Dec 17 2012

Singing Success Tips - The Value of Performing

I have recently discovered a TV show on Paladia music channel called “Live from Daryl’s House”. It is an interesting concept, each episode is a live jam session of a guest artist with Hall and Oates founder Daryl Hall at his upstate New York house. He’s had the main great room renovated to be a performance space/video studio.

In between performances they have scenes of having dinner with the guest and discussing their music and various topics. The latest episode was with legendary guitar player/songwriter Joe Walsh of the James Gang, Eagles and solo artist. During the dinner segment Joe Walsh was talking about how he developed as a musician.

He made some interesting observations about current young performers that they are not willing to play live for an audience. He said they are a legend in their parents garage, but won’t play for an audience. Because they feel they won’t be good enough.

The key thing he said was, when he was young he played for an audience whenever he could. And it was awful. That was the key. Be awful. And he said it never really gets good. It just gradually gets less awful. This from a guy who played with the Eagles, some of the best legit musicians in rock music.

So this got me thinking about my experiences developing as a musician and performer. And I have to say, it really is a lot like this. As a classical singer we tend to have our first performances in church or school, whether high-school, or like me, college.

And I remember I was always scared to get up and sing because I never felt good enough. But everybody feels that way to some degree. Obviously some feel it more than others. But I realized after a while that I would improve after a performance way more than I would just practicing.

And just like Joe Walsh said, over time it gradually became less bad. I still always felt like it sucked. But if I was being objective, especially if I had a recording to review, I would notice that it wasn’t so bad and it sucked less than I thought.

It is hard to do, but if we can learn to have the attitude of it being OK to suck for the sake of learning we can really progress fast. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until I was older. But I still try to keep it in mind, because we are always learning and improving.

To take this idea a little farther, I encourage people to find situations to perform where it doesn’t matter what kind of impression they make. This is so they can go into it with the attitude of being free to fail. It is hard to do and you don’t want the first time you try it to be in an important performance.

But the idea behind this is to experience the liberation that comes with the realization that failing has no negative consequences. If you can fall flat on your face, almost purposely going there, it gets rid of the fear of it happening. I guess it is a version of the attitude, do what you are scared of to kill the fear.

Once you do it failure becomes less scary. And an interesting thing happens. Often when the performer is inviting failure they are so free they perform the best they ever have. And that is the setup for a major breakthrough.

This discussion relates to my last post about Zig Ziglar and dealing with fear. I would consider this to be a strategy or exercise to continue the process of freeing ourselves from fear that we started in that post.

What I find so interesting about what Joe Walsh said was the part about it never really getting good, just less awful. In a sense that is not true because obviously with the good performers it does get good. But I think it is a matter of perspective.

From the perspective of the audience it definitely gets good. In some cases it gets great. But from the perspective of the performer it rarely gets good because our level of judgement increases as our skill increases.

So what is now way better than it used to be we still assess as not so great because our perspective has progressed in equal measure to our skill. That is how someone who was considered one of the best sopranos in the world could still be found in tears after a performance. Because she felt she had made so many mistakes.

Now, I would say that might be a little excessive, but it is certainly normal to feel disappointed with our performance when everyone else is enthusiastically positive about it. Even when I was younger and felt that I was not singing well, and even after I had learned what I was meaning to do and not achieving it, I would have audience members praise me and my singing.

Which was something that always felt disingenuous because I knew what I wanted to happen with my instrument and it wasn’t happening. So I would be disappointed with my performance. The frustrating part is even when you learn what you want to do with your voice it still doesn’t always work the way you intend.

Ultimately we are all faced with figuring it out ourselves. Even if we have a great teacher. They can only point the way and illuminate it for us. We have to figure out how to travel the path. But for most that guidance is the difference between getting it and not.

So if you are hesitant to perform, or too frequently disappointed in your performances, try taking a different attitude toward them. Go into it as an experiment where it is OK, or even desirable, to fail. Know that the failure will teach you more than the success. Which will ultimately bring you more rapidly to success.

It sounds a little backwards, but it works.

Leave comments and thoughts below. Thanks.

  1. Jeannie Whalen

    omg Thank you! I _knew_ a change in attitude was required, but I never thought of this approach.

  2. charles humphreys

    Michael – I was listening to a TED talk recently by Sir Ken Robinson.

    He made a wonderful statement “we have stigmatized making mistakes as a punishable thing!”

    I was teaching a Workshop on the 1st December and because of Sir Kens statements I taught a small section on what really are mistakes….at least within the context of todays definition and one of things I turned to was the story of Edison where he is said to have made 14,999 versions of the lightbulb – all of which didn’t work but the 15,000th did. Whether this is true or not I am not quite sure but it it illustrates the point that mistakes are simply a progression.

    For me I learned later in life that each performance was simply an exercise on a new skill I had learnt that week.

    For instance when you told me about keeping my navel in – it was something I focused on when I performed one evening not that long ago. I played a game with myself to see if I was indeed keeping the chest cavity open and buoyant. It worked, I found myself absorbed by one area of my body that took away any thought of nerves or disgust with my performance – in fact I congratulated myself afterwards for what an amazing voice I had achieved that evening. One of my band members was approached by someone from the USA who was visiting New Zealand and he said to her ” I never thought I would have found that class of voice in this country – where can I see him again?” (yes a little pride set in):-)

    Great article Michael and I love the fact you feel about yourself the same way I do about myself. The voice is a wonderful journey and never a destination of stagnation.

    Thank you.


  3. Thank you all for your comments.

    Jeannie – I’m glad this gave you an idea to try something new. Let me know what you find with your experiments.

    Charles – Great story. That statement is very true. It stems from how our educational system operates. It is a sin to get wrong answers. But wrong answers are what then lead us to the right ones.

    Your performance exercise is great to hear about. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Nice article.

    “So if you are hesitant to perform, or too frequently disappointed in your performances, try taking a different attitude toward them. Go into it as an experiment where it is OK, or even desirable, to fail. Know that the failure will teach you more than the success. Which will ultimately bring you more rapidly to success.”

    This paragraph has great advice. In addition, I would say that it’s hard to adopt such an attitude towards performing at first, particularly if you have strong beliefs and emotions that enforce the opposite view. It’s one thing to know something intellectually, but another thing to feel it deep within.

    I would encourage anyone who has a strong fear of failure to take introductory improv classes. In an improv class, mistakes are the norm, and you are taught not to overthink everything, but learn to trust that your body, mind and mouth will come up with something. Over time, the attitude that Michael wrote in the paragraph will be ingrained in your whole being. You wouldn’t even have to think about it.

    It’s also nice to perform in a place where there are low stakes. I’ve been to several open mics now, and because they’re free and nobody is paying to see you, the pressure is low. I’m not entirely comfortable on stage yet, but once I was bored of singing the same songs so I decided to improvise a song instead. Were there mistakes? Of course. Was it worse than I thought? No. But it takes time and repetition to learn that things aren’t usually as bad as they seem.

  5. Thanks, Simon. Good points, it is hard to do this. You almost need to set up a special performance just for this purpose. Improv classes are a great suggestion.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your blog, always insightful. Performance gives us adrenalin, a goal, a chance to shine, teaches us the value of mindful rehearsal and practice, makes us take a risk, and gives our ego a workout whichever way it goes. It gives us a chance to tell our stories and connect emotionally to the audience. I strongly encourage students to perform at any level, even if it’s just a verse and chorus in a workshop.
    Kath W
    Grad Dip Mus (Pedagogy)
    QLD Conservatorium, Brisbane.

  7. That was truly amazing. I loved it. I relate completely to that feeling of “Damn, this is sounding awful and I am trying to change it but it won´t work”. Going down of the stage in shame, and not understanding the praises of others.

    I once had a very small performance, in front of few people, and had this terrible soar throat. Coughin continously and with hoarse voice. And I said to myself that it was OK to fail, that it would be natural, that everyone would understand and that it was enough for me to even try in those conditions. Damn, I remember it as one of the performances in which I had more fun, and everyone was surprised of my performance and praised me when I got down the stage, even my singing teacher. Now it all makes sense.

    I am looking forward to read your other articles :)

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