Why Are We Afraid To Sing?


Hannah Northedge looks at how vocalists can overcome the effects of early criticism.

His voice faltered as he said, “It’s silly really, but I’ve always wanted to sing.”

It was Monday morning and I was speaking with a prospective student….well, at least I think he wanted lessons.

He then gushed self consciously, “I have a terrible voice” and “I don’t want to be famous or anything”.

As I listened to all of his apologies and self-deprecations, I considered how many hundreds of times I have heard all of this before.

AfraidText02Why are so many of us afraid to sing?

I’m sure there are many answers to this question but one theme emerges again and again – and it surfaced with that student after a few weeks of voice lessons:

He had been criticised as a child and this was deeply affecting his perception of his ability.

Students usually tell me that someone in their early life – a teacher, authority figure, peer – told them they couldn’t sing, weren’t good enough for the school choir, were tone deaf, laughed at their singing or just bluntly told them to “shut up!”

This has led so many singers to believe that in some way they don’t have “permission” to sing and so end up being “bedroom singers” when they really want to be “Wembley singers” (or at least sing to more than their cat!)

Reclaiming Your Voice

Three useful strategies I use for students who feel imprisoned by past judgements are:

Checkbox Record yourself so you can hear how everyone else hears your voice. Often a singer’s perception of their voice is distorted through hearing their own voice partially through bone conduction. So, I take them off to the recording studio so they can gain some feedback. Some of the criticisms may be founded in reality, so this gives students a chance to hear what they can focus on improving upon. Many singers have been pleasantly surprised by how they actually sound!

check_02 Consider reasons for criticism as rooted in the one criticizing. Was the person doing the criticizing jealous of the singer? In competition with them? Do they wish they had been a singer themselves? Is it insecurity due to the singer attracting more attention than them? Are they just a negative person generally?! Did the person criticizing think singing was not a valid career option (buying the “musicians make no money” myth) and was trying to dissuade the singer? It is worth trying to understand why a person felt the need to criticize a young singer instead of encourage them to then be able to move on from the effect it has.


check_03 Set goals of singing in front of others and get their feedback. This starts by singing in front of yourself: give yourself permission to sing every day around the house or in a rehearsal space. Then sing to one other person in your lounge, then to a few friends or family, then at a karaoke with a few friends, maybe join a choir to gain confidence in numbers. You might then try a public solo open mic performance with a few supportive friends cheering you on. The audience is on your side. They want you to sing well and aren’t really like the scary judges of reality shows dishing out harsh words, but rather just want to be entertained and have a good time. Singing is not just for the “elite few”!

Finally, for those who have had early criticism it is critical to learn the difference between this and the kind of constructive criticism you will encounter in a good coaching or mentoring relationship.

It is wrong to tell a child they “can’t sing” (or “can’t” do anything) since those words immediately place a psychological limitation on their lives.

Constructive criticism from your vocal coach, however, is different since it aims to remove your limitations through encouragement and the hard work of practice. This feedback is essential if you want to develop your craft.

Remember these 6 words:

You have every right to sing!

hannahBioHannah Northedge is a pop and jazz singer, vocal coach and director of www.voicecity.co.uk. One of her clients is currently supporting the band JLS and performing at the 02 Arena. Hannah has sung at Ronnie Scott’s, Wireless Festival and Abbey Road Studios. She has just conducted a choir in a film called “POSH”, has coached X Factor finalists and judged Live and Unsigned.

  • Kay

    A fantastic article. Much of this resonates with me. Giving yourself ‘permission’ is key. Also, find a song/style of music that suits your voice. Just because you like a particular song, doesn’t mean it’s the song for you…but there IS a song out there!

  • Steve Spice

    Enjoyed your article Hannah & so
    true! I was told in acting one trick is to immerse yourself in character? Many
    successful recording artists do this also or at least have a performance
    persona they step into.

  • Henry

    Very encouraging article – good advice for pros as well as those who sing/want to sing for a hobby

  • Paul

    Nice article Hannah, for me, now that I’ve done a few open mic’s my confidence has grown immensely

  • Poppa Madison

    I would attempt giving some further insight in this way.
    Normal communication involves speaking between the parties concerned. Singing on the other hand has been placed by tradition for millenia into two distinct categories. Singing as part of group cultural celebration at ceremonies related to both life and death, and “Singing solo” which allows the centre of attention to be given to the individual and their performance.
    It is the “Singing solo” aspect that causes a reaction by some people,to act to silence it, in certain circumstances.
    IMO, this could be for one of two reasons.
    1. Because the objector wants to silence anything that takes the focus of others from their own assumed position of power at the time, and may include acting so as to abuse and denigrate the Singer.
    2. Because it is genuinely deemed inappropriate given the situation, for example in the middle of a group lecture or a training session or in various workplace and life situations.

    It is this dichotomy of situations that can lead to at least a reluctance if not a “fear” of singing.

    At the age of six I was diagnosed as having a fine singing voice.
    Thanks to the power-mania of those lording over my childhood,(not my parents) and their operating under strategy number one above, I got no support to educate me musically or in Singing or presentation etc. whatsoever, beyond the mention of the fact in a school report.

    It was this life experience that in part contributed to how and why I later turned around this “Fear of singing” I developed early in life and now at almost 70 still continue to sing my heart out.

    I would think that persons who are brought up in an environment where music and song are encouraged and treated as “normal” would have little fear of, or reluctance to sing, regardless of their skill level.

    Merry Christmas!

    Poppa Madison

    © ♯♪♫ ♂PM

    ♫Poppa Madison Music ♫ – Woodridge – Queensland – Australia

    Composing Music & Song for Everyone to enjoy – Worldwide.



  • Diane

    I have never had anyone who’s opinion I care about – other than myself – tell me I “can’t sing”. In my situation it’s the not knowing that stops me. I can Karaoke and mimic and that’s all fine well and good, but when I write songs or try to “dig deeper” I just feel stupid or I botch it up because I don’t know what’s going to come out so I tense up. It’s a lack of overall self confidence, not just with singing. At the same time I don’t want people to feel they have to baby me to encourage me then I’ll feel patronized. I’m over 21 and I feel like 1-2 drinks puts enough “screw it just do it” in me to loosen up – then water the rest of the night (there’s a fine line between getting sh*tty and sounding sh*tty and alcohol dehydrates the vocal chords and body). That and lots of practice so the songs become muscle memory so if there’s a PA issue, I can “feel” that it’s right. I minimize as much stress as I can so what’s left over is manageable. I had purchased a program by Tom Jackson about the Stage and he stated something very helpful – the venue that hired you (or that’s hosting the Karaoke if that’s what floats yer boat) gave you “permission” to own the stage when they hired you. He also said the audience wants to be led by you, they don’t want to pitty you – “oh that poor girl is scared stiff up there”.
    I too feel that “acting” in a sort helps. Submerge yourself in the setting of the song and be in the moment with it, try not to think about the note you just hit or the one coming up – just feel it, tell the story, bring everyone there with you.
    It’s funny how despite all you “know” you can still be scared.