How do you Sing/Perform under Difficult Circumstances?

I do not know one person who hasn’t had some serious life challenges. When you’re a singer though, with shows booked, how do you find it in your heart to get on stage and perform when something painful happens? How do you motivate? How do you buck up to entertain when you just feel like crawling under your blankets and sleeping for a week? Well, let’s talk about this today.

I once walked into Don’t Tell Mama’s after driving directly to the club after a very traumatic family incident to do my very first stand up comedy show. Yeah, Stand Up! Great! The first person I saw was Sidney Myer. He noticed that I was upset and took me to his office where I spewed to him what was up. I then asked him how in the hell I was supposed to get on stage and be funny when I felt like crap? His response to me was that it’s just what you have to do, that I had to find a way and a place to be in my performance and deliver, because it was my job to entertain. In other words, put on your big girl pants and get to it Sue! The pep talk worked! I actually did a pretty good job in the show but I, of course, fell apart afterward. We have all been there. Deaths, bad reviews, spousal spats, sick children, family issues and then TA DA! You’re ON! It’s Show Time!

I am going to use another real circumstance below that I had to deal with because I believe that life is always a factor whenever we sing and life constantly offers us lessons that we can and should use in our day-to-day lives and certainly in our singing. Here is what happened:

My beautiful 21-year old nephew was tragically killed in a car crash. I was not asked to sing and I was relieved as I do not do great as a singer at weddings or funerals and usually decline that kind of work because I know I’m too emotional when I sing. This happens to me even if I do not know the person. Heck, I cry when people clap at a Broadway show! I’m a wimp! I know this about myself!

Lesson here? Know and be honest with yourself about your own abilities and limitations. Many times, we’re paid to perform at events like these so, if you cannot go and be completely professional, do not take the gig. The bad thing is that maybe you do not know you cannot do this until the first time it happens.

Continuing with my circumstance, a young cousin who was going to play guitar and sing knew that he could not get through it, so he pulled out of singing the morning of the service. Good for him. He knew what he could and could not do and owned it. They really wanted to end what was going to be a very casual and organic memorial of friends and family just sharing stories about this young man with a song so they asked me if I could sing something a capella to end the service. I knew it would be difficult, but I decided to do the work like I would on any song and find a song and a way to sing it that I could get through because these dear people, my family, needed me to do this. It was not about “performing”, it didn’t matter if I cried a bit or if I got emotional but, I had to try to not break down and get through the tune. They wanted a tune that would celebrate his energy and brief life.

After going though my entire song list (which I always keep a little copy of in my wallet and on my cell phone with my keys listed in case I get brought up to sit in), I decided that, “I’ll Be Seeing You” (L: Irving Kahal / M: Sammy Fain) sans the verse, would work and be appropriate. My husband made me sing it for him in the car to make sure I could do it, but I knew it would more be different at the service.

If I used the real true circumstance of singing right next to the body of this boy that I loved so much there was no way in hell I would ever have gotten through those lyrics. What I decided to do was to tell a story about several funny moments and memories that I had of him even making people laugh a bit. Then I asked them to mentally select one special or funny moment of him and put it in their hearts. My voice cracked as I said this and, for a minute, I really didn’t think I was going to get through the song but I said, “Give me a minute”, I took a sip of water and a deep breath and I started the song.

My circumstance? A “video” of mental images of him belly laughing as an infant when I used to blow plastic blocks across the room into the next image of him in a clown costume that I made him for Halloween into his “Rasta” hair style phase playing pirate on my boat. These images made me smile and allowed me to sing these words with a positive energy… “I’ll be seeing in all the old familiar places…” Yes, I will and yes I can!

I got through it by being in a lovely true circumstance about this beautiful boy and by also not allowing THE circumstance to collapse me. To me, I really “saw” my own video as I sang, “in a small café, the park across the way…” and when I got to: “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”, it was actually easy to deliver, high note and all, because I personally believe that when one passes you can and must try to remember and feel all the times that you enjoyed them while they were in your life. Sub-text work is vital in all singing but essential when you are challenged to sing under difficult circumstances.

There was, however, another layer to what happened. As I was singing and in my “happy place” of memories (as much as anyone could be), the folks at the memorial started to audibly cry. I wasn’t expecting this because I was being positive and I was presenting them with nice imagery and I asked them to get a happy picture in their minds, but you know what…you, the singer cannot control what anyone will feel. What if their happy picture made them sad because he was now gone? What if they did not have a good last exchange with the person? What if they felt badly that they have not seen this person in a long time…the point is, no matter how you present or whatever circumstance that you decide to sing from, it can and will be filtered through whatever energy the listener brings to the song and to the moment. You just have to go with it. Your job in this situation is to make them feel. You cannot control their feelings, but you must honor them by just letting them “be”.

What could have happened though if I didn’t have a clear image in my heart and mind, because, as I said, I cry when people clap at a Broadway show? I could have lost it if I started to listen to them break down so all I could do was stay with my story and allowed them to filter their feelings however they felt.

This was probably the hardest situation that I have ever had to sing through. I also had to do it a capella so I had to focus and, as the singer, take my time at the start. There was a room of people who also loved this person and who knew that I loved him so it really, ultimately, was a safe place to sing without judgment.

I was determined to deliver this to his parents and sister who, unlike everyone else, didn’t cry. They smiled at the imagery that they clearly had in their hearts and I guess they had their own mini-video in their minds as I sang. I will never forget this moment. I did it under the absolute worst circumstance of my life. I did the sub-text work that I knew I had to do because of my own emotional limitations and I delivered. You can too!

DREAM IT, BELIEVE IT, DO IT!