How 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!
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.
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!
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.
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 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.