By Lucy Ann
For years I was scared to sing out loudly and clearly. And for years I was scared to speak at big parties or important work meetings or to make presentations in front of big audiences.
By working on my bluegrass lead and harmony singing, I’ve strengthened my voice and become a better singer and a better public speaker.
I’ve learned the hard way that fear can silence you. When I let my terror take over, my throat tightens, my jaw freezes, and my breathing gets shallow—all deadly conditions for trying to sing or speak with conviction, confidence, and clarity.
I finally got tired of wanting to share, through my singing or speaking, an important message and being too terrified to do it. I had to get over myself, in a way, and realize that I would not die from being heard and that, in any case, the messages I wanted to share were worth taking that imagined risk.
Bluegrass music is full of important messages and stories so worth the telling. Take the bluegrass classic, “Dream of a Miner’s Child,” for example. The child in that story is pleading with her father to stay home from the mine, to try to save his life from what she dreams will be a mining disaster. Her message is a matter of life and death.
Take “Sweet Sunny South,” or “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” or the numerous other bluegrass songs about home place. They tell of the deep longing and nostalgia for roots, and the sorrowful loss of a place that can never be as it was in memories. Take “Ashes of Love” and the countless other broken-heart tunes that share a theme common to all human experience, the theme of love gone bad or lost. All convey vital human stories.
In my day job, I am the policy director at an innocence project. Our work of freeing innocent people from prison and improving the criminal justice system is also a matter of life and death. This very meaningful work drives me to get over my fears and to speak up about what is wrong and what needs to be fixed to make things right.
Singing bluegrass has helped me speak up more clearly and effectively about these important themes. I was on two live television shows last year, talking about the work I do, and I did just fine. I got the information out there and survived.
I’m lucky to share a home with a gifted singer who has patiently encouraged me to sing strongly and loudly. I’ve learned that I can shift my attention off the fear and onto the vital message or story I’m trying to convey. I can pay attention to how I’m using my mouth, my sinuses, my vocal chords, my diaphragm and my breath to get the sound out. I picture images in my head that are based on the lyrics I am singing. I focus on feeling what I’m trying to convey rather than on feeling the fear. I aim to hit the high notes straight on without scooping my way up to them. And if I don’t make it right on pitch, I know I won’t die—despite my fears. All these approaches help me tell the story more effectively through song and help me get my message out through public speaking, too.