More than anything, singers are afraid of singing because they are afraid of messing up. Messing up is considered the worst thing that could possibly happen. Messing up generally includes forgetting the lyrics, not hitting the high notes. sounding bad, looking bad. But since we’re humans not robots, we will sometimes forget lyrics, miss notes, sound bad and look bad-even if we’re pro’s. So what’s the big deal? Why are we so afraid of messing up?
Maybe you haven’t thought about it this way before but I believe that underneath the fear of messing up is the fear of not being liked and even loved. If I’m not ‘good’ then people will laugh or think badly of me-and then I won’t be liked. I want people to think I’m good, and if they don’t think that, then I won’t feel loved. The connection between being and feeling loved and singing without messing up needs to get blown up. Right. Now. Why? Because it’s NOT TRUE!
In life and on stage, it is a mistake to believe that if we are perfect, everyone will love us. Think about it. None of us are perfect in any way, yet people still do love us, right? Our families, friends, co-workers? And we love them in their imperfection, right? And the biggest secret of all is that often it is our imperfections that make us even more lovable to others.
Here’s what I mean: A few weeks ago, I went to see an old favorite band play. Forgetting that they usually have a different band open for them, I got there right on time and then realized I’d have to sit through an hour of a band I didn’t know. Normally this wouldn’t bother me so much, but this time it did because I didn’t eat dinner because I rushed to the show and as soon as I sat down I realized I rushed and would be hungry for ‘nothing’. My band wasn’t on for another hour. So as I drank my overpriced drink and snuck bites of the granola bar I found in my bag, I tried to enjoy this new, unknown band. It was hard, you guys. I won’t lie. I felt they were just blah. The songs were predictable musically, I could barely understand the lyrics and the voices were ‘good’ but boring. In short, nothing felt exciting or peaked my interest in any way. They didn’t say much to us either, just sang and sang and sang. Soon the songs started sounding all the same. I was completely bored and spaced out. Then finally, near the end of their set, something great happened. The lead singer messed up!
This is what happened. She had been playing guitar and singing the whole show and then she sat down at the keyboard that was set up for my band that was coming on next. She was singing her song and playing the keys and then right at the climax of the song, the biggest, most dramatic moment that was supposed to be THE moment of the whole song, horrible sounds started coming out of the keyboard. Totally wrong chords. She looked down at her hands (she had just been singing with her eyes closed all into it) frantically trying to figure out what was going wrong, but she couldn’t. Every key she tried to hit to get back on track just made it worse. It was awful. Everyone was just holding their breath wondering what was going to happen. After a few more terrible notes, she quit playing, sang the end of the song on her own without the keyboard, and that was that. She got up and walked back to her guitar for the next song. The audience clapped, confused. And then she laughed and said in her southern accent, ‘So, that’s not my keyboard ya’ll, and I think I hit a button there by accident that transposes the key or something and I don’t know, I just didn’t know what to press to get it back to normal. Sorry about that. I really don’t like to play things with buttons too much!”
I felt such a huge sense of relief for her. She didn’t just totally lose it. Something happened that was beyond her control. There was a technical difficulty and that could happen to anyone at any time. The audience laughed and applauded wildly. We loved what happened. It was fun and funny! The energy in the room had palpably shifted. We were sleepy before, now we were alive and awake and excited and loving her. Loving her and loving her humanity. Loving that stuff could go wrong for her and she could laugh about it and we could laugh about it. It was so wonderful that she messed up. And personally I got to see yet again that messing up can really be a good thing. It brings us closer together. It connects us in a real and immediate way, sometimes (in this case especially) even more than the music that was intended to does. I didn’t like that singer much before she messed up, after, even though her songs didn’t interest me much, I really liked her and even felt enormous love for her because she taught me something. And amazingly, the next two songs she sang I really enjoyed. Hmm, I was bored before the mess up and into it after. That’s what’s possible!
Now the singer in the band I came to see had her lyrics set up on a music stand next to her. She didn’t have all 20 songs memorized and she wasn’t apologizing for it or hiding it. ‘I’m not perfect and don’t have to be’ was the message, and I respected it. If she felt more comfortable with the words in front of her, if she felt she could make the music better as a result, I’m all for it. I do this often in my shows too. And when folks yelled out that they wanted her to sing this favorite or that favorite, she thanked them and said, “Wow, that’s really going back, I don’t think I even know those songs anymore!”. We all loved that and laughed-even though I really would’ve loved to her those songs. She maintained control of her stage and knew her limits, and more than that, she was essentially owning to and confessing that she wasn’t perfect. She couldn’t just whip out any song and sing it and we respected her self-knowing and her imperfectness.
In another show I saw recently, the singer hit a lemon. Meaning, she went for a note but it didn’t come out sounding how she wanted it to. Singers fear that so much but honestly it’s just one note. One note out of thousands of notes. I personally loved her for it. Especially because she was so into what she was doing, she risked being raw and real and trying to go for a note she was hearing in her head and wanted to share. So it didn’t work out perfectly, but it was exciting to imagine the note and feel her energy build toward it. So much more authentic than valuable that doing it in the safe, practiced way she might’ve been used it. I respected that she wanted to stretch past her comfort zone. Are you starting to get what I mean here?
Lastly, and importantly, another reason messing up can be a good thing is because messing up is how you learn where you need more work. Messing up provides vital information. For example, do you mess up notes on stage but not in practice? Or do you mess up in different places in practice and on stage? Your practice routine may need to be examined and revamped. So instead of saying to yourself, ‘I won’t perform because I might mess up’ how about saying, ‘I’m performing. I might mess up but if I do I’ll definitely learn from it.’ Or how about, ‘If I prepare myself well and perform my best and I have a mess up or two, I’ll take it in stride and my audience won’t mind. They might even like me more for it!’.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that you should in any way look forward to messing up. You don’t have to love when you mess up. I’m not crazy, people! I know it doesn’t feel great, believe me. I’ve done it so many times so I get it. But the longer I’m an artist and a performer and a coach the more I’ve discovered if I can extend a little love and understanding and curiosity to the mess, I am well on my way to developing a healthy relationship with the realities of performing. Performing will forever and ever include the duality of the possibility of royally messing up with the transcendent experience of feeling more happy and alive and joyful than you feel anywhere else. If you aren’t willing to mess up, you deny yourself all the pleasures. Or I’ll say it differently, if you want to experience true bliss and connect to the singer in you and share your message with the world, a little mess up now and then is worth it.