how does fear show up in singing?
I love the 80s.
Especially Alf and pop music. (Ah, the music!) My personal Spotify playlist is packed with gems from the 80s, and when I listen to them, I have a smile plastered on my face and feel that all is right with the world.
One of my favorite bands of all time is Tears for Fears.
Imagine my delight when I came across this video from 1983 aired by the BBC featuring Curt Smith in a proper voice lesson with some British doyen of classical voice pedagogy.
It is excruciating.
It was all some kind of publicity stunt, but I have been thinking about it nonstop, rankled by 1) the public shaming of one of my pop music idols and 2) the lack of clear guidance through a vocal situation he was not equipped to manage. At least in 1983.
However, this video (which I urge you to watch) clearly demonstrates one of the most common scenarios that I see in the studio of how fear plays out in our singing.
I call it The Flinch.
An everyday flinch happens when we encounter a situation in which we are physically threatened in some way, such as when something is about to strike us, or we are about to get into a car accident, or take a fall.
It’s akin to a mini-blackout of experience. We are not aware of anything because we are busy protecting ourselves from harm. Physically, our bodies respond by closing our eyes tight, stopping our breath, and contracting every muscle in our body.
We make ourselves as small as possible.
It happens in our singing all the time.
What Is The Singing Flinch?
The Flinch occurs unconsciously whenever we feel scared or threatened, for whatever reason that may be. I know this sounds dramatic, but it’s true. I do it, too.
The Flinch is also quite subtle, almost unrecognizable, but is the most common way in which I see fear manifested in singing.
The most common reason is because we do not feel capable. The mind says: DANGER! You can’t do this! And we blackout for a second, and either interrupt our singing, or surrender our hold on reality and make some cosmically hideous mistake.
My beloved Curt Smith demonstrates that clearly in his “voice lesson.”
For you and me it may be slightly more subtle. The Flinch shows up most commonly at the:
- Onset of any phrase
- Highest note in any phrase
- Leap (up OR down) in any phrase
- Rhythmic anomaly
- Encountering rogue accidentals
But it can happen anytime you feel unsure. (Sight-singing is an extreme case of rampant flinching.)
It is in anticipation of any challenge in our music that we feel the most scared, and we are apt to lose control. There is a micromoment of squeezing our eyes shut, stopping our breath, and contracting all of our muscles.
It happens in an instant. It feels as though time is accelerating, as we try to get through the challenge as quickly as possible, and avoid any discomfort whatsoever.
It feels lousy, confusing, and oh so frustrating. (Right here!)
And, it’s invisible. You can’t even tell it’s happening!
So if you feel scared or intimidated by something in your score, congratulations! You are normal.
But how to improve? There is a workaround, but it takes time, patience, and practice.
The key to staying clear, focused, and calm in your singing is NOT to be perfectly capable. Of course, we always strive to improve our skills and knowledge, but you and I will never, ever achieve a state of Perfectly Capable.
Rather, the key is maintaining your awareness of the present moment at all times, even when you don’t feel capable. How?
To maintain your awareness of the flow of breath. How?
By removing yourself from the chatter of the mind (the chatter that says: you are in danger!) and embedded in the heart-centered, embodied, clear-minded presence of awareness.
It starts with your intention to be centered in the heart, and the other pieces will fall into place. The only caveat is that you have to practice staying in this state of awareness as you sing, and apply your awareness when you are unsure, scared, or are working against deeply-ingrained habits that trigger and enforce your fear.
Start with this mantra:
Heart. Breath. Sound.
Sing with this thought:
My breath is flowing.
All other musical tasks will be possible when you are in the flow of the breath. Every onset, every high note, every leap, every freaky rhythm, every Thing you encounter in a piece of music is within your grasp.
It takes some getting used to, and you must have courage to face your challenges with your eyes wide open. You can’t hide from anything. But you will feel more in control and ease, you have infinitely more breath at your disposal (it’s not getting demolished during your Flinch), and you will begin to develop a deep trust of your voice, and your Self.
I believe that ultimately, we want to feel capable and confident when we sing. When you know the secret places where you hide, you will understand that these fears hinder your capacity to BE capable and confident.
Look your Flinch in the face. Breath your way through it. Watch your fear disappear.
IMAGE: Cover art from Songs from The Big Chair, Tears for Fears