Have you ever had a dream wherein you’re somehow compromised, only partially clothed or otherwise unpresentable, and everyone is staring at you? Or worse, pointing and laughing at you?
Dreams along those lines are fairly standard; they’re a subconscious way to deal with anxiety you might feel during your waking hours. Usually, people have anxiety dreams when they have something major going on like a job interview or a big exam. Or if they’re expected to perform in front of others.
For many people, public speaking and, especially, singing is a cause of embarrassment. It’s not because they have a bad singing voice, cannot carry a tune, or do not present themselves well, though. The reasons people feel embarrassed when singing out loud when others can see and hear them are much more fundamental. They touch on human psychology, cultural norms, and social mores, aspects of this type of experience we need to take a closer look at.
Masking the Singer
Today, television broadcasts include singing or talent shows involving singers who are somehow concealed. For instance, South Korea’s The Masked Singer and the Netherlands’ The Voice. These two popular examples of global singing franchise shows hide their performers for reasons specific to each show.
However, one point is clear: only the contestants’ ability to sing matters. A large part of these shows’ appeal is that talent outweighs appearance. That is a rare commodity in today’s world, where looks are everything.
Do you remember (or have you seen) Susan Boyle’s audition video? Or Paul Potts’? How the judges and audience sneered their skepticism? We’ll talk more about those two megastars’ onstage debuts a little later in this article.
Similarly, we could hardly discuss masked singers without touching on the most famous one of all, the Phantom of the Opera. This 1910 serialized novel (and, later, the musical) describes actual events that happened in the Paris opera house, woven into a fictitious tale of a disfigured man with a love of beauty and music who could never hope to show himself unmasked. He tantalizes the young soprano with his golden voice, leading her to believe that he is the Angel of Music. However, when she finally lays eyes on him…
All of these examples prove that singing talent isn’t enough to compel a vocalist to perform in front of an audience. For many, masking or concealing themselves is the only way they can bring themselves to not feel embarrassed by singing in public.
Let’s understand that there’s a difference between singing in front of a few friends and singing in front of a roomful of strangers. The first is fun and engaging; the second can be downright terrifying.
In Japan, the birthplace of karaoke, participants used to sing publicly, albeit with a bag over their head or behind a screen. These days, karaoke boxes are more prevalent. These are establishments with several rooms, each equipped with a karaoke machine. Groups or individuals rent such ‘boxes’ by the hour and sing to their hearts’ content to an audience who knows and loves them.
In Japanese culture as in many Asian cultures, calling attention to oneself is still considered vulgar, even if that tide is slowly changing. Thus, casual singers performing publicly had to be concealed as it was a social norm. However, singing among friends or family is socially acceptable so nobody expects anyone to hide while they sing in a karaoke box.
Calling attention to yourself is, in fact, one of the main reasons people find singing in public so embarrassing. The second you invite the public’s eye upon you, every one of your perceived vulnerabilities and shortcomings is laid bare for all to see, judge and criticize you over.
And that’s regardless of whether you sing well or badly.
Why Confidence Matters
Now, coming back to Susan Boyle and Paul Potts. Neither singing star appeared visually appealing at their initial audition for Britain’s Got Talent. Both stated they lacked confidence during their interviews, and their dream was to be a singing superstar.
Did their love of singing outweigh their fear of exposure? Or was it simply that, at that stage in their lives – they were both a bit older than the average contestant, they felt they had nothing to lose? Did the show’s format make it easier for them to muster up the courage to finally take their shot? After all, they performed after a long list of other, perhaps less-qualified contestants.
Indeed, these well-produced shows neutralize the age-old social more by not calling attention to yourself. On the contrary, they are prime platforms for doing just that. And if they obliterate a longstanding social rule along the way?
Well, societies evolve. So should their rules, right?
Putting Everything Together
At the start of this article, we stated that public singing is embarrassing for many people because of three factors: cultural standards, social mores, and psychological states.
Nobody could ever describe the world’s cultures as homogeneous but they all have a few markers in common; the pursuit of art, the duty to cultivate talent, and the joy of expression among them. Every culture considers being humble virtuous but, sometimes, it’s worth setting humility aside so you can express yourself fully, freely and artistically.
Instead of seeing it as calling attention to yourself, think of singing in public as giving your audience a small gift: a slice of your singing talent. If you wouldn’t be embarrassed to give gifts people could hold in their hands, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to give them one that will lift their hearts.
By far, the biggest challenge to shedding embarrassment over public singing will be building your self-confidence. It might help to think that, as you go about your day – work or school, shopping, out with friends, you’re being observed, even if it’s to a lesser degree than if you were belting out your favorite tune. So, as long as we’re all under scrutiny anyway, should it matter if people look at you while you sing?
It might also help for you to take a page from Susan and Paul’s playbooks: what do you have to lose?
If your singing voice is worth hearing, don’t let other people decide for you whether or not it should be heard. And if your singing voice isn’t quite as strong, crisp, or clear as you’d like? A few sessions with a voice coach ought to do the trick.