Students and clients are often interested to learn that I’ve experienced plenty of speaking anxiety too. One said that it gave her hope, knowing that I could stand in front of groups being dynamic and funny (her words) day after day, after enduring years of panic attacks at the mere thought of being the center of attention.
After 20 years of teaching I’m pretty used to holding forth in a group. Yet. There’s still an occasional resurgence of butterflies, dry mouth and—let’s just say that I’m glad I used industrial strength antiperspirant that day. It’s mostly in situations that are somehow new: a very different audience, a very different kind of performance.
Case in point: my niece’s wedding just weeks ago. I’ve been belting out songs at family sing-a-longs for a couple decades now, and in my distant past sang with my husband at art openings and such, paid in ego boosts and meager but always surprising tips. Now I was asked to sing at her wedding, a stylish affair with a hundred or so equally stylish young folk from Chicago and New York. Uh oh.
Of course I said yes, though I’d never heard the song–John Legend’s “Stay with You.” I prepared as well as I could, listening first on youtube and then coughing up the 99 cents to download it from iTunes. I sang along, over and over, mostly in the shower, mostly with the rest of the family out of the house. The final preparation would have to wait until the morning of the wedding, when I could practice with my brother (father of the bride) who would add his formidable classical guitar skills to the mix.
My biggest worry was not that I’d forget the words or the tune. It was that I’d just sound “bad” in some vague way, unhip–like the very Caucasian wedding singers in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or pretty much anyone from the painfully accurate folk music mockumentary A Mighty Wind.
What helped? Endless practice, but also facing my concerns head-on. I started by confessing my anxiety to my teenage son (who’s seen both films in question and has a finely tuned hip-o-meter); he assured me that I didn’t sound mightily windy at all.
Then I gave myself a serious talking to. I convinced myself that while, as Lloyd Bentsen might have said, “I’m no John Legend,” I am the bride’s aunt–the point of my singing isn’t so much my awesome voice as it is the idea that her dad is playing the guitar and her aunt is singing as her wedding ceremony begins. So I may not be a “legendary” singer, but I can be the best possible Nancy singer… And that’s what they’re asking for anyway.
How did it go? I was still a bit nervous waiting for the ceremony to start, but mostly I was happy to be with my brother, ready to offer his daughter and new son a very personalized wedding gift. As the song progressed I found myself singing just to and for them, echoing the love for each other that burst through so clearly that day.
My voice may have been a little shakier than usual, but I was okay with that–it was partly the emotion I was so very happy to feel, partly the very tight dress I was equally happy to be wearing. In the end I’m sure no one even noticed–the song, after all, was all part of something much bigger–a grand love, a grand day, and a generally legendary wedding.