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By Carla Malrowe
I’m not here to tell you to “fake it ‘til you make it.” The person that coined that divine piece of wisdom has probably never experienced the daunting 10 seconds before walking out onto a stage and singing in front of hundreds of people. I am, however, here to tell you that getting a grip on anxieties and insecurities around your vocal performance is perfectly possible.
Having spoken to many vocalists, both aspiring and professional, I found that insecurities around singing tend to pop up for almost all of us at some point or another. If you’re a vocalist that’s just starting out, you will almost definitely have to fend off this beast in the future. Here follows some of the concerns that came up in my conversations around this topic:
- “I feel like I’m the only one.”
- “I often feel vulnerable and exposed when I sing.”
- “I can’t bear the criticism.”
- “The nerves just sneak up on me.”
- “I don’t know where to draw confidence from.”
With the help of a few super clever musicians, I came up with some ideas to alleviate these latter issues. In this article, I would like to suggest alternative ways of thinking about singing, and how to take practical steps in kicking your insecurities to the curb. Let’s go.
1. “I feel like I’m the only one…”
Creative insecurity is far more common than you’d think. A famous quote by Francis Ford Coppola goes:
“I don’t think there’s any artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.”
Having to work in such a competitive industry, it is common for musicians to feel unsure of themselves at times. Being so heavily reliant on an audience, they also understandably worry about being judged by them. Many professional vocalists are also just shy of singing in front of people. One such incredible singer was David Bowie. Bowie expressed his shyness in an interview in 2013, shortly after he returned to the stage after a long hiatus. He said:
“I’m not particularly a gregarious person. I had an unbearable shyness…”
Try to remember, firstly, that you are not wrong for feeling insecure and secondly, that you are definitely not alone in having these feelings as an aspiring singer.
2. “I can’t bear the criticism.”
Positive affirmation is lovely, but it sadly won’t sustain your career by itself. Criticism can be truly valuable and help you to improve. Secondly, criticism is going to happen whether you like it or not, so, since you can’t prevent it, let’s try to manage it.
You need to select your sample group of critics very carefully. Ask honest opinions of people who you believe to have a decent understanding of music and who are passionate about the genres you’re exploring. This way, you can avoid irrelevant opinions that won’t serve you.
If random people give you their two cents, remember that you don’t have to take their word at face value. Do a bit of a background check before taking them too seriously. A swift Facebook stalking session will do.
3. “I often feel vulnerable and exposed when I sing.”
The important thing to consider here, is that you are not your voice. There are certain assumptions about the human voice that vocalists need to disarm in order to become more comfortable singing in front of an audience. You might not always notice it, but in social and political conversations, “voice” is often associated with what is extremely “personal,” for example:
- “Finding your voice” is related to ideas around finding your true identity.
- “Listening to your inner voice” is related to ideas around obeying your own truth.
- Having been “granted a voice” is related to ideas around personal empowerment.
- Furthermore, the voice is related to being the medium that projects your “true self” — the “gateway into your soul.”
These ideas all might ring true in other area of life, but they don’t have to apply to your singing voice. Singing does not necessarily have to render you “open” and vulnerable to the listener. Try to disconnect from these notions. The best way to do so is to see your voice is an instrument, and your singing is a product of your creativity and skill. Your singing is not a reflection of your “soul” (so to speak).
4. “The nerves just sneak up on me!”
There is most definitely a way to manage this terrible affliction known as nerves, and push through your vocal performance successfully. The key is to minimize the surprise factor.
Nerves affect your body, which in turn affect your ability. Adrenaline pumping through your blood might cause you to sweat excessively, your spine might contact, your legs might start to feel like jelly, dilated pupils, dry mouth… You need to identify which symptoms you experience. Study them when you’re removed from the nervy situation. Gain clarity on them. The goal is to become familiar with how your body reacts, so that you can know what to expect, and prepare for it as best you can.
Most importantly, become familiar with your internal dialogue. What are your thoughts? What are the phrases you tell yourself? Are they positive? Are they negative? Are they rational or irrational? Are they something along the lines of: “You suck Susan!” (I hope not)?
Try to get familiar with your natural thought patterns. This is important because awareness has an incredible disarming quality. Next time you sing, the same thoughts might still surface, but the fact that you’re expecting them means that the element of surprise falls away, and so the thought loses power over you.
5. “I don’t know where to draw confidence from.”
You can try looking in the mirror and telling yourself: “You are amazing, you are the best singer in the world, Sia has nothing on you!”, or, you can wake up, smell the coffee, perhaps drink it too, and take a more substantial approach to building your confidence.
Insecurity comes from a lack of faith in your own ability. Faith boosters include hard work and experience. Things that swing murderous blows at your faith include laziness, and trying to be someone that you’re not. You need to put in the work, and you need to find your own unique “edge.” Instead, try telling yourself: “Practice, practice, practice!” and that, “No, you do not sound like Sia, and that’s okay.”
Working at It
We are conditioned to think that great vocalists are just born that way — “gifted,” “blessed,” and we wonder if we were given those gifts too… Really? No. Shut up. Try to remember that this is not true. You need to put the work in if you want to be great. It starts with getting yourself a good vocal coach.
I recommend getting a professional coach with some years of experience, who you respect as a musician, and who you admire as a singer (I’m simply describing my own vocal coach here).
A good vocal coach will instruct you on diaphragmatic breathing, and on becoming aware of your body as you sing; keeping good posture; releasing tension etc. He or she will help you to identify your range, give you exercises to improve your technique, and guide you through the material you wish to sing. Finally, he or she will tell you to practice every single day!
You need to get comfortable in your vocal range, master techniques that you struggle with, and push the limits if you want to be exceptional (and yes, you want to be exceptional…“Exceptional” is the goal, if you were ever confused about that).
Don’t Compare; Find Your Niche
Comparing yourself to other singers is a recipe for disaster. The trick to cementing your confidence is by finding your niche — working to discover that thing that makes your singing completely unique. Whether it is that you can belt like a demon, hold a note for two minutes, have a sexy glottal growl, a husky sultry tone, a perfectly seamless vibrato… Whatever it is, it’s your task to identify it, master it, and exploit it!
To once again refer back to Mr. Bowie, here’s an interesting fact. Surprisingly, young Bowie wasn’t considered an exceptional singer by his teachers. “David Bowie’s teachers called his idiosyncratic style “vividly artistic,” but only rated his voice as “adequate.” As voice coach Lisa Popeil writes, “though vocally agile as an adult, Bowie was never known for great pitch accuracy.”
Some years down the line…
“Bowie honed his vocal skills and achieved mastery over his haunting baritone, while also learning to move into a powerful tenor range.”
Like Bowie, the trick is to achieve mastery over the element that makes your voice unique, and then to push yourself to learn and acquire new techniques to enhance it.
6. “It just takes a few alterations.”
Building confidence and shaking self-doubt is a process. It takes time and patience. Start with altering your thinking, altering your actions and reactions, and soon your feelings will follow. Don’t quit! Doing so would be denying your passion, and robbing the world of your sublime singing. And that’s just selfish — we can’t have that. Keep at it.
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Carla Malrowe is a singer, composer, keyboardist, writer, and music industry marketer from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the co-founding vocalist, keyboardist and contributing songwriter for industrial goth-rock band Me’ek. As copywriter and content marketer, she develops marketing strategies for various music events companies to the purpose of growing the South African alternative music scene. Marlowe is excited to announce that she is currently working on the debut EP of her new electronic project “Shiver Kiss.”