by Michael Pizzini – Voice Instructor
It’s the day of the show. You have been taking voice lessons, preparing and practicing your songs for weeks. You’re ready to sing. But today, the day of the show, you wake up and feel nervous.
One of the most challenging aspects of the performing musician’s life is performing well while experiencing anxiety. Fortunately, there are several resources singers can rely on to better manage stress.
The Alexander Technique is a somatic and mental discipline. The primary goal of the Alexander Technique is to enhance the singer’s awareness of their habits. When the singer becomes aware of their habits mental or physical, they can begin the work of changing their behavior.
Performance anxiety is a mental habit that manifests with physical symptoms. Using my training in the Alexander Technique, I work to help voice students learn to inhibit physical and mental habits that hold them back.
Barbara Conable is a leading expert in the community of Alexander Technique teachers. She describes four types of performance anxiety. The four types of performance anxiety are categorized as “butterflies, self-consciousness, lack of preparation, and panic.”
I use Conable’s analysis of performance anxiety to identify what type of performance anxiety my student is experiencing. If I know what type of anxiety they are feeling, I can recommend the best practice to alleviate their stress.
Butterflies are a natural feeling that occurs in every singer before performance. If my student is experiencing butterflies, I work to reframe their interpretation of butterflies as anxiety. Butterflies can become synonymous with excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. If the singer can think of themselves as feeling excited-curiosity they will feel more at ease.
Betsy Polatin has a fantastic book where she details a method for dealing with trauma. Her method is also applicable to performance anxiety. Polatin’s concept “Be With” is one technique singers can use to reframe their butterflies as something positive. “Be With” is a grounding exercise. The singer will observe their feelings. The process works to diminish the strength of immediate feelings and brings attention to the singer’s capacity to sense their entire environment.
Here is a modified version of Polatin’s exercise for “being with” uncomfortable feelings.
Ex.“I am feeling butterflies, because I am about to go on stage”
Ex. “I am feeling butterflies. It feels like my stomach is unsettled. My breathing is shallow, and my jaw is tight”
Ex.“ I am feeling butterflies. My stomach feels unsettled. My breathing is shallow, and my jaw is tight, BUT I also feel the soft fabric of my costume, I also hear the humming of the lights, I also see the other performers.”
Ex.“I have made myself aware of more parts of me than the butterflies. The butterfly feeling is smaller now compared to everything I sense. In the orchestra of sensation that compromises my feelings, my butterflies are muted.
The “Be With” exercise is a powerful way to reframe your feelings and to become more present before performance. We often try to escape our feelings, by simply not feeling, but that is not always an option. What is always an option is to change our focus and redirect our attention. When we sense more of what we feel and what is around us, butterflies have a tendency to settle down.
The key is to remember that butterflies are not an overwhelming feeling. Butterflies are not panic. When a singer is feeling butterflies, they can still direct their focus to other aspects of their experience. Anxious feelings can be a part of you, but anxiety is not all of you.
Performance anxiety stems from self-consciousness. Singers often fear they are being judged, and sometimes they are. The trick is to not allow the fear of judgement to impede performance. Constructive self-talk is one way singers can work with feeling related to judgement or self-consciousness.
“I used to have a certain dislike of the audience, not as individual people, but as a giant body who was judging me. Of course, it wasn’t really them judging me. It was me judging me. Once I got past that fear, it freed me up, not just when I was performing but in other parts of my life.” –Judy Andrews
I worked with a fantastic counselor, Dr. Catherine McDermott, while I was teaching in New Orleans. She taught me about “self-talk.” Self-talk is the brain’s internal dialogue. It is the voice we hear in our heads saying things like; “I still need to do the dishes.” “I wish I had more money.” “I’m happy my boss noticed what a great job I did on that project.”
It is important for singers to develop a sense for their brains inner dialogue. What mental chatter is happening before you sing and while you sing? If the internal dialogue is not focused, the performance lacks intention. If the dialogue is judgmental, the performance is not sincere.
That is unconstructive self-talk.
My voice lessons help students to develop constructive self-talk. “I am sharing an unconditional gift with my audience when I sing.” As singers we use our self-talk to convince ourselves there is only one way of doing what we do. That could not be further from the truth. All animals, singers included, are biologically designed to be adaptive. In her book, The Actor’s Secret, Polatin talks about being “stuck” with a feeling. Performance anxiety that manifests as self-consciousness and judgment is one way we get stuck. Changing our self-talk is one way we can get unstuck.
The most important work a singer can do is remind themselves that their job is to tell a story. My first voice professor, Philip Frohnmayer, taught me that. More important than any technical aspect of the performance is the sincerity of the story.