Sometimes adults come to my voice lessons with stage fright issues and I share what I have found effective to keep nerves at bay. However, I now understand that stage fright goes deeper than just performance. Anxiety can permeate many aspects of one’s life. It may be such an engrained aspect of our way of being that we can’t imagine what life would be like without it.
I shake. There. I’ve said it. When I first start to perform and especially when I audition, my hands and sometimes my legs shake, my breath disappears, and my mouth goes dry. I have an essential tremor to begin with, which just gets exacerbated when I get nervous. Through the years, it’s gotten better but I often feel like my body is sabotaging me. I have had a lot of shame around this issue. Because, darn it, I’m so prepared for the performance and then, bam! The nerves start up.
I remember in high school, as a cellist, performing the first movement of the “Boccherini Cello Concerto in B-flat.” I was so nervous, I could barely play the notes. Meanwhile, my best friend, a violist, was cool as a cucumber when she’d perform, always playing nice and steady. Or another time, when I went to sing a job in a private home. I expected a big party but instead it was a small, intimate family dinner. I felt so exposed. I was holding the sheet music and I started to shake violently. I was mortified. Anticipating this, I’ve started bringing a clipboard to any performance situation where I must hold a sheet of paper. It hides my shaking! Suffice it to say, I could never have become a surgeon!
Recently I stumbled upon a book by Lissa Rankin, M.D., called “The Fear Cure.” What I loved most about the book is that in the first third she talks about what is going on physiologically when we are stressed out or afraid. It’s the typical “fight or flight” response. She says that when people say they are really, really stressed, what they are saying is that they are very, very afraid. (I really liked that since so many people in our culture think the more stressed we are the more successful. It makes me so mad!) She discusses the difference between true fear – for instance, if someone were pointing a gun at you – and false fear – all the stories of disaster that we tell ourselves, our worries and insecurities, our negative view of ourselves in the world.
So, since reading the book, I have started a practice. I say to myself “no danger here” (which is always the case, thank goodness) when I feel gripping in my solar plexus, my typical anxious response. And, I find that my body releases the fear. Underneath the fear, I have discovered, is an emotion – anger, sadness, annoyance, boredom, excitement. It’s as if every time I have a strong feeling about something that presents itself, I block the feeling and just feel anxious. l understand where this originated, but that’s unimportant. What’s important is that I now have a tool to allay my fear in the moment.
My anxiety covers many different emotions. These times of political turmoil have been especially hard. I find myself getting anxious when I hear about poorer people losing their safety net. Then, when I tell myself that I am not in immediate danger, I discover perhaps guilt at my blessings or great anger, which is healthy if expressed safely. As Rankin’s book states, fear can be a wonderful tool for our growth.
So how does this apply to performing? Well, stage fright is indeed a stress response. However, we can sing wonderfully despite the fast heartbeat and shakiness. Here are a few things I found helpful:
- Accept that you will be nervous. Don’t be surprised when it appears and don’t judge yourself harshly. Say to yourself, “I’m not in true danger.” (You aren’t. Most audiences want you to do well.) If your voice does something funny, move on. (I’ve heard singers crack at the opera house!)
- Know that nervousness often subsides once you get into your performance and it starts to be fun.
- Accept your level of talent. This might seem weird, but I recall once being very nervous before singing a wedding. I was very prepared but felt like I was going to die. Then I realized that I was expecting to sound like Leontyne Price! When I said: I’m just Monica with Monica’s talent, I grew calm, sang well and the bride was thrilled!
- Be on top of your technique. Your singing lessons and practices all contribute to the success of your performance. In my early days, when I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth, I was much more nervous. Now that I have a firm technical understanding, I’m much less so.
- Be prepared. If you’re not musically prepared for what you are going to sing, it’s very easy for you to get in the way of a free voice. The more you interfere with the voice, the more technical problems pop up. Then they snowball, and you end up a very unhappy camper.
- I try to meditate before performing because it greatly quiets my body. I know people who before an audition separate themselves from everyone and give themselves quiet time. They may seem anti-social, but what they’re doing is getting centered. As a pianist accompanying auditions, I’ve often seen chatterboxes come into an audition and give a very unfocussed performance.
- Learn the Alexander Technique, which works with the calming parasympathetic nervous system. The technique keeps us in our bodies and aware of our wonderful organic instrument. (I recall an audition where I said to myself “you sing, I’ll wait for you in the lobby!” LOL.)
Lastly, Rankin talks about “Four Fearful Assumptions” that often underlie our world view:
- Uncertainty is unsafe
- I can’t handle losing what I cherish
- It’s a dangerous world
- I am all alone
I find that “a” and “c” are very pertinent to stage fright. Performing is such a fine balance between mental focus and freedom. Regarding “a,” the reality is that we never know how we will do until after the performance. However, we can, as she states, turn this message around and cultivate courage. We can say that “uncertainty is the gateway to possibility.” Going into an audition ripe for possibilities is a much better attitude than feeling you are entering a dangerous lion’s den.
And, rather than saying “It’s a dangerous world,” she says we can view it as a “purposeful world.” Personally, the idea of a purposeful world is an inspiring one. If you don’t get a specific part, it may be leading you toward something else down the road, a role or project that is more where you belong.
I greatly recommend this book for anyone who experiences stage fright. And, for anyone who wants to go deeper into your vocal studies, come to me as I give speech lessons, Alexander Technique lessons, as well as singing lessons for kids and adults. As I said, knowing your voice is a tool against stage fright. Remember Pavarotti and his handkerchief? He used it to mop his brow when he would perspire…from nerves! See? It happens to the best of us.