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The Freaked Out Vocalist

The Freaked Out VocalistHow do you judge the judgments? Vocal Coach Mary Beth Felker shares her solutions to mental chaos…

As a busy vocal coach, it had been 10 years since I had done a solo gig outside the recording booth and much longer than that since I had done a long, multi-song performance.

You would think that as I again faced the stage all past performance memories would have faded away and I would be starting with a clean slate.

Instead, it seemed like my body was completely ready to recall every single insecurity and replay each negative tape from the past 25 years.

So what was really going on inside of my head? Everything — they say that elephants never forget and evidently neither do we!


I would recall every single insecurity and replay each negative tape

The Cognitive Sickness Chorus

Here’s my 8 bar “Cognitive Sickness Chorus” that whirled around in my brain:

1 – “What the hell am I doing?”
2 – “I suck.”
3 – “I think I might be getting sick.”
4 – “What will people think?” I want them to be impressed.”
5 – “I’m going to blank out and forget the words.”
6 – “ If I’m myself on stage, I’ll look like a fool.”
7 – “I just know that my voice will give out.”
8 – “Will people pity me and just say polite things?”

So how did I deal with it?

I applied years of work in cognitive therapy…I’m not kidding.

I’d observe myself thinking one of the thoughts above, would watch my emotions and then apply an antidote in the form of a reasoned and positive response.

The Counter-Chorus

So here’s my “Counter-Chorus” to each of the refrains above!

1. I am doing something, deep down, that I want to do. I want to sing. I love to sing. It’s meaningful to me! Furthermore, I know how to do this; I’ve trained for years. The only question is “How well will I do it?” And the only answer to this question will come through practice and preparation – so I better stop thinking and start working!

I better stop thinking and start working!

2. Yes, I have sucked at times – who hasn’t? But I haven’t really S-U-C-K-E-D; I just fell short of my own expectations. We all sound bad at times. Solution: Listen, fix it, do my best and move on.

3. Well, it’s true that stress can wear my body down. However, I’m going on my pre-show training regime and making sure I eat well, sleep a lot, hydrate, cut down on the alcohol and remind myself to enjoy the process!

4. How much can I really control what other people think? I think I will leave being a control freak to my own preparation and let people think whatever they will think! I am at my best when I am authentically me, and not what I think others want me to be.

5. I’ve blanked out before but guess what? I just improvised and kept on going – few people even noticed! Besides, I’ll have a plan: in addition to rehearsing the songs a cappella to help build my memory, I’ll remind my back-up singers to feed me words if I blank out plus keep a binder nearby with the set list during the performance.

6. Well, my choice is to either be myself or to try to keep myself controlled and reserved. I’ve done the latter much of my life and now it’s my turn to arrive on stage and be myself as authentically as possible.

7. I am going to sing my best and trust my training. I’m going to rehearse hard – with care. After all, no-one ever comes to hear a technically perfect singer. They come to be moved by the music and taken on a journey with the singer. Heck, if I’ve made it this far, I can’t wait to see how much further I can go.

8. Do I expect to be handed a Grammy at the end of the night?! No. I am going to let people react and say what they will. If they’re polite then they’re polite. If they pity me, they pity me. But I won’t pity myself nor be embarrassed or ashamed. I’ve worked hard to get to this point and this is my celebration.

Beyond Freaking Out

By repeating these affirmations, I was able to overcome my cognitive sickness, or what I call ‘swirling thoughts.’

On performance day, I made the decision to let go and deal with whatever came my way.I made the decision to let go

As I walked off stage that evening I was, and still am, extremely proud of myself. The next morning, I was even more proud. When I heard the first recording, I actually impressed myself. This was not the singer I had always been, this was the performer I knew I could become.

Having birthed 3 children, I think the process can easily be compared to labor. I grew it, I prepared for it and I just needed to keep my head calm through the tough parts in order to birth something satisfying and life affirming on the other side.

What emerged was priceless — and that’s exactly what our attitude should be towards performing and towards our vocal work.

When we are authentically ourselves musically, personally and vocally we offer a gift that is uniquely ours to give – and grow – in ways we never knew possible.

Read previous article by Mary Beth Felker: The Stage: Fright or FIGHT?

Mary Beth Felker

Mary Beth Felker is founder of the Voice Project Studios and known for her ability to quickly produce healthy, marketable results while on the road or in the studio. She is author of TVP’s ‘Elements of Warming up Series’ and is in high demand as a vocal expert.

  • I've always been apologetic for my music for some reason. I hold it to a mythical standard, and as an analytical person I constantly scrutinize the smallest imperfections. Ultimately, this has led me to doubt my music, and doubt myself, which is even worse because it bleeds off into everything else I do. A songwriter once asked me if I had any songs that she could check out to see what I've been working on. I said that I did, but none of them were that great. She immediately told me to NEVER apologize for anything I create. Music, lyrics, children (lol), anything… She is absolutely right. Confidence is key and all of the tips in this article are excellent antidotes to overcoming a lack of self confidence. If you believe in yourself, and stand behind what you create, then nothing else matters. Thanks for the great article!

  • Mary Beth you are every bit as funny as you are professional. You had me in stitches and then asking myself…”Wait a minute…do I do that?! To this day I feel like my stomach's gonna' fall out just before I go on stage…soldier up!!! :)



  • Jennifer

    thank you so much. I really, really needed to hear that.

  • My pleasure!

  • My Pleasure!

  • Hi Brian……unfortunately, all the stories (and thoughts) are straight out of my head. LOL. Check out the precursor to this article at http://voicecouncil.com/the-stage-fright-or-fight/ and hold onto your hat.

  • Hey Tom,

    Those of us with any smidgeon of perfectionist tendencies are doomed to never consider anything we do 'good enough.' However, 'good enough' is all that our audience asks of us, they aren't interested in perfection, they are interested in an authentic experience. Though I don't completely agree with your friends admonition to NEVER apologize for anything one creates……based on the fact that I have created some really horrible meals in my time….the process and the jokes that come with it, are worth the try.
    Get on that stage and go for it! Confidence comes through practice and perserverance.

  • Awesome!! I can relate to this so much!! I, too, have been focusing on my teaching for the last 10 years, both in the classroom and private studio. I just made my return to performing a couple of months ago. It feels good to get back to me! But I had to fight off the old messages that I am used to. I love performing now more than ever because I have learned to be authentic and true to who I am as singer, songwriter, and keyboardist. Thanks for this great insight!!

  • Earl,
    Congratulations! To some extent I wonder if the joy of performing after a long hiatus, especially as a vocal coach, somewhat comes from a greater appreciation for the craft. I learn so much from my clients…..and yet I felt it was time to prove that I could do what I was teaching as well. Very scary because it felt like there was little room for error – at least in my own head.
    Keep singing!
    Mary Beth

  • kris10lakin

    Your passion for music…for life…comes through loud and clear in song, in spoken word, and in prose. You are an inspiration not only to your voice students, but also to those of us who are students of life. I am fortunate to have had the benefit of your music, your teaching, your zeal, your strength, your humor, and your friendship for the last ten years or so. Freaked out, or not…you are a star!!!

  • As a fellow performing vocalist, I can say first hand that what Mary Beth has to say about the “cognitive sickness chorus” is so true! I find myself doing this on shows where I am not well prepared and let the negative thoughts come right in. The best I can do is prepare myself as best as I can and then really take the time to enjoy the opportunity of being on stage. It's a privilage, not a torture chamber!

  • Awwww…..

  • LOL, that's a good one Shawna. You are so right it IS a privilege and so easy to forget too.

  • Dee

    This is very similar to my own journey. I always loved singing since I was a child and my voice teacher said I had an amazing voice and she was always encouraging me, but I never had the courage to sing out in front of people. And then one day she said to me that she was just like me, until she let go and she said, “Who cares what anyone thinks?” Then one day shortly after that, I said to myself, “How bad is it, really?” And I talked myself into singing in front of a large crowd, and it was the best thing I ever did. Since then I always sing at local gigs, and everytime I sing, I remember that it's just another step in my life.

  • Hannah Marie

    Thanks for this Mary- I have just joined a band and will be doing my first gig with them in a couple of months- I’m definitely going to keep this positive attitude in mind and give it my best, no holding back. Thanks for your honesty.:-)

  • Joe Stoddard

    The last paragraph sums it up for me!
    “When we are authentically ourselves musically,
    personally and vocally we offer a gift that is uniquely ours to give – and grow
    – in ways we never knew possible”.

    I have found myself in a few situations where I let myself
    be taken over by a lack of confidence. Each time I let self-doubt creep in my
    energy level decreased, my ability to improvise all but disappeared and I,
    along with the audience is left feeling disconnected. However, each time I have
    been able to ward off those feelings of inadequacy by telling myself, 1. All I
    need to do is show the audience what “I DO”! 2. What I DO works and
    has been consistently well received. And, finally – All I can really do is be
    myself and do what “I DO”! I literally have to choose between the
    inhibited, self-doubting ME and the Confident ME. The relaxed, confident me
    always wins!