Becoming a better public singer

Public speaking is for wimps. Try public singing. 

This past Sunday I invited a dozen of my neighbors and their families to our house. They started to arrive around 3pm, just as a few select neighbors pulled up with their guitars and bass amps. I’d spent the preceding several weeks acquiring some new equipment:

  • Two Shure SM58 mics
  • A Mackie 6-track mixer
  • Four power strips
  • Four XLR cables
  • Two music stands
  • Two mic stands with booms
  • Two FetHead mic preamps

I already had the small PA speaker we used to use for Scripted panels. It packed a punch and had two 1/4 and XLR plugs in the back. The Mackie mixer I got also included some nice vocal effects, including a digital delay commonly used on vocal track recordings. When everything was plugged in, it sounded pretty good. 

Total cost was about $400. Benefit was priceless. ROI was infinite.

This was the second time I organized one of these backyard concerts. The first was back in May, prior to the show I did with the Rolling Sloans for my 10th MIT Sloan reunion. I wanted to practice singing in front of an audience, so my neighbor and I did an all-acoustic set. No mics, although I did play my electric guitar through an amp and used a couple of effects pedals. My neighbors loved it, but the kids reacted the best. They were amazed, somewhat in awe, and it seemed to relax everyone. We had maybe a dozen kids and literally there was not a single meltdown. Everyone stayed late.

This time we were louder and although the kids did love it, I can’t say there were no tears. The first event must have been a miraculous fluke of nature. The feedback, still, was overwhelmingly positive. They said we sounded great. My wife, who would not be subtle about critiquing the performance, said it sounded like this is something I normally do. She said if she walked in and didn’t know me, she’d hear the music and singing and think, “That’s nice. He must do this a lot.” That’s all I was hoping for. 

I wrote recently about public speaking. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned in the last year about public singing. 

It takes repetition

I started taking voice and piano lessons in January 2019, about ten months ago now. We’d meet every other week and spend about 45 minutes, half on piano and half on voice. As my Rolling Sloans concert got closer, we focused mainly on voice. 

I remember being nervous at our first lesson. I wasn’t used to singing in front of anyone, not even my wife. But the thing is, I love music, and I want to be able to perform. I want to have a repertoire I can bust out whenever the moment calls for it. I told my teacher that’s my goal: to have a set of songs I can sing any time, two drinks deep or stone cold sober. 

It turned out I was drawn to songs just out of my upper range. Even though I can sing high, I can’t match Elton John’s or Paul Simon’s or Paul McCartney’s high G’s. It’s not going to sound good, and I shouldn’t be shy about changing the key. 

Figuring this out, getting comfortable with it, and learning about the strengths and weaknesses of my voice simply takes time. I’m ten months in and still getting started, but I’m a heck of a lot better than I was in January. 

It takes courage

The fear of public singing doesn’t diminish with age. I’d assumed when I was younger, struggling to sing in front my family over campfires, that at some point I’d suddenly find my voice, enjoy singing in public, and everything would fall into place. 

It turns out that’s not the way it works. Public singing doesn’t get easier simply by getting older. It takes repetition, as I just said, but it also takes courage. My singing teacher told me the worst thing you can do when performing is feel insecure. The audience will feel your discomfort and that will make them uncomfortable. Nobody wants to watch some squirm in the spotlight. On the contrary, people are drawn to those who are extremely comfortable and confident when all eyes are on them. This is an aside, but I think this explains the great draw (and, arguably, the great success) of Donald Trump. 

I think the best way to become courageous is to attempt to be courageous and succeed. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised. These performances are my way of flexing the muscle, pushing its limits, and building its fiber. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. 

It’s incredibly fun

When everything is clicking, performance is a drug. I can only imagine what it’s like to stand on stage in front of a stadium full of people. My experience this weekend, that weekend in May, and at the Boston bar during reunion weekend with my cover band, is only a sliver of that experience, but it’s potent nonetheless. Two days removed from my last performance, I’m ready to do it again. 

I got a taste of what it’s like at the Bohemian Grove where my neighbor took me for the public picnic weekend. He’s part of the artist community there where incredible musicians perform for members and their guests. They do covers and originals and feed off the eager audience. Outside of the main concerts, there are dozens of side shows in the camps scattered around the grove. 

I wanted to jump behind the piano and sing “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” I wanted to grab someone’s guitar and noodle out “Kathy’s Song,” but I’m not quite ready yet. I don’t have the lyrics memorized. These songs are not in my ideal keys. If I’m invited again next year, I’ll be ready then. I’ll have my repertoire and I’ll be able to participate as a performer and an audience member. It’s a major box on my bucket list and I’m working towards putting a big bold check in it.

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