Performance Anxiety : The Good, the Bad, and the Helpful

I know that feeling before you go on to sing: your heart begins to beat so fast; your throat that you need to sing with gets all dry; you feel light-headed, sensitive, nervous, and touchy; and all the lights seem brighter and the sounds around you seem louder. You become so thirsty, and yet the thirst is never quenched. You need to run to the bathroom every five minutes. You start to sweat and drip and feel all hot inside and outside yourself. You feel like your legs are turning to jelly and that you will flop like a rubber band. You wonder if you can go on at all.

And yet within all this is the exhilarating thrill that you are singing because you are a good singer and have been given the honor and opportunity to sing before people. Your ego knows you are good, but your fears wonder if you are good enough. All the thoughts start to come at you: I can’t do this! What if I miss that fortissimo on that high C? Or that pianissimo on that other high C? What if I forget the words that I studied so hard to memorize? Do I look OK? Does this dress make me look fat? What if I can’t get started? What if I go flat? What if I forget a verse? What if they don’t like my performance? If I jump off this cliff, will I land on the other side or will I fall off the edge?

Performance anxiety, or “stage fright,” can affect anyone who has to perform on a public stage: actors, singers, or public speakers. Even standing up front at your own wedding! It is a common misconception that introverts are generally prone to performance anxiety—or that all performers are extroverts by nature. Comedienne Carol Burnett, who entertained with her wry humor and lovely singing voice, was introverted and shy by nature and affected by performance anxiety. Julie Andrews—whose voice of crystal beauty enthralled the world in The King and I, Cinderella, Mary Poppins</em, and The Sound of Music—also suffered from performance anxiety.

For some classical singers, performance anxiety can become debilitating and can damage or destroy a career. Many a singer can safely say they perform better in rehearsal than in live performance. Many singers and musicians have turned to recordings to avoid the pressures involved in performing publicly.

Pearl Shinn Wormhoudt’s With a Song in My Psyche offers glimpses into the lives of singers who have been debilitated by performance anxiety. The great Italian tenor Pavarotti remarks that the audience “has no idea how terrified singers are,” and Wormhoudt relates that the great Caruso himself was “intensely nervous” before performance, literally unable to sing at all until he was fully dressed in costume. American baritone Robert Merrill would help the great Swedish tenor Jussi Björling with his performance anxiety by walking him around the block, “telling him how great he was, how he had nothing to fear.”1

One singer describes what she terms her “complete failure”: “I had to stop performing because of it . . . dryness of throat, almost as if bile was coming up out of my throat . . . extreme heart palpitation, fear of loss of memory, fear of losing balance on stage, skipping music, voice crackling.” For this singer, who had to quit her career entirely, performance anxiety was indeed a “terrible dragon.”2

What exactly happens during an attack of performance anxiety?

The physiological basis of performance anxiety arises from the “tension/arousal spectrum” and involves the autonomic nervous system, which subdivides into sympathetic and parasympathetic pathways. The sympathetic system is what prepares the body for the “fight or flight” condition, and the parasympathetic involves digestive function (which is why you feel “butterflies in your stomach” and the urge to run to the bathroom constantly). The autonomic nervous system is involved in raising and lowering the heart rate.

Performance anxiety is a manifestation of the “fight or flight” response: the heart rate rises, you breathe faster, you feel keenly alert and yet slightly dizzy, your throat goes dry, you have the urge to urinate every couple of minutes, and you cannot sit still. “Fight or flight” is nature’s default position for a situation of danger or the unknown. For singers, it is the psychological impact of inner fears and its concomitant stress that produces the external, physical manifestations of anxiety which can destabilize a performance.3

The Negative Affirmations

The thoughts swirling around in a singer’s head usually grow more and more negative and panicked as it gets closer to the time she or he has to be on stage. I am going to blow it. I am not going to sing this perfectly. I cannot do this. I am going to fail. The audience is going to hate me. I am going to forget my entrances. I am going to go flat. I won’t be able to do this. I cannot be perfect.

“While hunting for all these things that can go wrong,” Wormhoudt observes, “they are interfering with the confidence that allows the sound to flow.”4 So, in essence you become your own worst enemy by being anxious and, consequently, may indeed not sing as well in actual performance as you did in rehearsal or during practice.

Reasons for Performance Anxiety

Pinpointing reasons why you might feel anxious before a performance can be the first step to combatting stage fright. Such reasons might include the following:
• Not being fully prepared
• Not having a dependable technique
• Lack of self-confidence to overcome physical symptoms as they arise (“The muscles in your throat automatically constrict when you criticize yourself,” says pedagogue Christopher Arneson.5)
• Overdeveloped sense of perfectionism (“Singers with high personal standards of perfection have more debilitating anxiety than those with more realistic expectations,” notes Arneson.6)

How to Alleviate the Symptoms of Performance Anxiety

Sing More Often

Some performance anxiety is just lack of experience.

Deep or “Slowed” Breathing

Try my Yogi breathing techniques from “The Tao of Breathing” article (CS February 2015)—a long hold cycle will change the carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio in the blood and slow down the heart rate. My favorite is “in 4 . . . hold 4 . . . out 4” or even “in 4 . . . hold 8 . . . out 8.” Breathe normally if you get light-headed. It is better to think of “deep breathing” as “slowed breathing” due to the long hold time and slow expiration rate employed by this type of exercise. The goal is not to “get more oxygen in the blood” but rather the opposite: to increase the carbon dioxide in the blood, which subsequently slows the heart rate and stress response.7

Dress Light, Cool, & Comfortable

Some singers get very hot when they sing and even dizzy. Find what looks beautiful and is maximally comfortable. If you wear a shawl, you can tactfully and gracefully remove it between sets if you get too hot.

Be Early

Never, ever rush to performance. Allow yourself time to dress if necessary, look over the music, clear your head, find a spot alone, or warm up if you have not already. It is always a good idea to test the space before you sing, even if you have sung there before. I have made the mistake of not testing the space before singing, and I sang badly because I could not hear myself in the space properly in performance. Eliminating the unknowns can lessen the anxiety.

Kinesthetic Distractions

Wormhoudt says to “anchor” (and thus divert) your body’s nervous energies into the rhythms of the music you are about to sing—stand and literally dance your way through the music in your mind, without singing and without accompaniment—and then do the process again, this time adding your singing and dancing in the same way. She says this will “enhance the flow of the sound” and takes away “the rough hesitations to see if the pitch is right, etc.” She also suggests the pre-singing dance session will “release the voice” and that “some of this release will remain in performance so that the voice can be trusted to work.”8

I see this as a useful and pragmatic way to “work out the kinks” before you sing. But you are going to need a comfortable, private space to do this in. If the idea of “dancing” seems uncomfortable to you, perhaps “swaying” or “moving” to the music would be a more helpful image or practice.

Medications

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. So none of this is medical advice but rather my personal experiences shared for information purposes only. Consult a doctor before trying any of these.
Guaifenesin (Mucinex). This over-the-counter medication is a dry-throat treatment I found by way of logic and experimentation. It increases the volume and decreases the thickness of respiratory tract secretions.9 So it occurred to me that perhaps it would increase secretions in my throat when dried by the “fight or flight” response. I tried it a year ago at a Christmas Eve performance, and it was amazing—my voice was fluid and supple and I knew my vocal folds were plump and moist and not dry. I sang freely and beautifully. I have used it ever since and I will never sing without it again. I mix 2–4 teaspoons of Guaifenesin in a bottle of water and keep it on hand with a bottle of plain water as well. Sometimes I just sip some straight from its own bottle.
Anti-anxieties/sedatives/tranquilizers. Some say these medications do not work for performance anxiety, but these have been invaluable to me. Check with your doctor and voice teacher about this option for your situation.
Alcohol. The reality is that this can help some people as a self-medicating method.10 But a little goes a long way. Maybe a sip or two of red wine 20 minutes before a performance, nothing more. I would not choose this as a first line of defense, but it has helped me when I was at my most anxious. Be extra, extra careful if you combine alcohol with any barbiturates/sedatives or any other medication—check with your doctor before considering doing this at all.
Kava (Piper methysticum). This herbal tea from the South Seas has been found to have therapeutic properties for stress and anxiety. I have found it immensely helpful when I find it difficult to get to sleep or I feel especially anxious. Be sure to read the label for any potential drug interactions or health issues that would contraindicate its use.11

Prayer/Contemplation/Meditation

Connecting to the spiritual elements of singing will calm your body and psyche as well. (See my “Singing in the Spirit” article in the September 2014 issue of CS.)

Jussi Björling’s “Friend Approach”

Have someone walk with you or just stay with you. Coaches often use the technique of physical proximity and speaking intense words of encouragement from the sidelines to athletes centered in the heat of the battle. Something similar can help focus your mind on positive, affirmative thoughts instead of anxious, negative ones.

Muscle Relaxation

You can work out some of your kinks alone with a set of nice pre-performance stretches and rubbing your own sore or tense places. But if you have that same “affirmation coach” willing and able to give you a good massage, that will set you up for some good singing indeed!

Positive Affirmation Statements

Repeating positive, affirming statements combined with deep breathing and meditation can relieve anxiety. Try any of these:
• I am a good singer.
• I did not get this far because I am a terrible singer.
• I am here to make music.
• There is beauty in imperfection.
• Go for the heart and the technique will come.
• Your ministry comes from your spirit as well as your voice.
• I can do this. I have done well before.
• I can do my best, and that will be awesome.
• One note will not make the whole performance terrible.
• Take this anxious energy and turn it into a powerful performance.
• It is OK to not be totally perfect.
• You will sing better than ever today.

A Difference in Philosophy

Toward the end of her career, Greek soprano Maria Callas was routinely singing flat and with a widening vibrato, but the dramatic energy and intense interpretive ability more than made up for these technical defects. And we still hail her as one of the great singers of the 20th century. Wormhoudt talks about the vulnerability in imperfection, reminding us as singers that it is “that vulnerable humanity that we are communicating in songs.”12 Arneson reminds us that “it’s the little flaws and personal quirks that make your singing unique and set you apart from the crowd.”13 Remembering this can go a long way to placing your mental focus somewhere other than on the source of the anxiety.

Wormhoudt also suggests singers “[get] their mind on their music, not on themselves.”14 Look outward to the product, to the music making that is before you. Think about your opening intro or the overture. Think about how elegant and confident you are going to look walking out. Think about the applause and the beautiful dress or handsome suit you are wearing. Know that you are there because they are delighted to hear you. Drink that in and get energized from the audience’s energies.

Play the Part

Finally, in every performance, you are playing some kind of part. So get ready and present yourself. Do a good bit of acting here. Position your shoulders, sternum, and head in a balanced, aligned, and assured posture. Make sure your face is full of strong confidence and that your eyes are the eyes of a communicator, a singer with a purpose. Grab deep, go out there, and go to the music—not to the sensations in your body. Get to the music right away. Let the intro take you away from all the sensations and thoughts that cause your worry.

Theresa Rodriguez

Theresa Rodriguez received her master of music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College at Rider University in Princeton, NJ. She is currently a member of the voice faculty at the Community School of Music and the Arts at the Goggleworks in Reading, PA. She recently published a book of poetry entitled “Jesus and Eros: Sonnets, Poems and Songs,” which is available on Amazon.