If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear? – Stevie Nicks
For the first post of this two-part series, see: 4 Scary Songwriting Milestones (and How to Survive Them), Part 1, where we swapped stories about bad reviews and first-time stage fright.
This time we’re going to talk about two more scary situations that songwriters face on their musical journey.
Scary Songwriting Milestone #3: Performing for a crowd of strangers
The first time you look out into a crowd and see strangers, your knees may knock. My first time was an open mic in a packed coffee shop and bar in mid-coast Maine. I covered Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
I started the songs at too fast a tempo. I began singing “Folsom Prison Blues” one fifth too low in pitch, so the low notes were right off the bottom of the bass clef – impossible to sing. I missed half of the chord changes in “Hallelujah”. I got the song so tangled that I resorted to singing some passages – trembling – a capella.
What surprised me was that despite how badly I played, by the end of that second song I was feeling much more relaxed. The worst of the shakiness in my fingers was over, and I was ready to try again.
The audience gave me a warm round of applause for trying.
When playing for strangers, you’ll be facing an audience without moral support. You open yourself up to possible criticism, and to making yourself look a bit silly. But so what? It’s no crime to make mistakes. Give yourself credit for attempting something that terrifies most people. You’ll never regret taking that risk; even when you bomb, singing onstage makes you feel alive.
Scary Songwriting Milestone #4: Performing a song of your own
Performing a song that you wrote is even more intense than performing covers. When you perform your own song, you are the one responsible for every word, every chord change, and every note.
When the song is your own work, you’re offering up something that you deeply feel. Entrusting yourself to an audience in this way is scary. It’s also exhilarating and, when all goes especially well, there’s no high quite like it.
As songwriters, we usually labor for a long time to finally write an original song that’s worth hearing. Most audiences aren’t as easily excited by new songs as they are by old favorites. Don’t be discouraged if you get lukewarm responses at first – people don’t always recognize good work when they hear it.
Know that it’s possible you’ll get flat reactions, no reactions, or even somewhat negative reactions to your song. That’s perfectly okay – no matter what happens, you’ll learn. You can always try again.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Fiona Apple, speaking on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson:
FIONA: The worst feeling in the world for some reason is—and this has been happening since I was, like, eight years old—I would write little songs and I would be so excited and I would get my mom to come in and listen to them. But as soon as I was done playing the song, I would get so depressed. And I still don’t understand it. It’s just a letdown. I guess I expect somebody to hear it and then the world just becomes bigger and brighter all of a sudden because I’ve played this song out loud for the first time.
CRAIG: No, you’re confusing that with drugs!
Creative Commons photo by Raphael Strada