anymore. How about you?

Published on: Oct 20, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.