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

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