The Psychology of Singing: Story Busting

The Psychology of Singing: Story Busting

I took a group of musicians into a climbing gym to create a hands-on experience of facing fears and facing the mind chatter that occurs when we are activated. As we entered the climbing gym, I told the musicians that what they experienced here would be a metaphor for their experience on stage.

Part of the way through the evening I noticed Susan just standing in the middle of the gym staring at the climbing wall. I approached her and asked if she was going to climb the wall. Susan’s answer was polite but matter-of-fact: “No, I am too short.”

Her response surprised me. I have never seen any kind of height requirement in a gym. I responded with “So where does ‘too short’ impact you as a performing artist?”  She thought for a moment and began to share a long list of situations and concerns. She even said that her hand span was too small to play Rachmaninoff on the piano. It was very clear that Susan had issues with her height and being “too short” had impacted her performing negatively.

I asked her where she had gotten the idea that she was too short to climb in the gym. Susan pointed to a number—“5.2”— on the wall and said, “You have to be five feet two inches tall to climb here. She was just under five feet tall.

The gym had no signs indicating a height requirement for climbing. I explained to Susan that the numbers on the walls were part of a climbing difficulty rating system and that “5.2” indicated an easy route, “5.8” was more difficult, and “5.11” even more difficult. She expressed surprise and excitement as she realized that she was now free to join in on the climbing experience.

The chatter of Susan’s mind had been stopping her from engaging in this climbing activity. Susan told herself that she was “too short” and excluded from the activity, and unfortunately, she was so caught up in her mind chatter that she never even considered the possibility of an alternate meaning for “5.2.”

As a singer how often does your mind chatter keep you from engaging in a performance with freedom and excitement? Think back to the last time you were stressed about a performance. What were you telling yourself?

When I gave a presentation at Juilliard all of the students responded to “performing is . . .” with words such as “exciting,” “I live for it,” “I love it.” It is quite common to hear the opposite when I am making a presentation at a high school: “Performing is scary,” or “dangerous,” or “intimidating.”

What was your story about performing? Consider that your answer to each of the sentences to your left makes a short, but powerful story that shapes your experience as a singer. Is performing exciting or scary? Review each sentence and ask yourself, “Is this positive or is it negative?” “Does it support a career of great performing?” “Is it in my best interest to keep believing this?” Then in front of each sentence place a “P” for positive or an “N” for negative.

Now look at the six words you used to describe your best and worst performance. I call them trigger words. A trigger word can be positive or negative, but it triggers something.

Keep trigger words in mind as you reread all of your sentences once again. Just notice where those specific words or similar words show up. It is highly likely that the negative words are programmed into your brain like the sound of a rattlesnake. It makes sense to jump back from a rattlesnake, and this exercise will help you identify the automatic triggers that make you “jump back” from certain aspects of performing.

A negative story takes you mentally out of your performance, out of the Zone—even off the stage—so we really need to understand our stories, where they came from, and how to edit them.

Consider the word “history.” Look again at the word and look for the word “story.” Our stories come from our history.

Our brains process every event and the related sensory data that comes through the five senses. Part of our brain is conditioned to look for dangers. If the brain recognizes or experiences danger we get physiologically activated (anxious) and our mind starts to chatter as we prepare ourselves to fight or take flight. Unless you intentionally focus on retraining your automatic thoughts they will continue to take charge, and you will feel frustrated and constrained.

If we want new possibilities in our performing future we must break free from the conditioning of our past.

Retraining our body and our mind starts with awareness. Once you recognize the feeling of being activated, and recognize the ever-present mind chatter, you can start the process of looking closer at the trigger, editing your story, and then practicing in both actions and thoughts to move in a new, positive direction.

I was explaining this concept to my performance psychology class when Jennifer asked if this is why she quit singing. She told the following story. She was 14 years old, and had prepared herself well to sing a solo in church. Her best friend, also 14, was her accompanist. The solo was going great— until her accompanist stopped playing. Jennifer stopped singing. The two girls looked at each other, and not knowing what else to do, returned anxiously to sit with the congregation. At that moment, Jennifer concluded that singing was dangerous and something to avoid.

Now, for the first time in six years, Jennifer looked at her story and concluded that it needed some editing. Two weeks later, as class started, she raised her hand and informed the class that she had performed a vocal solo in church on Sunday. What a breakthrough.

Every story has two very important parts: the facts, and the meaning attributed to the facts. An event occurs, we make up a story about the event, and our story directs our response. Our stories either take us towards the stage or away from the stage. Our stories are either positive and creative or negative and limiting.

Susan saw “5.2” on the wall in the climbing gym and had a story about an imaginary height requirement. Could you have a “5.2” in your world?

For the next week take on the task of observing yourself. Become mindful of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing. 

When something triggers you and you are activated, write out the story. Then look at each sentence, underline each fact, and circle the meaning. Don’t be surprised if you find that the trigger words you identified in exercises 1 and 2 show up as part of the meaning you attributed to the facts that are a part of your current story.

Become a story buster! When we get stuck in the stories of our past we keep living the same old story. Consequently, when we live in the past and look to the future we see the past.

Sometimes story busting is easy and the results are immediate. Other times really getting clear on the story that is holding you back and then “busting it up” takes real work, patience, and personal coaching or therapy.

So the next time you are “activated” and you hear the chatter of your mind leading you in that old, familiar, negative direction, stop and notice the story. Take a big breath and say out loud, “So what is my story?” Now breathe slowly three times to calm the physical activation, then get to work on busting up that story.

Talk with someone, write it down, list the facts, and look at the meaning. When the story is “busted up,” let it go. Take another big breath. Now start breathing slowly and think of your positive trigger words. Words such as “confidence,” “creative,” and “bold.” Notice how the meaning changes when you approach the facts of an event from the perspective of confidence, creativity, and boldness. What is possible now?

Changing your stories changes your life—and when you change your life today you change your future.

What does “5.2” mean to you?

Jon Skidmore

For decades Dr. Jon Skidmore, Psy.D. has helped thousands of performers from around the world to find freedom on stage and in life. He believes that the path to peak performance starts between the ears, not in the practice room. He is a performance psychologist, singer, educator and author. He has taught the psychology of music performance at the Brigham Young University School of Music for over 30 years and has a private psychological practice in Orem, Utah. You can reach him at You can visit him at his website:, Facebook: JonSkidmore,Psy.D., and Instagram: @drjonskidmore.