Terrified Of Singing In Public? 'Singing With Strangers' Wants To Change That

Jul 30, 2019

Despite his confident stage presence as a lead vocalist and MC for the nationally-known Denver hip-hop act Flobots, Stephen Brackett has a secret to admit.

"I hate singing in front of people," Brackett said. "I started as a rapper, so I was rapping with maybe a little bit of melody in it. But I was never comfortable with my voice."

Which is why even to this day, Brackett finds singing in public to be stressful. And he's not alone — lots of surveys show that people fear public speaking and singing more than dying.

The funny thing is, most people also really like singing — in the shower, in the car, anywhere they're alone. Music is a scientifically proven mood booster. But if you can get past the fear, there's something special that happens when you sing with other people. Social scientists call it a "state shift."

"I've been in many incredibly dry meetings or conferences and I'll come in and interject with 'let's do a song together,'" said Brackett, who also does public speaking and educational events. "You can't imagine the amount of hate that is radiating off the audience when I first propose this. But then we ease into it and by the time we get to the point where everybody is singing, you find the emotional state of the entire room has shifted and usually for the better."

MCA Denver director Adam Lerner (left) and Flobots' Stephen Brackett go through a list of potential song choices to create a set list for Singing With Strangers.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

This idea isn't new.

In the early 20th century, the Community Singing Movement began as a way to encourage a more democratic form of art appreciation, one that everyone could participate in.

"Song leaders would go from city to city and create giant events — hundreds of thousands of people would show up," said Adam Lerner, Mark G. Falcone director and chief animator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. "Every town would have it. Everyone coming together to sing. And the idea was actually something very powerful … like, let's all together express our art."

In an effort to tap into that power, one of Lerner's final exhibitions with the museum will be to host Singing With Strangers. The event features an afternoon of workshops with local artists, such as making stage sets with the Ladies Fancywork Society, or costumes and choreography with artist Laura Shill.

It all leads up to a community singing event featuring Brackett (who is also teaching a workshop) and local hip-hop duo The ReMINDers.

"The whole goal is to have that experience that you very, very rarely have," Lerner said. "It's a concert, but this is a concert that you get to experience like you never would any other time because you get to be a part of the actual making of that event."

So, how do you get a bunch of people who don't know each other to sing together?

Adam Lerner (left) and Stephen Brackett pose for a photo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"It's all trickery," said Brackett, only half joking. "You have to take the resistance (and treat the fear) as a real thing. You're not belittling it, you're not dismissing it. But you're encountering it. You're able to speak it into the room and then you're able to do activities and games — games are one of the key things that allow people to try something new."

With the popularity of programs like American Idol which critique singers in a very public (and sometimes very unkind) way, there's a renewed feeling that only certain people should sing.

"It starts with the professionalization of the arts," Brackett said. "And it just becomes inculturated that only certain very talented, rarified people get the opportunity to be heard."

"The byproduct of that is that all of us get to forget that we have voices and that these are accessible to us and it's actually part of our heritage," he added. "Regardless of where your family is from, if you go back enough generations there's a room full of your ancestors singing wonderfully. And here we are now where that's not happening. We have gigs and gigs of songs available at any point in time, but we're not singing them ourselves. And that's a shame. That's a loss."

MCA Denver's Singing With Strangers is Aug. 3, 2019, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St., Denver.