Ask a singer: “What is your basic motivation to perform?” The answer you will get is: “I love to sing!” Does that mean that we singers are happy people because we do what we love?
The outcome of a small study I conducted with my own voice students, colleagues and friends convinced me of one thing: The universal problem of anxiety keeps many singers from happiness. Being a performer involves more than just fun and glamour!
Over the last couple of years, I have been trying out different strategies to treat and prevent my both own performance stress and that of my students. There is no quick fix—but there are coping methods.
I have learned how to dig out my joy of singing from under a paralyzing fear. Now I can tap into my creativity, and have retrieved the joy of communicating with my audience without being drowned out by loud negative voices, and have improved my craft tremendously.
I was one of those so-called “polarized perfectionists.”
“Their thinking is polarized: one is either a winner or a loser, focused on product vs. process,” wrote Dr. Louise Montello in the December 2000 Issue of International Musician. “These musicians are highly driven, competitive, compulsive [sound familiar?], and because of their single-minded focus on achieving perfection, are often disconnected from the more subtle communications of the psyche and body.”
Our body is our instrument. The stress generated by high levels of competition, our “inner critic,” the expression of our deepest emotions, rejection at auditions, financial struggles—and last but not least, the fear of catching a cold—wreak havoc with our immune system. We singers spend thousands of dollars a year on voice lessons, coachings, psychotherapists, massage therapists, doctors, gyms, beauty salons, etc., to become the “perfect” performer.
As a working singer, I was torn between a strong drive to be a vocal performer and the fear of being on stage. I knew I had talent, knew that I possessed a good voice and a love for performing. But somehow, as soon as I got on stage, the negative self-talk, the fear of making mistakes or looking foolish, became so overwhelming that I made mistakes ordinarily easy to avoid.
Luckily, the drive made me persevere. I had psychotherapy and took Inderal*. Still, I wasn’t able to really “let go.” Of course, I studied voice, coached arias and took part in workshops—everything I could to hone my craft. But by the time the performance was at hand, I felt like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus: I would struggle almost to the mountain’s peak—and the rock would roll all the way downhill again. At times, I despaired of ever becoming the artist I wanted to be. But at last I overcame performance anxiety and I’d like to share with you the techniques I learned from many sources.
Now, as a voice teacher at AMDA (the American Musical & Dramatic Academy) in New York City, I see and hear many of my students fighting the same battle I used to fight. These young, talented adults have entered this prestigious school in hopes of pursuing a performing career. In the studio, they are expressive and produce a solid sound, but at their showcases, nerves get in the way of their breath support and creativity.
The following ideas and exercises take time, but will be worthwhile in the long run in changing ingrained thought patterns and performance habits.
Understanding the function of the autonomic nervous system is important in order to reduce performance anxiety
Our bodies have an automatic mechanism to protect us from potential harm when we perceive something as threatening or dangerous. Imagine yourself walking through the woods and suddenly you see a big bear coming your way.
What do you feel in your body? Your heart begins beating faster, you start to sweat, and your muscles tense. You breathe harder, your blood pressure goes up, your pupils dilate, and your gastro-intestinal motor function is inhibited (you feel nauseous). Our bodies go through a series of rapid biochemical reactions to prepare us to either fight off the danger or to get away from it. This “fight or flight,” or arousal response, mode is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system.
Now you are about to perform, and you suffer from performance anxiety. You get engaged in talking to yourself: “I hope I don’t screw up. I hope I don’t miss that entrance. The audience won’t like me. I’m no good,” etc. In this worrisome state of mind, you are detecting or interpreting a threat—whether real or imagined—in your environment.
The consequence of any perception of a threat: “fight or flight” mode. But when you’re on stage, there is no one to fight and no place to run! The only resource left is to freeze. People in the grip of “fight or flight” mode make too much adrenaline, which leads to hyperactivity, anxiety, weakened immunity, and eventually, burnout.
Finding a balance in your energy will help you stay healthy and improve your performance.
In an article for the American Psychological Association about GAD (general anxiety disorder), Thomas Borkovec describes different ways to reduce the perception of threat. One is relaxation training, which activates the counterpart of the nervous system: the para-sympathetic nervous system.
a) “The Constructive Rest” from the “Alexander Technique” (Body Learning, by Michael Gelb) is one way to start your day with a “tabula rasa.” Lie down on the floor. Lead your awareness down your spine. Become aware of any tension in your body, but do not do anything physically to change it. “Tell” any tension you feel to “let go” (about 15 minutes).
b) “The ‘61 point’ relaxation exercise” is another exercise in which the breath is focused on the major energy meridian points through the body. It is a very deep relaxation exercise. It can help transform unresolved mind-body issues (traumas). (“The ‘61 point’ relaxation CD,” by Dr. Louise Montello)
“My life altered dramatically after I introduced meditation into my life,” wrote Valerie Coates in “Can Meditation Reduce Performance Anxiety?” The article—featured in Voice Prints, the New York Singing Teachers Association newsletter—explains that after a very successful experiment with one of her voice students who suffered from performance anxiety, the New York singer and voice teacher now incorporates five minutes of meditation practice into each lesson.
“Performance anxiety is only one of many reasons to consider introducing voice students to meditation,” writes Coates. “A short meditation segment before beginning a lesson can clear the mind and can bring a stressed-out student into the present moment.”
Star soprano Dawn Upshaw has a routine: a 10-minute-relaxer before every performance.
“Because tension tightens and restricts the vocal cords, I begin with limbering the muscles in my neck,” says Upshaw. “I drop my head to my chest, then slowly bend my neck to each shoulder, [and] repeat 10 times.
“Breathe deeply. Make a conscious effort to take long and deep breaths before you get on stage. Drink lots of water. It helps fend off the dry throat that comes with having the jitters.”
To ground herself—literally—before going on stage, Upshaw squats to the floor for several seconds, dropping her head and taking several deep breaths.
“This is as much a physiological exercise as a physical one,” she says. “It lowers my center of gravity, making me feel more solid and relaxed.”
The power of rhythm and breath
“Erratic breath rhythms lead to confusion and make you vulnerable to emotional outbursts…rhythmical breathing connects you with the universal pulse of nature,” says guru Hazrat Inayat Khan (Essential Musical Intelligence, Quest Books, NY, p 48).
Cardiologist Chandra Patel did extended research on essential hypertension caused by stress. Yoga and breathing exercises reduced the hypertension in those who participated in the trial, says Patel. Breath awareness is a tool to reduce any stress, including performance stress.
Exercise: Lie on the floor. Make yourself comfortable (dim the lights, turn off your phone, etc.). Close your eyes and follow your breath.
What do you notice?
• Diaphragmatic breathing: Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest to make sure you don’t raise your chest while inhaling. Visualize the harmony of the universe: the rising and setting of the sun, the changing phases of the moon, or the movements of the tides.
• Even breathing: Count the same amount of numbers for inhaling and exhaling.
• 2-1 breathing: Double the exhaling time
• Cleansing breath (“skull shining”): Inhale and exhale on pff-pff-pff or sss-sss-sss.
• Alternate nostril breath: (See the article in the Classical Singer December 2003 issue by Suzanne Jackson).
• Brahmari (the “bee”): Inhale through your nose while making a light high-pitched sound, breath out on a low-pitched hum.
Do each of these exercises for about 15 minutes on a daily basis. Keep records in a Home Practice Chart, and find out which exercises benefit you most.
Self-Assessment and Cognitive Restructuring
To deal with anxiety, you must become aware of your inner self-talk. What you believe, what you think, and what you say to yourself and others creates your own reality. This can be altered by reprogramming your conscious mind with more adaptive, self-affirming self-talk.
Exercise: Write a list of 10 self-affirming statements and carry it with you. Read the list as often as you can, especially before a performance.
Create resourceful language
Research has found that language reinforces a certain emotional state. When we are feeling fear, worry and self-doubt, we express ourselves differently than when we are feeling relaxed, trusting and self-assured. How we express ourselves verbally reinforces and fuels our emotional state.
Use resourceful language that reinforces feelings of safety, trust and belief in yourself. Say: “I am looking forward to getting this chance to perform” instead of, “I will be so happy when this is over.”
Don’t worry if you do not believe in what you say at first. It takes time to recondition your emotional state, just as it takes time to build muscle when you start to work out. To build muscle emotionally, we need to reinforce a positive mental state regularly and as much as possible (Janet Esposito, “In The Spotlight”).
A selection of workshops and programs that can help decrease performance anxiety:
A Time to Sing is a program about experiencing the voice and the personal exploration of sound. Along with the collaboration of voices, it creates an environment in which people can overcome fear, reduce anxiety, and return to an inherent enjoyment of singing just for the sake of singing. VoiceWorkSylka@aol.com
Beyond The Notes is a workshop for singers that teaches how to recognize and free your mind from the thoughts that lead to anxiety and fear, and how to calm the reactions of your physical body during performance. www.newenglandconservatory.edu
In the Spotlight is a program that helps performers and speakers address their performance anxieties more deeply. Students perform and are given constructive feedback by peers and instructors. This program is mainly geared to public speaking, but singers can benefit from it because it addresses many of the same core issues.
Musicians’ Wellness, Inc. re-awakens in musicians the original joy and wonder of playing music. The participants use their own music as a source of infinite creativity and healing of the body, mind, and spirit. Eastern techniques such as yoga breathing, meditation, visualization, and creative arts therapy techniques are integrated. www.musicianswellness.org
OperaWorks is a performance training program that focuses on developing singers musically, dramatically, vocally, physically, spiritually, and professionally. Through an integrated curriculum that includes acting, coaching, yoga, Alexander technique, visualization, improvisation, dance, conducting, and psychology of performance, singers emerge with a sense of clarity and confidence and can truly transform. www.operaworks.com
Overcoming Performance Anxiety teaches performers to quiet the physiological symptoms and neutralize critical cognitive judgments as they face the “fight or flight” phenomenon. Class lectures also explain the unconscious aspects of the problem.
Overcoming Stage Fright helps to find a common link between us as real people and the character we are seeking to create, which harnesses fear and transforms it into excitement.www.adrianafirestone.com
Singers’ Wellness focuses on stage fright, especially for singers. The program offers extensive improvisation, relaxation and breathing exercises, analysis of performance goals, understanding the psychology and physiology of the “fight or flight” response, and coping with the “inner critic.” Info at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Left Brain Versus Right Brain: Awakening the Innate “Music Child”
We use our left brain for analytical purposes. With this side of the brain we learn our music: the rhythms, the lyrics, etc. The right side of our brain is receptive, emotional and creative. Suffering from performance anxiety due to “self-talk” and the “inner critic” means we are too much in our left brain.
A successful way to activate the right brain? Improvise.
a) You don’t need to master an instrument to improvise with it. Get a drum, a keyboard, a flute, or anything you can use to make music. Can you play the music of your anxiety? Is it loud, soft, monotonal? Playing the music of your fear functions as a vehicle for expressing unacceptable, repressed feelings and memories. (Dr. Louise Montello, Musician’s Wellness)
Improvise with your voice. Get together with a couple of singer friends to do the following exercises:
b) Speak gibberish and try to copy each other’s “languages.”
c) Choose a short, simple poem. Pick 10 musical terms and apply them to reciting for each other. For example: “staccato,” “irritato,” “accelerando,” “crescendo,” “mezza voce,” “legatissimo,” etc. (You can do this exercise on your own as well.)
d) Sit in a circle with three others. Make physical contact by putting your hands on each other’s knees. Close your eyes. Spontaneously, one singer should start to make sound, and then the others should join in. You can decide to use a word or simply vowels. It is remarkable what beautiful ensembles can come to life, without rehearsing in advance and without a music score! (These three exercises are based on work and publications by Ann Baltz, OperaWorks.)
e) Sing a song with different emotions: For example with anger, happiness, awe, hysteria, surprise, worry, and so forth. (Based on work by Wesley Balk.)
You can take these exercises into your own music. It will help you not only to get more into your right brain, but also to deepen your emotional awareness and musicality. You will discover new dimensions in the music you have been overseeing primarily with the left, analytical part of the brain. You will be amazed by the music you make—and the feeling of freedom it leaves you!
Creative arts techniques
Do you ever draw or color? Here is your chance. Take a piece of paper and some markers or crayons. Draw your fear or feelings of stress. What shape does it have? Is it big? Is it small? Does it have sharp edges or a smooth border? What color is it? Maybe it has different colors? Making a drawing will help you excavate your paralyzing emotions and empower you. (Dr. Louise Montello)
Visualize your fears rather than let them paralyze you. Find a place to sit or lie undisturbed and comfortably. Close your eyes. Think of your fear, stress, or feelings of burnout.
Where do you feel it in your body? Is it deep inside of you, or more on the surface? Is it heavy, stinging, burning? Does it have a color? When you have a clear picture, sit with it for a moment.
Now imagine the sunlight shining on the emotion you have visualized inside of you. You can let the warmth crumble it, let the sun make the colors fade. Let a gentle breeze take it away. Now follow your “fear” while you let it go, as it is taken away from you up into the sky. See it getting smaller and smaller and smaller…
To connect with your real self as a performer, you need to balance and harmonize all five levels of being: the body, the breath/energy, the mind, the imagination/intellect and the realm of bliss, according to Dr. Louise Montello in her book Essential Musical Intelligence (Quest Books, NY). Learning how to cope with sympathetic overdrive through the power of rhythm and breath, relaxation exercises, visualization, autogenic techniques and “mindfulness meditation,” and learning how to stop the “inner talk,” will help you convert your hyperactivity into performance energy, and use it!
I discovered that people suffering from performance anxiety aren’t the only ones who can benefit from these exercises, but also those who feel burned out or want to bring more balance into their lives.
*Inderal belongs to the beta-blocker family of drugs, which are commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart rhythm irregularities. It works by blocking the action of adrenaline, the chemical that causes the fight-or-flight response.