Five Ways to Find Your Inner Rock Star: An Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rayya Elias

by Shannon Sexton

If you love to sing but loathe the idea of letting anyone actually hear you, you're not alone. Both professionally trained vocalists and shy shower singers can feel crippled by performance anxiety. As a semi-professional singer myself, I've struggled with stage fright for more than 20 years. That's why I was excited to talk to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the international best-seller Eat Pray Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and her partner, musician, filmmaker, and writer Rayya Elias, to hear how they embrace imperfection even as they sing their hearts out. So if you're ready to take your own singing voice out of the shower and into the world, here's some down-to-earth encouragement from a daring duo who practice what they preach.

1. Remember that singing is your birthright.

Elizabeth Gilbert I love to sing, but I don’t have any skin in the game because I never claimed it was my thing. That’s an approach to creativity that I’m always trying to encourage people to try. In this era, we’ve hyper-professionalized all of the arts—the talented ones get shunted off at a very early age and the rest of us lose access to that form of expression. But every child in the world sings. And in every preindustrial society, every human sings. If you go to a village in Papua New Guinea and they’re singing, there aren’t 10 people standing outside of the circle saying, “Yeah, I just don’t have a very good voice.” It wouldn’t occur to anybody not to sing. But we live in a society where huge numbers of people don’t sing.

Rayya Elias What we call “big magic” is all about mining whatever artistic endeavor you want, for no apparent reason, no cherished outcome. You just mine, mine, mine, whatever art form you want to mine, and you keep mining.

2. Try karaoke therapy.

Elizabeth We have a group of friends in our town who go to Wednesday-night karaoke at the local dive bar. We started going as a joke. But very quickly, it became really important to us. It’s a place where we all gather together, and there are songs that we ritually do together. It went from community to communion.

One night, I sang a Journey song with a friend of mine who was going through a really hard time. Everyone was laughing, because we’d sung it with full abandon. By the end of the song, he was wiping his eyes. He said, “I just released something in me that I didn’t even know needed to be released.” And I realized, for those of us who don’t go to church or belong to a choir or a band, the only public singing we do is karaoke. We get this ancient experience of raising our voices together, which I think is a really important part of psychological health. That’s why we take our karaoke very seriously. It’s become a spiritual practice for us.

3. Don’t be a perfectionist; just be real.

Rayya Singing didn’t start out as a spiritually healing or even an enjoyable thing for me, because I spent 35 years trying to make it as a musician. When I’d think people weren’t listening, I could really sing but, the moment I felt like they were, I was hyper-aware of all the things I was doing wrong and not aware of all the things I was doing right. But in recent years, I’ve let go of claiming to be a musician. I just do it because I have to do it, because I can’t keep it in.

I love singers like Johnny Cash, people who are pure soul and authenticity, not necessarily perfectly noted or perfectly pitched. I’m finally coming to peace with the fact that the imperfections of my voice are what make it mine.

4. Chant with a group.

Elizabeth I was in an ashram in India once on New Year’s Eve, with people from all over the world, and we did a chant that lasted for four hours. You’re just repeating the same Sanskrit words with drumming and harmonium in the background. Chanting is for transcendence—not just individual transcendence, but also group transcendence. There was a sense of tremendous goodwill and blessing spreading around this huge crowd of people, many of whom didn’t speak the same language and didn’t need to.

5. Let it rip.

Elizabeth We have a friend in our karaoke group who is a genuinely terrible singer, but she doesn’t care. Some of the greatest and most delightful moments of my life are watching her sing because she understands the fundamental rule of karaoke: the only way you can embarrass yourself is to not give 100 percent.

Rayya She says, “I know I’m a really bad singer, but I’m a really good dancer and, if I dance hard enough, nobody will notice.”

Elizabeth The thing is, everybody notices, but they love it, because she’s so joyful. It’s impossible to have contempt for somebody who’s in that much joy. All you can feel is delight, and a kind of envy. She is our karaoke role model. Because we think, “Well, if she can do that, then we can get up there, too.”

Shannon Sexton is the former editor-in-chief of Yoga International magazine and a freelance writer, editor, and strategist based in Madrid.

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