How to Overcome the Fear of Singing

It comes up over and over again: Many, many adults are terrified of singing. Perhaps they were shamed into mouthing the words when they were in school. Maybe they got mean looks when singing at a party or something like that. But singing is your birthright. Singing can be a true joy that I like to compare to flight. It’s a little like diving off the high dive when you first open your mouth to let out a tune. And it is a vital part of ear training: your voice sits at the intersection of your thinking mind, your listening ear, and your feeling heart. It is one of our most important tools in connecting what you understand to what you hear. If you are terrified of singing at all, how are you going to sing better?

First off, remember what I’m telling you: singing is your birthright and no can take it away. Our competitive (American) culture has turned many joyful human experiences into fodder for competition and profit (“American Idol” and “The Voice”). Once upon a time, singing was something people did primarily together. It built community and a sense of togetherness. Lifting voices and singing with other people can give you a deep sense of belonging and entrainment in your brain, soul, and every cell in your body. It didn’t matter if you had a great sounding voice. You were welcome in the community sound. Sing out loud and clear to show your unwillingness to be silenced by values of good and bad that are sponsored by product placement and the culture of winners and losers.

Always sing like no one can hear you!

Now for some practical tips on how you can overcome any reluctance you may have.

Pitch matching is more than a skill: It’s an attitude.

The foundational skill of singing is called “pitch matching”. That’s where you hear a note and can reproduce it with your voice. Many people can do this naturally, but there are also many who need a little help. The good news is that singing a single note in tune with someone or something else can be a very rich and satisfying experience. It’s not just your voice that’s making a sound. Your whole body picks up your voice’s vibration. When there is another sound vibrating in the same space at the same frequency, a deep level of entrainment sets in that feels great and is healthy for your whole spirit. I believe this is a reason why people who love to sing really love to sing.

Singing in tune is a physical, psychological, and perceptual task

The same reasons that make singing so wonderful also make it terrifying. You have to hear a thing, and then produce that sound with your body without pressing any buttons or keys. Every time you open your mouth to sing, you might feel a deep sense of risk and apprehension: “Is someone going to laugh at me?” “Are they going to tell me that I should stop singing and stick with… playing tambourine?”.

Meanwhile, you might be hearing a note that is out of your range. You might attempt to produce that tone and find your whole singing-hearing mechanism feels out of whack. Disoriented. If you are unable to make a sound that is too high or too low, you might incorrectly determine that you are tone deaf. You are not tone deaf. Singing is a skill and you will improve. You can try to sound like your favorite singer and improve in performative singing. But we are singing for the joy of and singing for understanding. It does not matter how you sound. So let’s get over that one right away. Sound like yourself. No one else can!

Here are three simple exercises you can do to improve your ability to sing on pitch. These employ singing low-ish notes and playing the electric guitar because many of the people I find who struggle with this are male guitar players.

First, find a relaxed but energetic position, holding your guitar. Then, turn up the volume of your guitar amp. You want it quiet enough so you can hear your own voice, but loud enough so that your voice is in the background, not quite drowned out, but close.

Exercise 1: Slide and seek

When I work with someone who needs help matching pitch, the first thing I do is have them sing any note and then I match it with my voice. This gives you the experience of singing in tune with the least amount of effort or challenge. You want to know how it feels to sing in tune, to have your voice and body vibrating along with another sound filling the same space.

  1. Sing a relaxed note on an “uh” sound. (I kind of pretend I’m a caveman: “uhhhhh”) It doesn’t matter what the note is. You really don’t care. What you do care about is holding that note steady. You are going to find that note on your guitar.
  2. Hold the sound steady, keep whatever pitch you started on going.
  3. Now you are going to find that note on your guitar. The fact that it is relaxed will probably put the note in the middle of your vocal range, and if you are a bass-ish singer, it will probably be waiting for you on the A-string.
  4. While still sustaining the tone with your voice, play the open a string, and then gradually slide your finger up the fretboard from the first fret on up.
  5. At some point before the 12th fret, you will probably notice that you and your guitar are making the same tone. (If you find. that the A-string is too low, you can do all this on the D-string. If the A-string is too high, you can try the E-string.)
  6. Stop moving your finger at this point, take a breath and keep toning that note. Keep playing it, too. Feel the resonance fill your body with energy!

There’s no limit the number of times you can do this and still get a benefit. As it gets easier, this will always be an exercise you can return to and wake up your ear-voice connection.

Exercise 2: Sing and play something simple

  1. Play the open A-string and let it sustain.
  2. Sing that note. Hold it and feel the unison tone connecting you and your instrument.
  3. Play the 2nd fret A-string and let it sustain.
  4. Sing that note. Hold it and feel the unison tone connecting you and your instrument.
  5. Play the 4th fret A-string and let it sustain.
  6. Sing that note. You get the idea.
  7. Continue to improvise melodies using only the open string, 2nd, and 4th frets. (These equate to do, re, mi, but we’re not worried about any of that for now. We are focusing on the feeling of singing unison.

Exercise 3: Dive into a power chord

This last exercise can get a little wild. And it should! The idea here is to create a whole sonic energy field from your guitar. Then you’ll step into that field with your voice, singing and listening for when your voice is singing a unison with one of the notes in the chord. Again, the focus isn’t on learning how to become a better singer, so much as it is learning to listen by using your voice as a guide.

  1. Play an E-power chord (aka E5. Open E-string. Then A-string, 2nd fret; D-string, second fret. Only strum those 3 strings.)
  2. Sing a siren (or a whoop) nice and loud (remember, your amp is up pretty high.) Move your voice up and down, sliding and seeking the sounds in the chord.
  3. Notice when your voice matches one of the guitar notes. When it does, sing that note steadily for a bit.
  4. Continue sliding up and down, seeking the notes in the E5 chord. You may notice a lot of harmonics if you have distortion on your amp, and that will give you more tones to match.
  5. The goal is not to find all the notes in the chord. It is only to cultivate the freedom and willingness to sing while matching notes in a rich texture with your voice.

Again, it doesn’t matter how a good a singer you are. It doesn’t matter how good a singer you think you are. The important thing is that you begin to sing not only to develop your ear, but also to sing with abandon, as though no one else can hear you!

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