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!