It is no big news that being shy or embarrassed about our singing voice is a very common phenomenon. This is a shame, because our voice is a part of us and is as unique as our finger print. Who is anyone to judge another’s voice? Singing is a natural form of expression! Our modern-day culture of competition and ridicule is probably to thank for people’s reluctance to sing. For some reason, it is instilled into us that we should only sing in front of people if we are ‘good’ at it. If our voice is more, shall we say, ‘raw and interesting’ then we must keep it firmly quiet. This does not happen in other species…I’m pretty sure all birds sing and none are told to reign it in or shut up because they are sounding flat…! But that is not the topic of this blog.

What I really want to explore is why naturally ‘good’ singers are often the most gripped by self-doubt, the most reluctant to show off their voice. I use inverted commas for ‘good’ as I dislike labels and judgements around singing (please see aforementioned comment about all voices being unique). The word ‘good’ in this context I suppose means a singing voice which is naturally well handled by its owner, tuneful, with a controlled tone, well-projected, pleasant on the ear and expressive. Those who instinctively know how to use their singing voices naturally.  

As a singing teacher I encounter singers of all abilities. Nearly everyone who walks through my door is terrified in the first few lessons, especially those who do not have a great deal of knowledge about using their voice to sing and therefore struggle with this activity. However, usually after a few lessons, they start to open up and I see their confidence grow very quickly (though it sometimes takes quite some time to develop a strong singing voice…there are of course no quick fixes). 

The ones who take a lot longer to gain confidence in themselves however, and the people I know in my friends and family circle who are the most shy about singing, are the ones who can already handle their voices to start with. They have a naturally beautiful singing voice. They love singing, they spend all their time behind closed doors singing, they are constantly being told by loved ones/friends/teachers/anyone who has overheard them that they can sing beautifully. So why do these pupils physically shake with fear when they start to sing in front of somebody? Why can they not let their voices out and hold themselves back when singing in front of people? Why do they stop halfway through songs and tell me “I sound rubbish, I can’t do it”? Why do they shrink into their posture and wish for the ground to open up and swallow them? Why do they get tearful before a gig because they are so terrified? Why do they never participate in my summer showcase, out of fear?  

If this resonates with you, then read on. I used to suffer terribly from performing anxiety. 

Here are some of my thoughts and a few possible reasons why you may feel bad about singing: 

  1. Perfectionism. Sometimes we would rather not do something at all than do it to a less than perfect standard. We know that when we are nervous, our larynx tightens, our breathing gets a little more shallow, we tremble, our throats go dry, we might get forgetful and sing the wrong words….all far too risky, best not to even try (again, culture of competition and ridicule does not help this).

2.   Embarrassing or traumatic past experiences with singing. Perhaps you sang and somebody said something unkind (due to jealousy/insecurity about their own singing voice, or feeling that you are a threat as they too are talented). Perhaps something went wrong in a past performance (something that barely registered with your audience, but has stayed with you and now tortures you)…a whole host of things may have happened to make you put up barriers to prevent you from feeling that way again.

3. Enforced modesty. We have often heard the following phrases:

’Don’t be a show-off’ 

‘She/he really loves her/himself’

We subliminally learn from a young age not to push ourselves forward, to instead follow conventions and to blend in a bit for fear of ridicule or through not wanting to make others feel bad. We suppress ourselves and our talents a little bit to protect others’ feelings. I am surprised at how regularly I have pupils restraining themselves in lessons, who refuse to just let themselves go. When I ask them why they are holding back, they say “I don’t want to sound like a show-off”. I teach one lady who says she always wants to really go for it when singing in church but “I don’t want to stand out so I just whisper along”.  

Your singing voice and how you sing is part of you! I am going to use a walking analogy here, as your walk is also a natural part of you. Imagine for a moment that you have a lovely walk! You sway gently with grace and ease as you stride down the street. You sashay along, the wind blowing in your hair. Poetry in motion! Then you have a thought: Hang on, there are others who don’t walk as nicely as me. I had better reign myself in and tone down my walk a bit so I don’t upset them. Imagine now trying to suppress or hide your walk because you don’t want to upset those who can’t walk as nicely as you! You would end up with muscle cramps, painful joints, would probably do damage – or just keep falling over. Ridiculous, huh? Yet we are so irrational about our singing voices! 

4. For many nervous singers that I work with, it is actually EXPECTATION that is the underlying problem. 

You know what you are capable of. You EXPECT this from yourself. Every time. You put yourself under intense pressure as you don’t want to let yourself down when you sing in front of others by performing at a lesser level than you know are capable of (similar to perfectionism). 

Expectations from others. Others are constantly telling you how good you are. Relatives pipe up at every party, “My Sally can sing beautifully, listen to her…go on Sally sing us a song”. This is lovely, your loved ones are wanting to boost your confidence! They are pointing out your strengths! But in your mind, an expectation has been set. Again, you feel under massive pressure to meet this expectation and to not disappoint. What if you don’t deliver? What if you don’t sing as well as you know you can when you are on your own? The fact is they will all still love your performance, no matter how ‘badly’ you think your singing went…but that combination of perceived expectation from others, and your own expectation of yourself, sets your ego screaming and leads to intense anxiety. 

We all suffer from performing-related anxiety from time to time, and often it is expectation related.You can imagine the level of expectation I used to (wrongly) assume there was of me when I sang, as a singing teacher! There have been many times I have been asked to get up and sing at an open mic or karaoke night, cajoled by phrases “Come on Kaz, you’re a singing teacher! You’ve sung in bands! Etc. etc. etc”. Their expectations of me and and my abilities were, in my mind, huge…and it has terrified me in the past to the point where I stopped getting up and taking part in these things. But addressing this issue and realising that it is just my fragile ego protesting has helped me overcome it and I now enjoy joining in with singing with carefree abandon. Who cares if it is ropey (yes, of course I sing badly at times! I am human. My voice is human. I am not a megastar singer on the world stage! (Actually, even they will have their ‘off’ days). The coaches who train the premier league football teams are not expected to go out there and win world cup matches for England themselves! I have never once had anybody say “Well, I thought you’d be a bit better than that!” People are generally too busy dealing with their own fears and insecurities in life. You will find that they do not have the headspace to worry about your abilities. 

I once joined a band where there were two of us singers. The previous singer from whom I had taken over was apparently very good, and the other singer that I would be joining was amazing. I remember standing there at my first gig with them, mic in hand, looking at a sea of EXPECTANT faces of the loyal band followers all waiting to see what this new singer was like…and I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. 

What helped me overcome these feelings was a bit of rational thinking. I asked myself a question. Were they really all stood there waiting to hear what I was like as a singer? The answer…of course not! They were just waiting for the set to start, waiting to hear which song came on, waiting for the moment they could leap onto the dance floor, forget their cares and worries and enjoy themselves. That is one of the services we as singers and musicians provide for humankind…that is what the audience is there for, to enjoy some music and relax. Believe it or not, listeners and audiences on the whole are not a vicious crowd baying for your blood, waiting to tear you to pieces. 

We need to take our ego out of performing. I do not mean this unkindly or as a telling-off. Our egos are a part of our personalities that want to protect us from harm, often based on past hurtful or embarrassing experiences. Our singing voice is such a integral part of us, and the way we sing is a very personal form of expression so it can make us feel a little vulnerable when we expose it. 

What if I told you that singing is not actually about you or your ability? What if I told you that you actually have a responsibility not to hide your voice away? 

Responsibilities as a singer

Think about why you have a ‘good’ singing voice. You will have been given it for a reason. I am not implying that you have to make a career out of singing necessarily (unless perhaps that is what you are destined for). But perhaps somebody somewhere needs to hear your voice. Music and singing are incredibly powerful and a part of our nature. Mothers sing to their babies to soothe them when they cry or can’t sleep. In the past, field workers in captivity would sing together while they worked to boost morale and lift their own and each other’s spirits. People throughout the ages have sung together in praise and sung together in mourning. Singing connects people with each other. You can reach out to another person with your singing.

When you go to sing, regard what you are doing as a service. Focus on your listener or audience and how they are feeling, and aim to make THEM feel better with your singing, rather than try to impress them. Turn anxiety into excitement. Be excited about singing! Look forward to letting your voice out! If you are excited and enjoying yourself then the audience will too. 

As a singer, you can be a therapist or a healer. You can bring somebody utter joy or you can help them release pain and move them to tears by singing to them. People can be roused from a dementia fog at the sound of a song they recognise and remember. People can forget their troubles, have their pain soothed and their anxieties eased by the melody and lyrics of a song. 

As a singer you can be a messenger. Messages of great social, political and spiritual importance can be conveyed through a song. People can find hope in a hopeless situation through the words of a song and the soothing sound of somebody’s voice. How often have you heard a song on the radio and felt that the singer was addressing you personally? It happens quite frequently to me. It is not about how ‘amazingly’ you sing, but how effectively you deliver those lyrics.

As a singer, you can be a teacher. You can teach and inspire others to free their voices, so they in turn can go out and heal, inspire, teach and convey a message with their voice. Hearing you sing may encourage others to do the same. Lead the way and shine your light! Or you can literally teach through singing…children learn many things through song.

As a singer, you can entertain and help to lighten people’s load. Very important in these stressful times! 

Somebody somewhere out there needs to hear your voice. That’s why you have it. Do not stifle it and hide it away. Do not let anybody make you feel bad about it. It is not about you and your singing abilities. It is about your voice’s purpose. 

Where to sing if you are a nervous singer? 

As I said before, you do not have to become a career singer to put that lovely voice you have been given to good use. Take part in informal, supportive events such as open mic nights and karaoke nights. Help out at or lead a singalong at a care centre or charity. Join an amateur dramatics society. Go busking with a friend (busy shopping environments where people will not be intensely focusing on you). Join a choir and participate in their performances and events. Go carol singing at Christmas. Record songs and share with friends and family, then when you are feeling braver, upload them to your social media. Have a little sing at that family party! Seek out relaxed singing lessons such as those I run at Singing for the Soul, a safe space where you can explore your voice whilst getting some extra tips on how to get the most out of it. 

Each singing experience that you take on will build up your confidence and lead you to the next step. 

Know that you are also not alone or abnormal in having these feelings of fear, but call them out! Challenge them! Don’t let them hold you back. Don’t deprive the world of your voice!