Ramblings by: Georgia McQueery
Sweaty palms. Dry mouth, tight throat. Damn those shaky hands. Flutter of the heart. Loss of appetite. Nervous twitch. Stuttering. These are not the symptoms of falling in love. No, these are the signs, among others, of stage fright. For someone who grew up in theater, circus camp (yes, I just said that. I’m a juggler, OK!), student government, someone who has made a habit of putting themselves out there and in the spotlight, realizing that I get gripped with stage fright was and still is a surprise to me. I would have thought I could parlay that inner confidence easily into playing an instrument and singing. Whether or not it is just with friends or in a jam setting, or more recently as a performance dealing with these symptoms has been no easy task.
I – well actually it was my best friend, was able to finally recognize that I had stage fright several months ago. We realized that these symptoms came about not because I would be seeing my schoolgirl crush that night. No, it was because I was nervous to play in the jam. Nervous that my voice wouldn't make pitch, nervous I would have to play songs that I didn’t know, mess up the chords. There are so many things that my brain was creating and thus creating more of these unwelcome feelings, perpetuating the whole ball of wax. And what a ball I have become.
I remember when I first started playing bluegrass, just a short four glorious years or so ago. All my natural inclinations to be in the spotlight came into play and I readily pulled at said friend’s shoestrings like a little kid… “when are we going to play out?!? Hmm? Huh?” My inhibitions and fearlessness preceded my humility, but there’s something to say about fearlessness, right? I kept telling myself this. Over time friend's reluctance (let's call it “dose of reality”) quelled my inhibitions into a realistic approach to what I had gotten myself into: becoming an adult beginner musician.
Cue the dramatic piano... du du du duuuuuuu...
The reality soon set it, the girl who had been good at nearly anything and everything as a kid and young adult now had to face the prospect of being a beginner again. I couldn't just simply be a singer and player? I had to practice, put the time in, and reap the benefits however far away they may be. But as you can imagine, the more practice time I put in, the “better” (relatively speaking) I got and it seemed the less the symptoms came out.
Practice for vocals? Step one for me was to get a lesson. Unbeknownst to me those years of karaoke DID NOT serve me well. I had someone assess my range and look for the challenges. I was given a series of vocal warm-ups that I would do occasionally. I could honestly hear and feel the difference in my vocal quality in a relatively short period of time. Along with that came more confidence on my part. I still somehow have been unable to shake that fearless [read: cheeseball class-clown] in me, so I’ve still gotten into trouble here and there.
In regards to vocals, I found that just because you like a song, doesn’t mean that a) it's easy to sing; b) it works with your range; and, c) you should sing it at all. Answering these questions have also given me the ability to sing songs that I know I can sing strongly. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to give up on songs. I’ve got a large sketchbook that I use for my song book. I dictate all the songs I learn in it, write the chords, phrasing, etc. It's like I have my own little language to understand what's going on. Anyway, sometimes I’ll look back into early parts of the book and reminded of a song that I had reluctantly given up on for whatever reason. It's nice to try it again and sometimes I’m happily surprised. Sometimes were not ready for a song. Sometimes, the song comes to us just when we need it to (which could be a whole other blog post).
Other practice techniques I’ve used would be to record myself singing a particular song. Am I singing the melody? Am I sharp or flat in places? It’s a great way to objectively hear yourself and be able to analyze it clearly. Which ultimately will give you more confidence to sing it better next time. Goodness knows in those late-night, bourbon-fueled heated jams anything can sound good to us. It’s at those times we must coil back into humility and remember that there is always work to be done!
Anyway, I digress.
The short of it all is that the feelings of stage fright do get better, or lessen over time. Maybe not always go away, at least for me, but are not as quite apparent. I guess practice is your friend, that’s the moral of this here story. The more we practice, or shine the light on our inadequacy, the easier it is for us to see areas for growth. If we all walk around like we have nothing to learn, the world would be a dreadfully boring place. On the flip side, I’ve learned to respect my stage fright. It's feelings like these that remind me that I am vulnerable, I’m human. So many times our ego can take control so much so that when we do have feelings like this, they can be interpreted (by the ego) as a weakness. And I don’t think that’s it. Vulnerability keeps us ready for growth, challenges us and keeps us human, we're not some fancy robot.