Battling Academic Pressures : Emotional Well-being for Students

You’re off to college. Now real life can begin! Your dreams are approaching reality. You did a fine audition and have been accepted to a great school. Everything is going your way. You’ll make new friends, hang out with other passionate musicians, and learn many new skills, which will make you a prominent singer. You are ready to conquer the world!

You might also get a little anxious, however, now that you are leaving the safety of your home and your school community. What if you don’t fit in? What if the students or faculty don’t like you? What if everybody else is a much better singer? What if you have trouble with diction or can’t get the French pronunciation correct? They might think you are stupid. Maybe you have to memorize music in a very short amount of time and that is not your strength. What if you miss your family and friends at home? What if . . . what if . . . what if ?

Now that you are on your way to the next phase of your life, you feel a certain level of stress, a mixture of excitement and fear. The unknown can be scary—but as we all know, stress and worry does not help anybody. Nevertheless, going to college will require a lot more from you than high school did. It will bring you many new challenges, and you are the only one to decide how to handle them. Besides dealing with a whole new curriculum, you’re probably going to leave home and take care of yourself, which might include shopping, making food, doing laundry, etc. On top of that, you might have to find a parttime job to help pay for your education—and you might have to commute, which can be exhausting and time consuming.

What can you do to make your new life a successful balancing act? How can you blend practicing, classes, homework, rehearsals, and your social life, while, most importantly, maintaining your health and an overall feeling of happiness?

Ask yourself, what is my goal? What do I want to achieve in college? What do I want to achieve this year, this month, this week, this day? If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t know how to get there. Most people want to sing at the Met—the trick is, how do you plan to get there? It’s a journey and you have to outline it carefully.

Gary Blair, author of What Are Your Goals, writes, “You need to be fearless, daring, and have a courageous spirit, nerves of steel, and a massive dose of self-confi dence” (Gary Ryan Blair, Big BANG, A Formula on How to Create Monumental, Quantum-Leap Performance in Life and/or Career, Internet Marketing News Watch, [accessed Jan. 6, 2007]). Compile a list of your self-assessments, discover your strengths and weaknesses, and decide what you need to work on to get to your destination.

Before you get overwhelmed and stressed out about the amount of work you have to do, make a weekly schedule. Start by writing down your classes, practice times, and rehearsals, and then add the average number of hours
you spend sleeping, commuting, cooking, eating, shopping, doing laundry, etc. That way you’ll know how much time you have left for homework, memorizing music, research, going to the gym and any other activity you like or need to do on a regular basis.

Be sure to schedule some “catch-up” time to avoid getting behind, in case you have a “low energy” day or lose time because of unexpected situations. See Connie Barnett’s excellent article, “Success Is Only a Place Mat Away,”
Parts I and II (CS, February and April 2006) for detailed ideas on how to use your time most efficiently.

Once you are in college, you will probably have to get used to having the faculty look through a figurative microscope at every little detail of your performance: your vocal technique, diction, phrasing, communication, and presentation. Many freshmen find this difficult and get easily frustrated (at first). Getting picked apart in class may make you believe you can’t sing at all anymore! In addition, performing in front of your peers can make you feel insecure. You must realize that nothing is a “final product,” but rather a process of learning and improving. To refi ne your art, you need to open yourself to change and growth. You need to be savvy and daring to say adieu to your comfort zone.

It is also important to realize your physical limitations. When you’re tired, you can’t perform at your best. That is normal. Allow yourself flexibility in your performance standards and know that rest will bring you back to your usual level.

On the other hand, some students might feel they are not challenged enough. You might not get along with your private teacher or not get the technical help you need. Most colleges have a counseling center where you can discuss any concerns or difficulties you experience. Don’t try to sort things out on your own while help is at hand.

We all have a tendency sometimes to get into a negative thought process. Sometimes we make things up in our mind. It is important to be aware of your thinking, to do a reality check, so you can reconstruct your thoughts as soon as you feel yourself tending into a downward spiral. It is very easy to judge yourself, to make assumptions in a negative way, or compare yourself with other singers. We all know those voices in our heads: “Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer.” “I’m stupid.” “I’ll never get this.” “I can’t do this.” “They don’t like me.” “My teacher thinks I have no talent,” etc. This “cognitive distorted thinking” is not productive and will make things worse.

Let’s look at some of the phrases I listed above, and “remodel” them.

When you have to perform your Fauré song in class and you have difficulties with the French diction you might think: “Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer.” Did anybody actually tell you you’re a bad singer? Your answer is probably “no,” so this negative assumption has no validity. That said, however, it usually doesn’t help to try to ignore
the negative voices in your head, because they’re still here. Instead, acknowledge them and inspect their
accuracy.

When you hear the negative voices chattering away, pay careful attention. Exactly what are they trying to tell you?
Try to change them into something more constructive and helpful. For example, instead of telling yourself, “Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer,” you could say, “I find French diction difficult, but I’ll get it if I work hard.” Also, you can concentrate on a certain aspect of what you are trying to accomplish and say to yourself, “Let me make sure I support well.” I guarantee you that this attitude will increase your chances for improvement, and everybody
in class will not just admire you —they may learn something from you as well.

A thought such as “I’ll never get this!” means setting yourself up for failure. How do you know you’ll never get it? Did you try? If you failed, did you try again? This negative thinking pattern—called “black and white thinking” or “jumping to conclusions”—doesn’t serve you in any possible way; it brings you down to where it is much harder to get back up again. Instead, you can say: “I have accomplished diffi cult tasks before,” or “I’ll try my best.”

It doesn’t matter what the goal is at this point, it’s the process that teaches you something. Remember, you were not able to walk right after you were born. You fell many times, got up, and tried again. See how well you walk today! All of us hear discouraging voices in our heads sometimes, but it is up to you and me to think, “Wait a minute, this is not true!” Turn the negative input around and take it as an opportunity to learn. Putting yourself down on a steady basis will wear you out and ultimately erode your immune system. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, supplies you with new energy and helps keep you healthy.

You might become aware that some of the messages in your head are based on experiences from a long time ago. Someone might have hurt you with an inconsiderate remark when you were a child. Again, it’s a good idea not to ignore it but to look at it. Ask yourself how accurate it was, and even more important, how accurate it is today, then remodel.

Take a piece of paper and make three columns. In the first column, write down the thoughts that hinder you. In the second column, write down your thinking pattern—mind reading, black and white, defeatist, or labeling (see table above)—and in the last column replace the thought with a more accurate one. The intent of remodeling is to create a secure support system within yourself, to become self-contained no matter what other people think of you.

It is benefi cial to write out this exercise instead of just thinking it through. The actual act of writing will help you remodel successfully. Do not expect to believe your new, positive thoughts right away. You need time, practice, patience, and persistence to adopt your new way of thinking.

If you are a performer who has difficulties giving the proverbial “110 percent” at the most crucial moments, it is important—in addition to infusing yourself with positive language—to focus on staying calm and centered. Many talented singers feel inhibited while performing. The competition and pressure of the business can cause stress and anxiety. For a host of strategies on keeping your anxiety level low, see my CS article “Sing without Fear” (September 2004). Another helpful article for improving relaxation is Suzanne Jackson’s “Yoga Breathing for Singers: Alternate Nostril Breath” (December 2003).

Fear or stress puts your body’s sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. When you stay relaxed it is much easier to focus on the task at hand. Remember, don’t compare yourself to other singers. You can learn from each other, but everybody walks his or her own path in singing and in life. Focus on yours. A growing number of colleges offer yoga classes. Take advantage of them. Yoga helps reduce stress and maintain focus.

College can be a great experience, an experience in which you can become a better singer, learn more about life, and learn more about yourself. Inevitably, you will have to deal with a certain level of frustration. In your fi rst year(s) at college, you probably won’t get many solo opportunities—students outnumber the available solo parts by a wide margin, and grad students are usually first in line. Even the apprenticeship programs ask singers to do a lot more ensemble work than most would prefer.

Another aspect may come into play: politics. Don’t be surprised if certain teachers’ students get more performing opportunities. You can choose to get upset about it or accept it. Keep reminding yourself of your goal. College is not your goal—it is one of the steps to get to your ultimate goal. Take from it what you can. Do whatever you do because you want to do it. Good luck and don’t forget: have fun!

Wilma Wever

Wilma H. Wever, recognized by The New York Times for being “attractive and engaging” in her world premiere of Jocasta, works as a professional singer, teaches voice at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and gives Performance Wellness workshops. She graduated from Mannes College of Music in New York.