Managing Performance Anxiety
We've all been there: you get up on stage, you're about to start singing, and suddenly it happens: butterflies in your stomach. Dry mouth. Shaky hands and knees. You can't seem
to take in enough breath to get through your first phrase, and you're afraid that your entire performance is going to tank.
It's that dreaded beast, PERFORMANCE ANXIETY. It can manifest itself in many and unpredictable ways. At best, it is frustrating; at worst, it can be completely debilitating.
The good news? It can absolutely be handled! There are many techniques you can use in your preparation and performance to harness your adrenaline and calm unnecessary nerves.
WHY AM I NERVOUS?
When you find yourself in a high-pressure situation, your body enters what we call "fight-or-flight" mode. It begins to produce adrenaline, a stress-response hormone that can make you
feel hyper-alert, aware, and focused, but can also cause some of the unwanted "nervous" effects described above. This stuff goes way, way back to when we were cavemen running and fighting for our lives, and we needed that adrenaline rush in order to survive. It's in our evolutionary DNA. We're no longer running from bears or fighting rival cavemen, but our bodies remain hard-wired to elicit this adrenaline response in the face of any perceived threat or high-pressure situation - including, unfortunately, that of singing for a room full of strangers.
So what are we supposed to do about this thing we can't do anything about?
Well, first we can acknowledge a few things:
1. Being nervous before a performance is completely and utterly normal. If you feel nervous, congratulations. It means your adrenal glands are working. ;-)
But really, there is nothing wrong with you if you experience performance anxiety. Even the most experienced performers get nervous before heading on stage.
2. Being nervous before performing is not always necessarily a bad thing. Remember, adrenaline has some positive effects too - it can help you to feel alert, aware, and focused.
3. For most people, performance nerves never completely go away. It's more about learning to manage them than eliminating them.
4. There is no magic fix for performance anxiety. It takes time and practice to re-train your brain and re-frame negative thought patterns. Try a few different techniques to see what works for you.
5. Generally, the more you perform, the less nervous you will be each time. Performing takes practice. Over time, it's possible to re-train your brain to realize it doesn't need to freak out every time. You'll also become more practiced at singing through the nerves, which goes hand-in-hand with increased confidence in your technique.
6. Performance anxiety is a different thing from clinical anxiety, but if you struggle with the latter, you may find that it compounds normal performance nerves. If you find this to be the case, make sure you are seeking appropriate treatment from trusted health professionals.
WHAT CAUSES PERFORMANCE ANXIETY, AND WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
Performing is a highly multi-faceted and vulnerable act that places great demands on both your body and your mind, so nerves can be rooted in any number of things. Each of the more common causes, however, can be re-framed from a negative mindset to a positive one.
1. Preparation - generally, the more prepared you are for a performance or audition, the less
nervous you will be. It is up to you, and you alone, to prepare your best in the time you've been given. In other words, you are in complete control here!
Does good preparation guarantee a perfect performance? No. But if something does go wrong, you'll at least know that it had nothing to do with your preparation.
2. Feelings of vulnerability - let's face it, performing, and especially singing, is a vulnerable act. Your voice is a part of you and your identity, and it can feel uncomfortable to share that with a room full of strangers. But that's just it - you are sharing. The audience is not there to judge you. They genuinely want to hear what you have to say - if they didn't, they wouldn't be there. Re-framing these feelings from "I'm being judged" to "I'm sharing something" can do wonders for performance nerves.
3. Fear of failure - assuming that you've prepared well enough, there is no way that your performance will be a complete failure. Even if not everything goes exactly how you want it to, there will always be something positive to reflect on.
How you talk to yourself is everything. I had a college professor who would say, "If you think you're going to crack on the high note, then you will." Instead of worrying about that high note, or whatever your thing is, let it go, and instead focus that mental energy on a goal you can accomplish, even if it's as simple as standing with proper posture the whole time or keeping your eyes focused.
4. Feelings of inadequacy - if you are good enough to have made it to this moment, then you are good enough.
Read that sentence again, and then again. Then say it to yourself until you believe it.
Impostor syndrome is real. But so is all the work you have done, the progress you have made, and the support of the people who helped you arrive at this moment. Don't compare yourself to others. There will always be people better than you, and this is a good thing - it means you can learn from them. But also remember: no matter matter how good someone is, they're not perfect, and they're on their own journey, just like you.
5. Sickness - if you have to perform while sick, well - my condolences to you. It's no fun.
However, it IS possible, if your condition allows you to sing safely. The things that get you through a performance while sick are technique and incredible mental focus. So do the things you do to cultivate those, and you'll have more control over your sick voice when you perform.
Also, acknowledge ahead of time that a sick performance will not feel as great as a healthy one. Re-frame your expectations, and you'll be far less disappointed.
6. Unknown factors about the performance space or the performance itself - sometimes if we're unsure of the details of the performance - the flow of events, the logistics, how big/small/dry/hot/live/dead the space is, etc., we get a little anxious. So, find out as much as you can about the details beforehand. Don't pester the coordinators, but also don't be afraid to ask about any and all conditions that may affect your needs or your performance. If you can't get answers to everything, acknowledge the fact that you'll have to roll with the punches a bit, and then focus your energy on the things you can control.
TECHNIQUES TO MANAGE PERFORMANCE ANXIETY
Aside from re-framing and positive self-talk, there are a few other things you can try to calm your body and focus your mind before you go on stage.
1. Deep breathing. This sends "Calm down!" messages to your brain. The 4-7-8 routine is a popular one: inhale over four counts, hold the breath for seven counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat until you're calm.
2. Closing your eyes for a bit is another way to quiet your mind. (Keep your eyes open while you perform, though!)
3. Stretching helps to circulate oxygen and blood throughout your body, especially when combined with deep breathing. It can also help to relieve muscle tension, which can make you feel more relaxed.
4. Standing with tall, confident posture, both before and during the performance. How you carry yourself physically sends messages to your brain about how you perceive yourself, so send it something positive!
5. Mental, silent practice of your performance. You can do this with your score in front of you, or go through it in your head.
6. Visualizing the performance. How do you want to look? move? sound?
7. Setting a specific goal for the performance. It can be something super simple, like keeping your eyes up the whole time or remembering to take three deep breaths before you begin. Having an attainable, concrete goal will make the whole thing seem less daunting. Plus, even if something goes wrong, you will still have succeeded at something.
So, there you have it. Are there any techniques you use to calm nerves that aren't on this list? Share in the comments!
Portions of this post are adapted from an earlier version, originally published by the author at rising-stars-productions.com.