Sing Without Fear by Wilma Wever Ask a singer: “What is your basic motivation to perform?” The answer you will get is: “I love to sing!” Does that mean that we singers are happy people because we do what we love? The outcome of a small study I conducted with my own voice students, colleagues and friends convinced me of one thing: The universal problem of anxiety keeps many singers from happiness. Being a performer involves more than just fun and glamour!Over the last couple of years, I have been trying out different strategies to treat and prevent my both own performance stress and that of my students. There is no quick fix—but there are coping methods. I have learned how to dig out my joy of singing from under a paralyzing fear. Now I can tap into my creativity, and have retrieved the joy of communicating with my audience without being drowned out by loud negative voices, and have improved my craft tremendously. I was one of those so-called “polarized perfectionists.” “Their thinking is polarized: one is either a winner or a loser, focused on product vs. process,” wrote Dr. Louise Montello in the December 2000 Issue of International Musician. “These musicians are highly driven, competitive, compulsive [sound familiar?], and because of their single-minded focus on achieving perfection, are often disconnected from the more subtle communications of the psyche and body.”Our body is our instrument. The stress generated by high levels of competition, our “inner critic,” the expression of our deepest emotions, rejection at auditions, financial struggles—and last but not least, the fear of catching a cold—wreak havoc with our immune system. We singers spend thousands of dollars a year on voice lessons, coachings, psychotherapists, massage therapists, doctors, gyms, beauty salons, etc., to become the “perfect” performer. As a working singer, I was torn between a strong drive to be a vocal performer and the fear of being on stage. I knew I had talent, knew that I possessed a good voice and a love for performing. But somehow, as soon as I got on stage, the negative self-talk, the fear of making mistakes or looking foolish, became so overwhelming that I made mistakes ordinarily easy to avoid. Luckily, the drive made me persevere. I had psychotherapy and took Inderal*. Still, I wasn’t able to really “let go.” Of course, I studied voice, coached arias and took part in workshops—everything I could to hone my craft. But by the time the performance was at hand, I felt like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus: I would struggle almost to the mountain’s peak—and the rock would roll all the way downhill again. At times, I despaired of ever becoming the artist I wanted to be. But at last I overcame performance anxiety and I’d like to share with you the techniques I learned from many sources. Now, as a voice teacher at AMDA (the American Musical & Dramatic Academy) in New York City, I see and hear many of my students fighting the same battle I used to fight. These young, talented adults have entered this prestigious school in hopes of pursuing a performing career. In the studio, they are expressive and produce a solid sound, but at their showcases, nerves get in the way of their breath support and creativity. The following ideas and exercises take time, but will be worthwhile in the long run in changing ingrained thought patterns and performance habits.Understanding the function of the autonomic nervous system is important in order to reduce performance anxiety Our bodies have an automatic mechanism to protect us from potential harm when we perceive something as threatening or dangerous. Imagine yourself walking through the woods and suddenly you see a big bear coming your way. What do you feel in your body? Your heart begins beating faster, you start to sweat, and your muscles tense. You breathe harder, your blood pressure goes up, your pupils dilate, and your gastro-intestinal motor function is inhibited (you feel nauseous). Our bodies go through a series of rapid biochemical reactions to prepare us to either fight off the danger or to get away from it. This “fight or flight,” or arousal response, mode is regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. Now you are about to perform, and you suffer from performance anxiety. You get engaged in talking to yourself: “I hope I don’t screw up. I hope I don’t miss that entrance. The audience won’t like me. I’m no good,” etc. In this worrisome state of mind, you are detecting or interpreting a threat—whether real or imagined—in your environment. The consequence of any perception of a threat: “fight or flight” mode. But when you’re on stage, there is no one to fight and no place to run! The only resource left is to freeze. People in the grip of “fight or flight” mode make too much adrenaline, which leads to hyperactivity, anxiety, weakened immunity, and eventually, burnout. Finding a balance in your energy will help you stay healthy and improve your performance. Relaxation exercises: In an article for the American Psychological Association about GAD (general anxiety disorder), Thomas Borkovec describes different ways to reduce the perception of threat. One is relaxation training, which activates the counterpart of the nervous system: the para-sympathetic nervous system. a) “The Constructive Rest” from the “Alexander Technique” (Body Learning, by Michael Gelb) is one way to start your day with a “tabula rasa.” Lie down on the floor. Lead your awareness down your spine. Become aware of any tension in your body, but do not do anything physically to change it. “Tell” any tension you feel to “let go” (about 15 minutes). b) “The ‘61 point’ relaxation exercise” is another exercise in which the breath is focused on the major energy meridian points through the body. It is a very deep relaxation exercise. It can help transform unresolved mind-body issues (traumas). (“The ‘61 point’ relaxation CD,” by Dr. Louise Montello) Mindfulness meditation “My life altered dramatically after I introduced meditation into my life,” wrote Valerie Coates in “Can Meditation Reduce Performance Anxiety?” The article—featured in Voice Prints, the New York Singing Teachers Association newsletter—explains that after a very successful experiment with one of her voice students who suffered from performance anxiety, the New York singer and voice teacher now incorporates five minutes of meditation practice into each lesson. “Performance anxiety is only one of many reasons to consider introducing voice students to meditation,” writes Coates. “A short meditation segment before beginning a lesson can clear the mind and can bring a stressed-out student into the present moment.”Star soprano Dawn Upshaw has a routine 10-minute-relaxer before every performance. “Because tension tightens and restricts the vocal cords, I begin with limbering the muscles in my neck,” says Upshaw. “I drop my head to my chest, then slowly bend my neck to each shoulder, [and] repeat 10 times." To ground herself—literally—before going on stage, Upshaw squats to the floor for several seconds, dropping her head and taking several deep breaths. “This is as much a physiological exercise as a physical one,” she says. “It lowers my center of gravity, making me feel more solid and relaxed.I also drink lots of water. It helps fend off the dry throat that comes with having the jitters.” The power of rhythm and breath “Erratic breath rhythms lead to confusion and make you vulnerable to emotional outbursts. Rhythmical breathing connects you with the universal pulse of nature,” says guru Hazrat Inayat Khan (Essential Musical Intelligence, Quest Books, NY, p 48).Cardiologist Chandra Patel did extended research on essential hypertension caused by stress. Yoga and breathing exercises reduced the hypertension in those who participated in the trial, says Patel. Breath awareness is a tool to reduce any stress, including performance stress. Therefor, breathe deeply. Make a conscious effort to take long and deep breaths, especially before you get on stage.
Exercise: Lie on the floor. Make yourself comfortable (dim the lights, turn off your phone, etc.). Close your eyes and follow your breath. What do you notice? • Diaphragmatic breathing: Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest to make sure you don’t raise your chest while inhaling. Visualize the harmony of the universe: the rising and setting of the sun, the changing phases of the moon, or the movements of the tides. • Even breathing: Count the same amount of numbers for inhaling and exhaling. • 2-1 breathing: Double the exhaling time • Cleansing breath (“skull shining”): Inhale and exhale on pff-pff-pff or sss-sss-sss. • Alternate nostril breath: (See the article in the Classical Singer December 2003 issue by Suzanne Jackson). • Brahmari (the “bee”): Inhale through your nose while making a light high-pitched sound, breath out on a low-pitched hum. Do each of these exercises for about 15 minutes on a daily basis. Keep records in a Home Practice Chart, and find out which exercises benefit you most. Self-Assessment and Cognitive Restructuring To deal with anxiety, you must become aware of your inner self-talk. What you believe, what you think, and what you say to yourself and others creates your own reality. This can be altered by reprogramming your conscious mind with more adaptive, self-affirming self-talk. Exercise: Write a list of 10 self-affirming statements and carry it with you. Read the list as often as you can, especially before a performance. Create resourceful languageResearch has found that language reinforces a certain emotional state. When we are feeling fear, worry and self-doubt, we express ourselves differently than when we are feeling relaxed, trusting and self-assured. How we express ourselves verbally reinforces and fuels our emotional state. Use resourceful language that reinforces feelings of safety, trust and belief in yourself. Say: “I am looking forward to getting this chance to perform” instead of, “I will be so happy when this is over.” Don’t worry if you do not believe in what you say at first. It takes time to recondition your emotional state, just as it takes time to build muscle when you start to work out. To build muscle emotionally, we need to reinforce a positive mental state regularly and as much as possible (Janet Esposito, “In The Spotlight”).Left Brain Versus Right Brain: Awakening the Innate “Music Child” We use our left brain for analytical purposes. With this side of the brain we learn our music: the rhythms, the lyrics, etc. The right side of our brain is receptive, emotional and creative. Suffering from performance anxiety due to “self-talk” and the “inner critic” means we are too much in our left brain. A successful way to activate the right brain? Improvise. Improvisation: a) You don’t need to master an instrument to improvise with it. Get a drum, a keyboard, a flute, or anything you can use to make music. Can you play the music of your anxiety? Is it loud, soft, monotonal? Playing the music of your fear functions as a vehicle for expressing unacceptable, repressed feelings and memories. (Dr. Louise Montello, Musician’s Wellness) Improvise with your voice. Get together with a couple of singer friends to do the following exercises: b) Speak gibberish and try to copy each other’s “languages.” c) Choose a short, simple poem. Pick 10 musical terms and apply them to reciting for each other. For example: “staccato,” “irritato,” “accelerando,” “crescendo,” “mezza voce,” “legatissimo,” etc. (You can do this exercise on your own as well.) d) Sit in a circle with three others. Make physical contact by putting your hands on each other’s knees. Close your eyes. Spontaneously, one singer should start to make sound, and then the others should join in. You can decide to use a word or simply vowels. It is remarkable what beautiful ensembles can come to life, without rehearsing in advance and without a music score! (These three exercises are based on work and publications by Ann Baltz, OperaWorks.) e) Sing a song with different emotions: For example with anger, happiness, awe, hysteria, surprise, worry, and so forth. (Based on work by Wesley Balk.) You can take these exercises into your own music. It will help you not only to get more into your right brain, but also to deepen your emotional awareness and musicality. You will discover new dimensions in the music you have been overseeing primarily with the left, analytical part of the brain. You will be amazed by the music you make—and the feeling of freedom it leaves you! Creative arts techniques Do you ever draw or color? Here is your chance. Take a piece of paper and some markers or crayons. Draw your fear or feelings of stress. What shape does it have? Is it big? Is it small? Does it have sharp edges or a smooth border? What color is it? Maybe it has different colors? Making a drawing will help you excavate your paralyzing emotions and empower you. (Dr. Louise Montello) Visualization Visualize your fears rather than let them paralyze you. Find a place to sit or lie undisturbed and comfortably. Close your eyes. Think of your fear, stress, or feelings of burnout. Where do you feel it in your body? Is it deep inside of you, or more on the surface? Is it heavy, stinging, burning? Does it have a color? When you have a clear picture, sit with it for a moment. Now imagine the sunlight shining on the emotion you have visualized inside of you. You can let the warmth crumble it, let the sun make the colors fade. Let a gentle breeze take it away. Now follow your “fear” while you let it go, as it is taken away from you up into the sky. See it getting smaller and smaller and smaller… To connect with your real self as a performer, you need to balance and harmonize all five levels of being: the body, the breath/energy, the mind, the imagination/intellect and the realm of bliss, according to Dr. Louise Montello in her book Essential Musical Intelligence (Quest Books, NY). Learning how to cope with sympathetic overdrive through the power of rhythm and breath, relaxation exercises, visualization, autogenic techniques and “mindfulness meditation,” and learning how to stop the “inner talk,” will help you convert your hyperactivity into performance energy, and use it! I discovered that people suffering from performance anxiety aren’t the only ones who can benefit from these exercises, but also those who feel burned out or want to bring more balance into their lives. *Inderal belongs to the beta-blocker family of drugs, which are commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart rhythm irregularities. It works by blocking the action of adrenaline, the chemical that causes the fight-or-flight response.
You’re off to college. Now real life can begin! Your dreams are approaching reality. You did a fine audition and have been accepted to a great school. Everything is going your way. You’ll make new friends, hang out with other passionate musicians, and learn many
new skills, which will make you a prominent singer. You are ready to conquer the world! You might also get a little anxious, however, now that you are leaving the safety of your home and your school community. What if you don’t fit in? What if the students or faculty don’t like you? What if everybody else is a much better singer? What if you have trouble with diction or can’t get the French pronunciation correct? They might think you are stupid. Maybe you have to memorize music in a very short amount of time and that is not your strength. What if you miss your family and friends at home? What if . . . what if . . . what if ?Now that you are on your way to the next phase of your life, you feel a certain level of stress, a mixture of excitement and fear. The unknown can be scary—but as we all know, stress and worry does not help anybody. Nevertheless, going to college will require a lot more from you than high school did. It will bring you many new challenges, and you are the only one to decide how to handle them. Besides dealing with a whole new curriculum, you’re probably going to leave home and take care of yourself, which might include shopping, making food, doing laundry, etc. On top of that, you might have to find a part-time job to help pay for your education—and you might have to commute, which can be exhausting and time consuming. What can you do to make your new life a successful balancing act? How can you blend practicing, classes, homework, rehearsals, and your social life, while, most importantly, maintaining your health and an overall feeling of happiness? Ask yourself, what is my goal? What do I want to achieve in college? What do I want to achieve this year, this month, this week, this day? If you don’t know where you want to go, you won’t know how to get there. Most people want to sing at the Met—the trick is, how do you plan to get there? It’s a journey and you have to outline it carefully. Gary Blair, author of What Are Your Goals, writes, “You need to be fearless, daring, and have a courageous spirit, nerves of steel, and a massive dose of self-confidence” (Gary Ryan Blair, Big BANG, A Formula on How to Create Monumental, Quantum-Leap Performance in Life and/or Career, Internet Marketing News Watch, [accessed Jan. 6, 2007]). Compile a list of your self-assessments, discover your strengths and weaknesses, and decide what you need to work on to get to your destination.Before you get overwhelmed and stressed out about the amount of work you have to do, make a weekly schedule. Start by writing down your classes, practice times, and rehearsals, and then add the average number of hours you spend sleeping, commuting, cooking, eating, shopping, doing laundry, etc. That way you’ll know how much time you have left for homework, memorizing music, research, going to the gym and any other activity you like or need to do on a regular basis. Be sure to schedule some “catch-up” time to avoid getting behind, in case you have a “low energy” day or lose time because of unexpected situations. See Connie Barnett’s excellent article, “Success Is Only a Place Mat Away, ”Parts I and II (CS, February and April 2006) for detailed ideas on how to use your time most efficiently. Once you are in college, you will probably have to get used to having the faculty look through a figurative microscope at every little detail of your performance: your vocal technique, diction, phrasing, communication, and presentation. Many freshmen find this difficult and get easily frustrated (at first). Getting picked apart in class may make you believe you can’t sing at all anymore! In addition, performing in front of your peers can make you feel insecure. You must realize that nothing is a “final product,” but rather a process of learning and improving. To refine your art, you need to open yourself to change and growth. You need to be savvy and daring to say adieu to your comfort zone.It is also important to realize your physical limitations. When you’re tired, you can’t perform at your best. That is normal. Allow yourself flexibility in your performance standards and know that rest will bring you back to your usual level. On the other hand, some students might feel they are not challenged enough. You might not get along with your private teacher or not get the technical help you need. Most colleges have a counseling center where you can discuss any concerns or difficulties you experience. Don’t try to sort things out on your own while help is at hand.We all have a tendency sometimes to get into a negative thought process. Sometimes we make things up in our mind. It is important to be aware of your thinking, to do a reality check, so you can reconstruct your thoughts as soon as you feel yourself tending into a downward spiral. It is very easy to judge yourself, to make assumptions in a negative way, or compare yourself with other singers. We all know those voices in our heads: “Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer.” “I’m stupid.” “I’ll never get this.” “I can’t do this.” “They don’t like me.” “My teacher thinks I have no talent,” etc. This “cognitive distorted thinking” is not productive and will make things worse. Let’s look at some of the phrases I listed above, and “remodel” them. When you have to perform your Fauré song in class and you have difficulties with the French diction you might think: “Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer.” Did anybody actually tell you you’re a bad singer? Your answer is probably “no,” so this negative assumption has no validity. That said, however, it usually doesn’t help to try to ignore the negative voices in your head, because they’re still here. Instead, acknowledge them and inspect their accuracy.When you hear the negative voices chattering away, pay careful attention. Exactly what are they trying to tell you? Try to change them into something more constructive and helpful. For example, instead of telling yourself, "Everybody thinks I’m a bad singer,” you could say, “I find French diction difficult, but I’ll get it if I work hard.” Also, you can concentrate on a certain aspect of what you are trying to accomplish and say to yourself, “Let me make sure I support well.” I guarantee you that this attitude will increase your chances for improvement, and everybody in class will not just admire you —they may learn something from you as well.A thought such as “I’ll never get this!” means setting yourself up for failure. How do you know you’ll never get it? Did you try? If you failed, did you try again? This negative thinking pattern—called “black and white thinking” or “jumping to conclusions”—doesn’t serve you in any possible way; it brings you down to where it is much harder to get back up again. Instead, you can say: “I have accomplished difficult tasks before,” or “I’ll try my best.”It doesn’t matter what the goal is at this point, it’s the process that teaches you something. Remember, you were not able to walk right after you were born. You fell many times, got up, and tried again. See how well you walk today! All of us hear discouraging voices in our heads sometimes, but it is up to you and me to think, “Wait a minute, this is not true!” Turn the negative input around and take it as an opportunity to learn. Putting yourself down on a steady basis will wear you out and ultimately erode your immune system. Positive self-talk, on the other hand, supplies you with new energy and helps keep you healthy.You might become aware that some of the messages in your head are based on experiences from a long time ago. Someone might have hurt you with an inconsiderate remark when you were a child. Again, it’s a good idea not to ignore it but to look at it. Ask yourself how accurate it was, and even more important, how accurate it is today, then remodel.It is beneficial to write out this exercise instead of just thinking it through. The actual act of writing will help you remodel successfully. Do not expect to believe your new, positive thoughts right away. You need time, practice, patience, and persistence to adopt your new way of thinking. If you are a performer who has difficulties giving the proverbial “110 percent” at the most crucial moments, it is important—in addition to infusing yourself with positive language to focus on staying calm and centered. Many talented singers feel inhibited while performing. The competition and pressure of the business can cause stress and anxiety. For a host of strategies on keeping your anxiety level low, see my CS article “Sing without Fear” (September 2004). Another helpful article for improving relaxation is Suzanne Jackson’s “Yoga Breathing for Singers: Alternate Nostril Breath” (December 2003).Fear or stress puts your body’s sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. When you stay relaxed it is much easier to focus on the task at hand. Remember, don’t compare yourself to other singers. You can learn from each other, but everybody walks his or her own path in singing and in life. Focus on yours. A growing number of colleges offer yoga classes. Take advantage of them. Yoga helps reduce stress and maintain focus.College can be a great experience, an experience in which you can become a better singer, learn more about life, and learn more about yourself. Inevitably, you will have to deal with a certain level of frustration. In your first year(s) at college, you probably won’t get many solo opportunities—students outnumber the available solo parts by a wide margin, and grad students are usually first in line. Even the apprenticeship programs ask singers to do a lot more ensemble work than most would prefer.Another aspect may come into play: politics. Don’t be surprised if certain teachers’ students get more performing opportunities. You can choose to get upset about it or accept it. Keep reminding yourself of your goal. College is not your goal—it is one of the steps to get to your ultimate goal. Take from it what you can. Do whatever you do because you want to do it. Good luck and don’t forget: have fun!
Wilma Wever http://www.classicalsinger.com/magazine/article.php?id=1578