Ten minutes before curtain. Emotions in overdrive. Destructive inner voice. You’re unable to control your behavior and your body does weird stuff. *Yay*, stress. I’m quite sure you know what I’m talking about ;o)
These classic examples of negative mechanisms influence and reinforce each other.
Stress, fear, worries, panic,…
„I should’ve studied harder, nobody in the audience will like my voice, they will find out I actually can’t sing,…”
Pacing around, taking drugs (e.g. beta blockers),…
Tensed muscles, dry throat, shallow breathing, going to the bathroom every 2 minutes,…
You are not alone… The big majority of professional artists admits to experiencing anxiety before a concert or audition.
To relax or not to relax
It’s a fact that stress isn’t negative nor positive. It’s just stress. And we need it in order to be able to make peak performances. For example, the adrenaline that comes with stress makes your performance extra spicy. So, the problem is not stress in itself, but the fact whether you’re able to embrace the heightened energy and focus that comes with it, and use it to your advantage.
Here’s an interesting scientific study. It turns out that it’s not stress that causes the well known health issues. It’s the belief that stress is bad for your health. Ow yeah. Take 5 seconds to let this sink in…
Just telling yourself (or somebody else!) to calm down is not only giving yourself an impossible task, but it’s also destructive for your performance. It may well be that you become even more anxious. Instead, focus on positive strategies to deal with stress. Think of ways hòw to calm down… But not too much. Some of my personal worst performances ever happened in times when I was too relaxed.
Let’s take a closer look at our brains.
The brainstem is the reptile brain. This primeval part is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Your body is being prepared to react to a dangerous situation in which you experience stress.
Your adrenal glands produce several stress hormones. Adrenaline, for example, dehydrates the mucous membranes, which causes the well known dry mouth that singers dread so much.
Your blood pressure and heart rate go up.
Your muscles are tense and you get goosebumps.
Your senses become sharper.
Your pain threshold decreases because of endorphins being released.
When in doubt whether you should fight or flight, it’s possible to end up in the freeze-response.
The limbic system or mammal brain is involved in emotions, relationships, motivation, pleasure and the emotional memory.
The last part is the neocortex or human brain. It’s responsible for our senses, conscious movements, reasoning, abstract thinking and language.
The brainstem and the limbic system communicate with each other in a circle. Your primitive automatisms control your emotions, and your emotions control your reactions. Like that, you don’t manage to see that there is no life threatening situation going on. (Or are you standing at the edge of the orchestra pit?) By getting in touch with reality, you activate the neocortex, with breaking the vicious circle as a result.
OK, but… How?
Listen to your instincts. Get rid of the build up of energy that comes with the fight-or-flight response by jumping around, shaking your arms, kicking something (not someone!),…
Express your emotions. By asking help to others – for example a hug – the hormone oxytocine is being released, which helps in dealing with stress in a positive way.
Your breathing is high and shallow during the fight-or-flight response. Learn techniques that help you to breathe low and slow. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness,… Like that, you activate the parasympathetic nerve system, which is the ideal remedy against the fight-or-flight mode.
Put your feet on the ground and look around in the room. See that there’s no life threatening situation going on. If necessary, focus on the exit sign above the door.
Find friendly eyes in the audience that help you to get you ‚in the now’ in order to remove the usurpation.
Find a place in your body that feels OK, for example your relaxed legs, and focus on it.
Remind yourself that you have done all the necessary preparatory work. There are no guarantees, but as long as you don’t forget to breathe and sing,… all will be OK.
Put the destructive inner voice on hold for later. Engage for 100% in the now. Later on, when you go into dialogue with your inner voice during a calm moment, talk to yourself like you would talk to your best friend.
Scientific research by psychologists Steven Ungerleider and Jacqueline Golding shows that the difference between Olympic athletes and the ones that don’t make the selection is not being made by their strategy, hours of sleep and training nor nourishment. It’s made by the mental practice during the final stage of preparation. It makes the difference between a peak performance and one that is just not that good.
Use the power of suggestion and visualization before the concert. See yourself succeed. Feel the applause and the compliments.
Raise your status. Take the space, stand straight and open your shoulders. Your posture has a clear effect on your emotions.
Focus on your task at hand as a musician, namely your personal interpretation of the music. You’re standing on that stage to make contact with the audience by telling a story. The preparation before a concert is about you. The performance itself is about the audience.
Think in positive words. Reform thoughts like ‚Don’t lock your support’ into ‚Support smoothly’.
Use your energy wise and learn how to deal with your physical reactions to adrenaline.
In the end, it’s important to keep our strive to perfection healthy. Work very hard to be able to make excellent performances, but learn how to deal with the slaps in the face you will encounter along the way undoubtedly. Make the difference between critique about your performance and critique about yourself. Know that missing a note is not the end of the world. It doesn’t make you untalented and incompetent. Use it as a motivation to work on that note, next time you study.
You’re a singer, not a machine, so… Enjoy!
When you enjoy your performance, the audience receives so much more.
A complex, but accurate definition for those who are still awake…
“Anxiety is the product of a complex and dynamic cognitive appraisal process which actively balances an individual’s perceptions of resources, situational demands, and internal and external sources of feedback prior to, during, and following performances. One’s appraisal of the demands of a performance situation (e.g. task difficulty, consequences of failure, others’ high expectations, and the perceived importance of the outcome) are compared with one’s unique individual characteristics (e.g. self-efficacy, trait anxiety, skill level, degree of preparation, and past experience), resulting in an overall assessment of the degree to which the situation poses a threat.” Biopsychosocial stress model (Bernard & Krupat, 1994; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984b; Lazarus & Laurier, 1978)
How to Make Performance Anxiety an Asset Instead of a Liability – dr. Noa Kageyama
How to make stress your friend – Kelly McGoniqal
Your body language shapes who you are – Amy Cuddy
Juilliard Master class with Joyce DiDonato: Q&A
Dame Janet Baker talks about Stagefright
Gitte Naur – Danish singer / psychologist that inspired me for this blog
Click here to read the short Dutch version that has been published in the magazine of Koor & Stem.