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Performing in Public

June 11, 2012 | 6 Comments

Hello Mr. Keillor,

I have such a desire to sing and play the guitar but I just can't do it in front of people. I have close family members who have become very popular in the bluegrass gospel field and I'm terrified that people will expect my voice to be perfect like theirs when I know it's not. I really want to fulfill this desire to step out. Any advice?  



It's hard to venture into a field where your relatives have made a mark. That's why I'm not a baker ---- because my aunts did that so beautifully. I baked a couple of loaves of bread that were like bricks and never attempted it again. Self-criticism can be withering, and that's why you dread singing in front of people: you're afraid of yourself and how you would punish yourself for your own mistakes. But it's a long way from singing in your room and singing on a stage for people ---- there's a lot of space in between where you could be perfectly comfortable, making music with friends. Sitting and picking guitar with people of like mind and like abilities. It's a wonderful place to be, in someone's living room, scootched down between other people, singing. I remember a magical evening at my house in St. Paul where Sara Watkins got into it with Old Crow Medicine Show and Pat Donohue and some others, and they wailed for two or three hours, and nobody was self-conscious at all. You could do that. It might satisfy that urge you have, or it might give you self-confidence to go on, or it might be something you'd do once or twice and then decide to take up baking or do standup comedy or ride a bike from coast to coast or write a novel. Good luck, Joni


Thick Skin, Sweet Choice

It might help if you consider that even as folks all over the world enjoy singing along with Garrison Keillor every week, the archives are ripe with detractors begging him to stop - some have gone so far as to say that it makes them change the radio station (and that was what they were compelled to say in the wake of his 9/09 stroke!). The moral is: sing your heart out and develop a thick skin!

p.s. When I was 5 my school teacher played the guitar and we sang folk songs. I have no idea if she was any "good" but the songs are still dear to me. Perhaps you can start with an audience you find less intimidating and judgmental, as the previous post to host respondent who got her start in the hair salon (Breaking Into Show Business, 5/7/12). Some very talented people play in parks and subways; and how about schools and nursing homes?

I met GK today at the train station. I was thinking that he sings a lot better than Bob Dillon. Who gave that guy a mike? Anyway he sings fine, and often pairs with the talented Heather Masse. If people can tolerate Bob Dillon, you too can be tolerated.

Pretend that you are in your living room and are "scootched down" among the relatives when you step out onstage?
Just do it. You will find that you are in another zone as soon as you are in that spotlight. This is advice coming from someone that didn't get the opportunity when it would have made a great difference.
My mama said if even just one person likes your voice, it is a gift that shouldn't be wasted.
SO, sing for yourself, sing in church (and people will turn around to find out where it is coming from), sing in the car (LOUDLY!), sing to your kids (even when they beg you to stop, please), try Karaoke Night at the corner pub, just keep singing. It is your birdsong, your whalespeak, your elephant rumble. It is your prayer to God and S/HE is pleased.

As a Pre-K teacher I teach four and five year olds many songs --there are about fifteen solid songs in their repertoire. My voice crackles a bit, but they don't seem to care. They also love the books I have that are "sing-along" songs. Thankfully publishers have provided music from singers such as Peter Yarrow, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell and more. But my kids' favorite? John Denver's "Country Roads." They ask for it literally every day.
I teach a diverse group of kids from around the world. It brought tears to my eyes when one of them, who is going on to Kindergarten, said he was going to sing, "Country Roads, Take Me Home," on his trip to China this summer.
John Denver would be happy.
(One thing -- they still think "moonshine" is light from the moon!).

Joni, when I started playing drums for a band composed of my closest friends, I was so self-conscious about my playing that at our first gig, a garden party with all our FRIENDS present, I set up the drums out of sight in the garage! But I love the drums, they inspired me to play and to enjoy the music...and I kept at it. In short order we were playing 5-6 gigs per month and I was having a ball and didn't care what I looked like, I knew my playing was solid. Just from doing it so much. If you love singing, don't let fear stand in your way!

Joni, you might want to take a few voice lessons. I was hesistant to sing in front of others, too. I found a good teacher who taught me the techniques to really let loose vocally! It has made all the difference in my confidence.

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