Being You and Finding Your Way

Being You and Finding Your Way

I am fortunate to make a living working in the creative arts industry. I am also a creative person myself. I am drawn to the rollercoaster and the unpredictability of not knowing what is around the corner, and also the feeling that anything is possible. It can be incredibly rewarding, but also isolating, frustrating and lonely. Sometimes you can feel on top of the world and at other times, that everyone else’s lives make sense except your own.

Having taught at a musical theatre college for the best part of a decade, I saw lots of talented and hungry students moving through the college, who had left their families, armed with their hopes and dreams, and their sights set on a career on the West End stage. There would be a real mix of performers who would “make it” (whatever that means) and there would be my favourite success stories that would happen to the quiet students at the back of the class, who perhaps got overlooked, but who were grafting hard by themselves. There were also those who would live the dream, being offered a lead in a West End show before even graduating, then going from high profile job to high profile job, leading role to leading role, and having the best time doing it (although nothing is ever as it seems). I would also see students with incredible pressure placed on them by themselves or by family, who felt that it was make or break and sometimes they would indeed break. One thing for sure is that you can never truly tell from the surface what is going on underneath. It may appear that someone is doing better than you, but it’s just that their life is playing out differently, it doesn’t mean that they are worth more. We are all in this together.

When I first graduated from drama school, I had terrible experiences with auditions and countless jobs and contracts that fell through. In auditions, I would prepare a song that I thought sounded great and showed off my voice (a light, pretty soprano) but whilst waiting in the wings, I would hear a big, powerful, voice whacking out a Celine Dion number and my confidence would crash. I would then shuffle nervously onto the stage, doubting everything about myself, my voice, my outfit, and my song choice. I felt crushed and that I had let myself down. For anyone who regularly auditions, I salute you. It is a hell of a thing. What I have drawn from my experiences, is that all you can be is yourself. I know it sounds cheesy but there is not another you – you are unique and a one-off. To bring it onto the subject of singing, be prepared yes, but polish and shine the spark that is inside you, ensure that your voice is in the best condition it can be, do lots of work on your inner self / self-esteem, emotional health and wellbeing, eat well and nourish your soul.

Keep your friends and family close, and let them see you when things are not going that well or when you feel vulnerable and low in energy. Don’t feel that you have to put on a brave or perfectly made up face when you just don’t feel like it. This is exhausting and you end up going through things alone. Share your stories and experiences the good and the bad – this doesn’t have to be with everyone, but with those that you can trust and who support the true you. Make sure that your close relationships are nurtured and attended to. The most important relationship of all is with yourself, but having a supportive and understanding network around you is crucial.

In your performing life, dare to let your audience see who you are, don’t be afraid to feel vulnerable and out there, sometimes the best performances can be born out of an insecurity, taking risks, life events or something not going to plan. Theatre is unpredictable but this is why we all love it. Letting the world see you, does come with a risk, but it is worth it.

You may not get the job you are going for. This may happen time and time again, until you are on the verge of quitting. You might get the job but get a rubbish review. You may get an injury and have to sit out the rest of your contract. The contract might fall through. You may get told that you are too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, not experienced enough, too experienced, just not right for the part, etc, etc. This may hurt at the time and feel like rejection, but really it is finely tuning where you will go next, and bringing you one step closer to your true path. It’s hard to trust the process, I know, but doing everything with the best intentions and a commitment to being yourself, will guide you through.

This may sound hippyish (if that is a word) but I do believe it.

 

 

 

Stage Nerves and Performance Anxiety – Part 2

Continuing on from my previous blog….

Having nerves before an audition or a live performance, does not have to be unhealthy or crippling. A certain amount of adrenaline and excitement can boost energy levels, give an edge to performances and lead to a heightened sense of reality and expression. However, there is a “red zone” especially in relation to adrenaline, in which your personal state is affected so much by nerves and anxiety that singing with any consistence becomes increasingly difficult. When adrenaline spikes in this way, the body can physically start shaking, you feel dry in your mouth, your palms start to sweat and in my case, I feel like I am going to faint because my breath has become so shallow. There is a point at which these uncomfortable symptoms can be brought back down to a workable level and there are various tricks that performers can use.

Visualisation

If you are someone who likes to “see” things in your imagination, visualisation can invoke the actual feelings that you are seeing in your mind. I ride horses, and have had several nasty falls. Getting back in the saddle again can be nerve wracking and to help me, before riding I would visualise myself as clearly as I could, feeling relaxed, at ease, and confident. I would immerse myself in this image – what colour is the sky? What am I wearing? How does the horse smell? What can I hear? How do I feel? What is underfoot? Every so often, a quick flash of me falling off would disrupt this picture, but I would again, bring in a calm, easy going image of myself on the horse, and I would feel better and more able again. I did not rely on visualisation alone as I was also putting in time actually riding! But it helped to put my mind and body in a more neutral and relaxed state and certainly helped to influence the outcome of my rides. There is lots of talk about the power of the mind, mind over matter, and in my experience your headspace and thoughts do have a noticeable influence on how you go into a situation and the potential outcome. A tip – when you feel your nerves begin to kick in, before you start singing, or mid-way through a song, post an image in your mind very quickly of something that relaxes you or a situation in which you feel safe. For me, it’s stroking my little rescue cat Phoebe and hearing her purr or hearing my 5-year old son saying something funny. This can stop the adrenaline going into the “red zone” and keep you at a workable level.

Mantras

I have mantras that I use to prepare me for a live performance or a scary situation – some of them (for your amusement) are:

“Goddamn it, I have TRAINED for this shit!”

“I am capable of doing this”

“I have lots of experience”

“I can sing!”

“I am a sensitive and giving performer”

“I may not be perfect, but I always try my best”

“May the force be with me!”

Shifting Attention

When you feel that rise in anxiety, try shifting your attention onto something else. My nerves are at their worst in the build-up before I sing, and I have had terrible auditions when I hear the singer before me and they have absolutely smashed it. I then compare myself to what they have done, and start to doubt my own abilities and song choices. If this happens, try shifting your attention onto something else. I have a trick that I like to do, which is a “Google Earth” swoop. I zoom out from the scene that I am part of, just like Google Earth so that I become smaller, I then see the view from above as if I am on an aeroplane, I see the buildings, the streets, the people like tiny dots, then I zoom out further and see the clouds, then I’m in space looking down on the Earth in orbit. It quickly puts things into perspective and makes me feel like I am part of something greater. Let’s face it, there is a whole universe out there and this singing audition is not the end of the world (although it can feel like it). There are lots of other things going on.

Preparation

This is not anything new! Having songs that sit well in your range, suit your style and vocal skillset and that are well prepared, helps enormously with nerves and feeling out of control. Performing at auditions and in live venues means that there will be changeable factors including people talking whilst you are singing, people getting up to leave (!), audition panels stopping you, mid-way through the best bit of your song, background noise, different acoustics, different pianists / accompanists, the singer before you smashing it, etc., etc. Feeling like you have rehearsed and have options regarding the song length all help – sometimes audition panels would like to hear the whole song, sometimes only a snippet. Sometimes they ask for something else completely! Be prepared not only to sing what you have prepared but also for the unknown and unpredictable elements of an audition or a live situation.

Feedback

Auditions can be particularly tough because you may get zero feedback after your carefully prepared and beautifully delivered song. You may also get glowing feedback right there on the spot but then hear nothing afterwards – no email, zero communication. This can leave you feeling stranded, confused and in limbo. Singing to a panel is being judged, but it’s not personal – they are not looking to criticise you, more that they are searching for the right fit for the roles that they need to fill. Singing to an audience who offer no feedback – no applause, no acknowledgement of what you have done is really difficult and you need to be made of super strong stuff to not let this affect you (or you need to be doing so many auditions that it’s just one among many). Positive feedback after a performance is a lovely thing, but quite often I have singers that do not hear or register the positive feedback, they only hear the negative. I am like this! Negative feedback hits much harder and resonates for longer than positive as it touches the vulnerable spots that we all have. It’s a shame if you think about it as the positive stuff is super important as it balances things out. Performers are a hard-working bunch who can be incredibly hard on themselves, hearing negative feedback or critical comments can affect us deeply. Tip – try to have your own gauge of how your performance went. Did you hit the high notes? Was your technique consistent? Did you deliver the song convincingly? What was good about what you did? What needs improvement? What can you learn from this event? Also have two lists – one with negative feedback or the critical comments that your inner critic throws at you, and one list with a counterbalance of these comments – the nice things that have been said about you. For example:

“My high notes sound like I’m being strangled”

Counterbalanced with:

“I’ve done really well to sing into my upper range”

Or:

“I have a small, weak voice”

Counterbalanced with:

“I have a sensitive and expressive voice”

You get the gist of it!

Know Thyself

I bang on about this quite a lot in my classes! How well do you know yourself? There may be a song that you adore, full of riffs, high notes, big swoops but you may have a voice that is suited to a more traditional style of singing, and that does not like quick flicks and riffs. Certain shows are very style specific, does your vocal style suit the style of song that you have chosen? Do you know what suits you best and where your voice likes to sit? Everyone will have a sweet spot – do you know yours? My voice is light and girly and will never be big and belty. I may be able to hit a C in belt every so often but I cannot sustain it with any finesse. The songs that suit me best are floaty, folky, pop tunes and Rodgers & Hammerstein numbers. I adore Jason Robert Brown but can only do justice to his folkier tunes without the big held belts. And Hamilton? Forget it! It’s frustrating but c’est la vie (to an extent!).

How is your rep folder looking? You may have a big, thick folder full of material but you only really know one song. You may also have songs that have negative connotations – maybe you cracked on the high note or you forget the same section every time you sing it. Put these songs to one side and come back to them later. You may also have songs that you have been singing for years and they always “do the job”. It might be time to freshen things up a bit, try something new? It’s great that they do the job, but if you’re not getting any jobs from them, maybe it’s time to try a fresh approach? Also, it’s easy to become robotic and on auto pilot if you keep singing the same stuff. Singers are communicators and it’s important to feel connected and energised with what you are singing. If a song isn’t doing it for you anymore, then chances are that it’s not doing it for the people that you are singing it to!

More to come on the subject of the inner critic so stay tuned!

Michaela x

Stage Nerves and Performance Anxiety

Lots of students come to me with stage nerves and performance anxiety at having to sing live on stage and get back into auditioning again. They are often returning from a contract abroad, a dance-heavy show, recovering from injury, a harsh comment from someone, or just being out of the singing loop. I’ve seen performers come in full of fear and trepidation, physically shaking at the idea of having to sing in front of somebody and with a deep-rooted worry about the sound that will come out. I feel for them and empathise completely, having lost all confidence myself over a decade ago, so much so that I lost my voice completely! To anyone else, it would be a simple case of “just get back on the horse”, which can sometimes be what is needed, but in my case, it was far more complex than this.

I used to perform regularly and without fear (nerves yes, but fear no) when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I felt excited to perform and share my music and exhilarated to be the centre of attention. It all changed however, when I vividly remember a part of my brain switching on and telling me that I could mess up at any moment and how embarrassing this would be. Funny then, how I did exactly that! It was as if the world as I knew it had changed, and there was no going back.

Playing intimate gigs became a terrifying experience. Being able to see the eyes and facial expressions of each member of the audience is unsettling at the best of times, but in my mind the slightest twitch, or chatter would mean that I had lost them and I imagined all the things that my viewers were saying to each other, things like; “Oh, my God she’s awful”, “What a horrible voice!”, “And she calls herself a singer?” the list went on and on. I remember having an out of body experience, when I was premiering a new song, during which the audience were holding their heads in their hands and groaning with dismay. This may or may not have been true, but I do believe now, looking back, that it was blown way out of proportion. These inner thoughts were crippling to my self-esteem and made performing in any convincing way, near on impossible.

I took a break from singing live and from songwriting for ten years after this. I focused on teaching and working with other singers who needed help and support. This was a great therapy and gave me an outlet to pour my energy into. Fast forward, ten years and I’m writing songs again, which reignited the fear of having to perform them. At first, I thought, well I can just write and that will be enough. But no. The urge to get in front of an audience was coming back and I was once again shaking with fear.

I have found when working with students who are anxious and worried about singing, that having realistic goals helps enormously. If you’ve been out of the loop for a while, it’s all very nice to want to get up and nail that big belty ballad, but realistically it’s going to be a bit wobbly the first few times. The songs that you used to sing, may also feel dramatically different – factors like how much older you are, how you have been using your voice for the last year or so, what show you’ve been in, your day job, health, lifestyle etc., will all have an impact on the voice you now have. For performers who have not auditioned in a while, there is a whole other side and list of demands to this that you cannot replicate in the singing studio unfortunately. There is no escaping the fact that you’re going to have to get on stage at some point. BUT only when you have got to know yourself and your voice again, as it is now. This is really important. Self-knowledge can never be underestimated, the better you know yourself and your voice the more informed you will be when taking those steps out of the wings and onto the stage.

Singing in a static environment, for example a singing studio, rehearsal room, your bedroom, is a great place to start as there will not be too many changeable elements or factors that will throw you off what you are doing. Getting to know your voice – what is my range? Where do I like to sing? Which registers have the sweetest tone? What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What kinds of songs do I enjoy singing? What songs should have been kicked out of my rep years ago? Am I confident that when I open my mouth, a reliable and consistent sound will come out? How do I feel about myself on stage? In a singing lesson, it’s a safe environment where you can try out ideas, hone in on areas that make you feel good and work to improve areas that you struggle with. I feel that it is important to have positive reinforcement when getting back into singing as if too many things are out of reach, criticised, or just not good enough, you’re making your starting point even more difficult. You want to improve yes, and have the areas highlighted that need work, but no one wants to hear a critical voice all the time. It’s important to know what you are good at!

Once a good, solid foundation has been built in a safe and relatively static environment, then you can look at dipping your toe in the audition or gig water. Sometimes that first audition may go brilliantly, sometimes it may bomb and you’re in the toilets in tears. It’s important to set realistic goals; Can I get through this audition without forgetting the words? Can I sing this song from start to finish, in spite of having wobbly moments? Can I walk onto the stage without tripping up? (this was mine!) Having expectations that are far removed from the current reality can make things really hard. Imagine never having kicked a football before and expecting to get it straight in the goal, past all of the defenders. You may get lucky but I’m pretty sure that you won’t be able to repeat it time after time. This takes practice, patience and resilience. Also, an ability to be kind and understanding to yourself when you feel like things are going badly, or you’re not getting the results that you want.

Going back to my story, I slowly returned to the stage but did it in small steps. Firstly, I sang some songs in front of students at the college I was teaching at. This was just unbearable at first, and I was quaking in my blue Converse. However, after having sung a few songs with a relatively OK response, I realised that the roof wasn’t going to cave in, that actually no one really cared whether I messed up or not, and that people just wanted to hear something nice generally. I feel that this is the same with auditions although they are much tougher as the panel may be tired, bored, restless, fed up of having heard the same song 50 times already, and may just want a break themselves. Mind reading is a dangerous thing – you can’t second guess what your audience or listeners might want, and if you try to, you can lose sight of what you want to say and the unique qualities that make you, you. It’s easy to feel like a feather on the wind being blown about from audition to audition (I’m rambling!).

After singing in front of students, I then set myself the task of performing one song at a low key acoustic night. I’d turn up with a bunch of singers for support and who I could hide behind, and then I’d scurry onto the stage whilst they were being applauded. I did exactly this, and it was not the best performance I have ever given – my voice was shaky, I forgot the chords to a section of my song and my voice sounded strained and rushed. However, I did get through the song and felt a strange sense of relief. That said, I returned home and cried myself to sleep as I still felt that I had failed miserably.

These small gigs continued and I slowly started to make progress. Realising that the audience didn’t really give a damn if I was nervous or not (this isn’t being mean to them, just realistic), they also just wanted a relaxed and entertaining evening, with pleasant music and no major dramas. The demons were in my head and I had to find a way to acknowledge them, but to put them to one side. I kept doing a song here, a song there, and also saying yes to things that scared me. Playing piano live on the Antiques Roadshow was one of these things! Slowly and surely, I felt better and more competent about what I was doing. I had a mantra at this time that said; “I’ve trained to do this, Goddamn! I am good at what I do, so just get the hell on with it”. Practice, preparation and focus all helped too. I couldn’t just rock up to a gig and expect to play or sing well, I had to rehearse and really get the material into my voice and in my hands. I also had to know when to stop. If I over did it, I’d forget the words and blank out. SELF KNOWLEDGE again!

In my next blog on this subject, I will talk in more depth about specific tips, exercises and ideas that help with performance anxiety, self-esteem and stage nerves. In the meantime, keep singing!

Michaela x