Sue’s Views

A Blog by Sue Matsuki

A Deer in the Headlights on Stage

by | Aug 22, 2019 | Sue's Views | 0 comments

The Deer in the Headlight Moment

There is nothing that feels worse than being a “deer in the headlights” on stage. It’s embarrassing, it’s aggravating, it’s humbling but, it happens. It happens to us all but honestly, in the 35 years of my signing, it has only happened to me (to this extent) twice! I am here to tell you though, it can still happen, no matter how long you sing or how much work you do to prepare. So…

More so than this happening, the real lesson that I recently learned is more important to share than maybe putting it out there that I embarrassed myself a bit. It’s always all about learning!

Very recently I was invited to do a benefit show hosted by the lovely KT Sullivan for the Dutch Treat Club, of which I am a proud member. It was an evening of Jerome Kern music. I was thrilled to be invited. Who doesn’t love to be invited to be part of an All-Star cast?!

When KT asked me what Kern tune I’d like to do, we settled on the gorgeous tune “Bill” from Showboat which is a tune I did years ago in one of my Ella & Me shows. I did need to work on the song and refresh my memory of it so I went to work.  I really worked on this tune. I did all the techniques that I teach (mostly sub-text and lyric memorization tricks – see my example below), I took it to class, I worked on it with my vocal coach, I had a new chart made, I ran it with my Musical Director…I “had” it. I knew this tune, I loved this tune and then…I BLEW this tune…BIG TIME!

When I ran it with the Musical Director (the wonderful Bill Zeffiro) at the pre-show rehearsal, I flubbed a few lines (I went to the 2nd set of lyrics on the 1st verse) but we got through it and I tossed it up to “bad rehearsal, good show”. I mentally noted what I did and where I made the mistake so it’s an easy fix, right? Well, for some reason, I started to obsess and kept running my lyrics over-and-over again, never making a mistake by the way, but obsessing!

I start to sing and I get the whole top part (the part I was most worried about) but then, when I get to “But along came Bill…” I go to the 2nd verse again! How can this be? I know this song! Rats!

I then did something that I never do, I stopped myself, turned to Bill and said, “These lyrics are so great, I don’t want to mess them up so let’s take that again.” This is fine to do, this happens but again, not usually to ME! “I NEVER stop. I NEVER go up on lyrics! I’m SO ashamed!” – This was what I was hearing in my head so, of course, I was already not in my lyric…lesson #1.

We start again at “But along came Bill…” and this time…I go COMPLETELY blank! Crickets blank! Nothing, not even the 2nd verse pops into my head…deer-in-the-headlights! To Bill Zeffiro’s credit, he quickly and quietly fed me the line which I sang and then NOTHING. He fed me the next line which I sang and then, when he fed me the next line, I discretely wave him off behind my back and I’m now “in it”. Phew! Finally! I’ll tell you…3 lines, which is like 10 seconds, seemed like an eternity.

Once it kicked in, I will admit (and I was told) that I “saved” it with commitment to the lyric and, because I had done all the emotional connection work, it was “there” but, for me, it was too late and it was hard to let go of what had just happened.

As I was leaving the stage, KT hugs me and whispers in my ear, “Let it go. It happens to us all and you sounded great!” She’s such a class act. Then, when I got to the back of the room, my lovely peers, Meg Flather, Josephine Sanges, Lauren Fox and Jeff Harnar all embraced me and said lovely things to me to help me start to process forgiving myself. Their words and support were everything in that moment and I so appreciated the love.  One person later wrote to me saying:

“It really is all for learning. That’s why we all started to sing as children. You remind us of that, dear friend.We all go through this. We all will again. We are human beings. And that is the whole point of performing. We share our humanness.”

I made myself really hear this. Now, using a word like “forgiving” myself for a simple flub like this may sound a little extreme (and dramatic) but WHY this happened is what I needed to look at. In the Uber on the way home I realized that the only other show that I totally went blank and lost lyrics on, to this extent because, yes, of course I’ve flubbed here and there, was Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway Series. Then it dawned on me…

I wanted SO badly to be a part of both of these shows, to be acknowledged by both Ricky and KT (who I greatly admire) and to possibly impress them for future shows, most notably all the great shows that KT produces in town. I’ll admit it. So, this is what it was…I realized in that Uber that rather than performing, as I always do, for the love and joy of giving to the audience, I had a different agenda on these two gigs…I was more focused on impressing than performing. Shame on  me! This is not how I take a stage and this is not why I sing. So, for this reason, yes, I do have to embrace this lesson, forgive myself and move on with the knowledge that my job (and my joy) is to entertain them…not to impress anyone else who is not sitting directly in front of me. Lesson #2.

The other lesson, Lesson #3, that I didn’t even realize that I was giving vs. learning was told to me by my peers who embraced me as I beat myself up. They said that how I handled myself was a lesson in “grace under pressure.” So…while it didn’t feel like that at the time on stage, I’m glad it translated as such. Like the person above said, we are all human…no one is perfect and singing live is, by it’s very nature, an imperfect art form. As the song says…let it go, let it go…

I love that my next class for Cabaret Hotspot! is focused on lyric connection and helpful hints on memorization…LOL! Ironic? What nerve I have! Honestly though, this is what I am known for and what I do so I did want to share with you below a sample of what my “Bill” lyric sheet looks like so that you can see the kind of work one has to put into a song to get it stage ready. This is just an example of the memorization tricks with no real sub-text work yet. I did do the work, but, as I said above, this lesson was more about why this happened.

This is only a sample of what we will cover in class on September 29th.

blue = words I struggled with OR that change 2nd time I sing them

red = helpful memory hints

Bold = words I vocally emphasize

Underline = phrases I need to connect musically OR word cues that go together to help me remember the next line



Lyrics: P.G. Wodehouse & Oscar Hammerstein II

Music:  Jerome Kern – From:   Show Boat, 1927

I used to dream that I would discover the perfect lover, someday.

I knew I’d recognize him if ever he came ‘round my way.

I always used to fancy then…he’d be one of the godlike kind of men. (G’sgodlike /giant)

With a giant brain and a noble head, like the heroes bold in the books I read…(b’s)

But along came Bill, who’s not the type at all,

You’d meet him on the street and never notice him.

His form and face, his manly grace,

Are not the kind that you, would find in a statue.

And I can’t explain, it’s surely not his brain that makes me thrill.

I love him because he’s wonderful,

Because he’s just my Bill.

(sports and looks)

He can’t play golf or tennis or polo or sing a solo or row.

He isn’t half as handsome as dozens of men that I know. (handsome then describe him)

He isn’t tall or straight or slim, and he dresses far worse than Ted or Jim,

And I can’t explain why he should be, just the one, one man in the world for me.

He’s just my Bill, an ordinary boy, he hasn’t got a thing that I can brag about.

And yet to be, upon his knee, so comfy and roomy, feels natural to me.

And I can’t explain, it’s surely not his brain that makes me thrill.

I love him because he’s…I don’t know… (say this several times/ways to find just the right way you want to deliver it)

Because he’s just my Bill.

See you at the MAC-to-School sessions and the new Cabaret Hotspot Lyric Connection Class (see ads in out “Featured” section)!



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Sue Matsuki

Sue Matsuki

Co-Editor & Instructor, Cabaret HotSpot and Cab U

Sue Matsuki is the co-author, along with David Sabella, of So You Want To Sing Cabaret (Rowman & Littlefield, June 2020). Sue is the Managing Partner, Co-Editor, Reviewer, Vloger and a Columnist (Sue’s Views) for an on-line entertainment magazine: www.Cabaret She taught Cabaret classes at: The Ridgefield Theater Barn and UCONN in CT, MAC-to-School and Cabaret Hotspot in NY and for the Canadian School of Performing Arts. She has served as Treasurer on the Board of Directors for MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs). She, along with Gregory Toroian, her long time Music Director, now host a monthly Jazz Brunch Open Mic at Pangea. Matsuki also produces benefits and corporate events and is the Producing Manager for Urban Stages’ Winter Rhythms series where she also hosts a Vlog called Urban Stages’ Artists Chat.

Matsuki’s most cherished awards come from winning the 2020 Bistro Award for Outstanding Collaboration celebrating her 25th year of working with Music Director, Gregory Toroian; getting her poster up on Don’t Tell Mama’s “Wall of Fame” for her show How’s That for Openers? celebrating the 33rd Anniversary of singing at the club and being selected personally by the late Julie Wilson as the very first 2004 Julie Wilson Award Recipient, given by the Mabel Mercer Foundation.

Matsuki is an 11-time MAC Award Nominee and a 3-time Winner (in seven different categories), mostly recently she was nominated for Major Female Vocalist. Her MAC history includes: 2002 MAC Award Winner for Female Jazz/Pop/R&B Vocalist; 2002 Nominee for Best Female Recording for her first Jazz CD, A New Take; 2004 Nominee for Duo/Group (with Marcus Simeone); 2006 MAC Award Winner for Special Productions for her sold out 7 week run of 10 Years in the Making with her Musical Director Gregory Toroian; 2007 & 2010 Nominee for Female Vocalist; 2008, 2011 & 2012 Nominee for Duo/Group (with Edd Clark); the 2008 MAC Award Winner for Specialty Song (“One Stop Shopping” by Page/Matsuki/Toroian); and the 2020 Nominee for Major Female Vocalist.

This Jazz/Cabaret/Comedy veteran has played every NYC Cabaret room including: Feinstein’s at the Regency, Feinstein’s 54 Below, The Metropolitan Room, Arci’s Place, Town Hall, Don’t Tell Mama, Pangea, The Algonquin, The Beach Café, The Laurie Beechman Theater, 88’s, and has even played Carnegie Hall along with several legendary Jazz Clubs including: The Village Gate, Birdland, The Iridium and Sweet Rhythm. She has performed in Alaska, Los Angeles, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, Nyack, Maine, Fire Island, Florida, Providence and Las Vegas!

Her jazz CD, A New Take, was nominated for the 2002 MAC Award for Best Recording and her Christmas CD, Sue & Edds FABULOUS Christmas both receive air play across the country and internationally. She is also featured on folk singing legend Christine Lavin’s original music Christmas compilation CD, Just One Angel with a song that she co-wrote with Paul Stephan called “Christmas Angel”.

Matsuki was a Super and “Diva Double” at the Metropolitan Opera where she has been featured in Moses und Aaron; Tristan und Isolde; Norma; and Il Travatore.

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