Fun In The Presence Of Fear
It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced a sense of fear when performing. Back in my early days as a budding singer-songwriter my performance skills were nonexistent. Coming of age in the late 70’s playing in bars and coffeehouses, you could usually find me looking down at my fingers terrified that I would screw up the chords. Between songs I would mumble incoherently and so self-effacing I’m sure it was painful to watch.
I know this because my husband Ernest tried everything to get the Beth who sang at home with centered confidence to show up and step all the way into her shoes as a talented artist when performing in public. I’d have to say his ongoing frustration with this challenge was probably the thing we argued about the most!
I struggled on and off for many years with unpredictable lapses in confidence and self worth when in front of an audience. There was this punishing voice in my head that would say “they won’t like you” or worse “they’re pretending to like you but really they feel sorry for you.”
This combo-platter of fear left me with a stage presence that you could call “control freak meets doormat”. Nobody could win. Not the audience and certainly not me.
Still somehow I managed to do some wonderful performances over the next decade or two in spite of those times on stage when that old sense of unworthiness crept back in. Looking back now and seeing videos of myself at that time, I was rarely present. The times when I wasn’t gripped in that fear, I was leaving the rendering of my performance up to muscle memory while my mind drifted off somewhere in an effort to avoid the stress of considering the possibilities of all that could go wrong. Interestingly, the “muscle memory” performances ended up being pretty good. After all I did have skills whenever my fear of failure wasn’t undermining them.
So how did I end up like I am today, fully realized performer renown for my ability to recover with humor from some whopper mistakes, in love with performing and virtually fearless? How is that possible?
Well I could write a book on that. Finding and igniting the pilot light of one’s own sense self-worth is one of the greatest gifts we can learn how to give ourselves.
For me it was about learning to trust that all the people ‘out there’ also struggle with their own version of this fear. The reason it’s painful for us to watch someone die on stage is because we don’t want that for anyone. I had to learn to trust that my audience wanted to support me.
But before that could happen I had a job to do, which was to be present and set the intention to have a blast.
My husband Ernest died of cancer in 1994. In one of our last conversations, which was powerful on many levels, Ernest finally hit on a way to help me see how to change the old unpredictable fear-based dynamic I still carried. He simply said, “Honey, promise me when you perform please, just go out there and have fun. Even if you never know how much talent you have, instead of spending any of your energy comparing and judging yourself, just lead with fun. I promise you, it will create it’s own phantom power.”
And that’s what I did. The very next time I performed and every time since I’ve stayed in the “fun zone”. Mistakes are going to happen. And like I said I’m KNOWN for the quality and quantity of my musical mishaps!
Try starting a song on live BBC radio in the wrong key with an 80-piece orchestra going out to several million people! I stopped cold realizing something was terribly wrong and the collective gasp of the audience was palpable. I followed this with “Oh, I’m known for this! It has to happen at least once every show!” There was laughter and applause as I put my capo on the correct fret and launched again.
I no longer feel nor do I come across as unworthy when I’m up on stage sharing my songs and my stories. I dive right into the whole great bang of what it is to be right there with that audience in that moment. The first moments of walking on a stage I feel like I’m being handed a blank check. In the past I never would have known I could write it for any amount and sign my name “Fun” and the audience would double my investment!
Each collection of people is unique and yet it’s a given that without exception they are there to laugh, cry and sing along bringing all it means to be human in a celebration of songs.
In truth of course I’m not really fearless. I just have a different relationship to fear these days. Although it no longer has a driver’s license fear is always going to be along for the ride. If it starts to get in the way I just pop a sun hat on it and give it a tambourine. Sometimes I think fear is really just my ego in drag.