From singing AT people to singing FOR people
When I was 23 years old, I was in my first couple years of performing publicly as a jazz singer in Washington, DC. I had finally worked my way into the rotation at Fino’s Italian Restaurant in the famous Georgetown area. I sang jazz standards for a lot of tourists with a pianist and bassist, and sometimes we had a drummer with us. Singing in hotel lobbies, bars and restaurants was the norm for me at that time. They gave us a dinner and $100 each for 3 hours of playing.
Mostly we were background music, but sometimes people alone at the bar would really listen. Sometimes people would clap, or come up and say they liked our music, or make some requests, but people usually didn’t overtly critique what we were doing.
One time there was a guy at the bar listening for a while. After I announced a break, he came up to share his thoughts with me. He told me he really liked my voice and was pretty friendly, so I thanked him and felt like a success. And then, he laid (what felt like) a bomb on me. He said, “The problem you have is that you’re not singing TO me. I want you to sing TO me.” I was honestly confused by his comment and asked for clarification as the shame and self-doubt washed over me. I can’t remember what else he said, but it was burned into my brain that night, “I want you to sing TO me.”
It takes a while to digest comments about our performance. It’s similar to processing grief. For me, there was the initial shock of hearing that I wasn’t “enough,” feelings of insecurity, anger and depression, and then the bargaining began. I tried to convince myself that he didn’t know anything about music, or that he was just one person and no one else would think the same thing about me. Or, that he was just really drunk that night and I should just forget about his comments.
But looking back, I probably reacted so strongly to his criticism because somewhere, deep down, I knew it had an important truth to it. He was actually providing me an incredible opportunity to grow by critiquing me. I did not have a private teacher at that time who could check out my gig and it was rare for other musicians to give that type of feedback to singers. I appreciate that this lay-person stranger thought enough of me and my talent to risk hurting my feelings that night. And, he was correct, I was singing AT people and not TO them.
You can sing songs for a whole gig, for a whole concert, or for your whole life and never be sharing yourself with your audience. The timbre of your voice can be remarkable and you can be technically perfect. You can be feeling emotions and having great stage presence and have “walls” up at the same time. If you don’t allow yourself to be vulnerable, connect with your audience, and sing to them as if you’re having a two-way conversation, then you’re missing what music is made for - to inspire, heal, and encourage people in our human condition. I used to see “pleasing the audience” as some sort of sell out, like it meant decreasing my artistic coolness to consider how my work impacts the audience. My self-absorbed and self-indulgent mentality was that they should just hook up with whatever I’m doing because I would show them what great music was. Wow. That was not it. I’ve since learned that being an artist is about having a willingness to be seen and to connect with others and to do that intentionally as a gift to your audience. It’s a combination of knowing who you are and sharing that with people in a way that honors their time and attention back to you.
It took a long time for me to get up the courage to change from singing AT people to singing TO them. But, with the help of some great mentors, I’ve figured it out and continue to preach that to my own students. You must be open, vulnerable, and you must bring your full self to the conversation. You can practice this at home. When your chance comes to sing for others, you can practice opening up to the energy of the audience and then (first) tolerating, and then welcoming those feelings of being exposed and vulnerable. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have a receptive audience that acknowledges that beautiful gift.