Public speaking, it is said, is everyone’s number one fear. The second is death.
I can’t say I was actually ever afraid of standing up in front of people and talking, but I would often find myself getting nervous in anticipation. Sometimes it happened right beforehand other times only after I actually stood behind the podium or in front of the camera. I would start speaking rapidly, my throat would get dry, and I’d forget important pieces of my speech, even if I had notes.
Not that I was any kind of celebrity or frequent speaker, only that I was often called up on to make presentations, moderate and/or participate on panels, appear on radio or television, or otherwise make what my mother would have referred to as a “spectacle of myself.”
“Picture the audience in their underwear,” was her advice, an image I did not find helpful in the least. I tried other tricks, but to no avail. My father had taken a course at Toastmasters, something I seriously considered but never got around to. I thought I’d become more at ease if I just kept accepting speaking opportunities. It didn’t quite work out that way, or if it did, my improvement was all but imperceptible.
Then some years ago I decided to take singing lessons. I wasn’t all that interested in actually singing, but I was working on a memoir about my grandmother, who had been an opera singer in France in the 1920s and ‘30s, and I needed – I told myself – to know what it physically felt like to sing. I had chanted in yoga class, sung along in synagogue, and reviewed cabaret performances, but I had never sung solo in front of people.
“You can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” my usually supportive boyfriend counseled. That’s all it took to motivate me to sign up for an adult singing class.
I missed the first session, so when I showed up the second week I was especially anxious about what I would be expected to do. We were supposed to have brought in sheet music for the song we planned to sing. Since I didn’t know, I hadn’t. That should get me off the hook, I thought, as I watched my classmates one by one hand their music to the teacher before moving onto the stage to perform their number.
No such luck. When my turn came I was instructed to sing anything I might know by heart, even if it was only “Happy Birthday.” I quickly chose my favorite song, “Moon River” by Henry Mancini, from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When the teacher starting playing the familiar chords, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I tried again but my throat had tightened so much I could barely croak out a word or two. The teacher patiently invited the entire class to sing along with me. This I could do. The second time the class dropped out and it was just the teacher and I. The third time he stopped singing and I managed to make it through the entire song on my own.
“You can tell your boyfriend he’s crazy,” said the teacher. “You just sang every note.”
“I did?” I was incredulous, until the entire class confirmed his assessment. I slowly started to enjoy the 8-week class and even the final recital at which I was proud of myself for having the chutzpah to get onstage and sing “La Vie en Rose.” I figured I’d distract the audience from my singing by impressing them with my French. I remembered how my classically trained grandmother had disparaged Edith Piaf as not “really a singer.” I was not really a singer too.
When I watched the video of the class recital I couldn’t stop laughing: I was absolutely terrible. I may have hit the notes but I had absolutely no stage presence. A proverbial deer in the headlights didn’t begin to describe my unease. I immediately signed up for the class again.
I took the class several times, performing solo, duets, and in the group finale, but my singing didn’t much ameliorate, nor did my stage presence. Except, maybe, for the time I really got into my favorite Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now.”
But slowly my public speaking no longer presented a problem. Unconsciously I’d realized that if I could stand up in front of people and make a fool of myself by singing, then addressing an audience was nothing to worry about. I learned to breathe and/or pause to take a sip of water if I started to seize up. And it was, almost, fun.
This week I conducted an onstage interview in front of fifty people, spoke to media about an exhibit I helped curate, and soon I’ll be presenting public program at San Francisco Public Library branches. And not once do I imagine my audience in their underwear.