Dealing with Performance Anxiety

Getting nervous for a performance is very common. Symptoms can include shallow breath, tension in the body and face, “butterflies” in the stomach, heightened energy (not necessarily a bad thing!), tightened throat making singing seem nearly impossible, hand tremors as well as in the legs, and the inability to focus. YIKES. Sound familiar? Why do we do this to ourselves? WHY?????!!??? (Says I.) Well, we love to sing and perform, and it’s pretty darn rewarding.

So. How do we deal??

The first thing to do when you are experiencing performance anxiety is to locate the sensations in your body. Where is it residing exactly? What does it feel like?

For example:
-tornado in my heart
-butterflies in my stomach
-feels cold
-breathing becomes shallow
-inability to breathe
-energy feels wild and out of control

Why do this? When you start to get really nervous, it can feel like your body has been hijacked by some unknown force. It feels out of control, and you can feel in the dark about it which adds to the anxiety.

Hopefully, when it starts to happen, rather than feel completely out of control, by naming what’s happening, by naming the physical symptoms, we gain a bit of awareness and feel a little more ‘in the know.’ By connecting with our bodies, rather than avoiding it or trying to escape it, it loses a little bit of power over us. When we are trying to fight something that we are feeling, it makes it bigger. Being able to notice what is happening is the first step to taking control.


The goal here (in my opinion) isn’t necessarily to make the fear go away. More than likely that isn’t going to happen. If it does… great! But probably it will be something we will carry with us our whole lives. Rather than trying to fight it (which gives it more power), we learn how to deal with it. What is within our control is learning how to cope with it so it doesn’t get the BETTER of us. And hey! Getting nervous does have its advantages— it gives you an edge, that you might not have if you’re totally chill and relaxed.

These are tools I've used and developed through the course of my career. Try them out and find what works for you. 

This is- in my book- #1. Rehearsing something over and over and over and over and over helps to get the performance into your body and helps you to feel like there is some measure of control. Muscle memory. This is why for auditions, actors have their book of songs that they have coached and performed hundreds of times. You sing a song you could roll out of bed and sing like a rock star. 
Repetition gives you power. Don’t leave it to chance.
We don’t always have the luxury of being totally prepared. What do you do then? Prepare as much as humanly possible. And see #2-#9.

Spend some time writing down your greatest fears. There can be a loop that goes 'round and 'round in our heads of all the things that could go wrong and all the things we are most deeply afraid of. Writing it all down can help to close that “Fear App” in your brain so you can focus on what you need to be focusing on, rather than the crazy voice.

(My other favorite.) Sit quietly right before your audition and connect to your breath. BREATHE DEEPLY.
Don’t underestimate the power of simply breathing deeply right before a performance or audition. If you can be totally with your breath as you walk out on stage, you are going to feel far more centered.

Exercise of some kind right before might be helpful. Running up and down stairs or jumping jacks to shake things up.

For me this is always my go to. This is something tangible to focus on, rather than yourself. You can be someone else. 
Most importantly, you are also connecting to your deeper purpose here and that is to SERVE THE MUSIC AND THE TEXT. Be the conduit through which the creative gremlins (as Elizabeth Gilbert calls them) can flow through. Open and Allow.

Change your body stance. Pick a powerful pose such as standing with arms stretched up and out, or open chest with arms on hips, like Wonder Woman. You may not be able to change your brain in this moment by thinking it away, but maybe by changing your posture, it will shift something.

Literally have a conversation with yourself. Be your best friend. Yep. Don't knock it til you try it.

For example, ask: “Erin, what’s wrong?” 
Answer: “I feel nervous, I feel upset, I’m scared I’m going to really screw this up and make a fool of myself. I’m scared I won’t live up to my potential. I’m scared people will laugh or walk away thinking I'm terrible.”
Then validate those feelings. “Erin, I see you feel scared. I see you are shaking in your boots. I see you are worried about what other people will think. What’s the deeper truth?” 
Answer: The deeper truth is I’m here to shine my light and that has nothing to do with anyone else. Or I’m here to serve the text and it has nothing to do with me personally.
Or whatever it is for you!
(Tip: Maybe do this one in the privacy of your own home or quietly in the public restroom. :))

Often we go in thinking the goal should be get the job, impress the peeps behind the table, get people to like us.
Maybe your goal can be something more empowering. Something like… my goal is to be ME. My goal is to allow the work I’ve done up until now to support me and allow my true self to shine through.
Maybe the goal is to just do it for yourself, not anybody else.
Maybe it’s simply to have fun.
Getting clear on your goal can be really useful and insightful.

Envision it exactly how you want it to go. This is something I have used myself A LOT. Imagine the performance from start to finish exactly the way you want it to go. Imagine how you desire to feel: relaxed, confidant, in the flow, at ease, powerful. Go through the whole performance with every detail in mind, those moments that seem scary going your way. Imagine everyone’s overwhelming response: clapping and standing for you. (I know this contradicts #7 & #8, but perhaps by visualizing it, the need for pleasing is lessened because you've already attained it. Perhaps.)

I love this one so much. I’m stealing this from the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.
When you are on stage, imagine you are the host, and the audience members are your guests. You are the host of a WONDERDUL party. And when you are the host of a party there is an unsaid agreement at such an event. Everyone is there to have a good time
If something bad happens on stage ( Think, Julia Child, “Oops! The chicken’s fallen on the floor! Oh, well, I'll pick it up and put it right back.”), they’re not going to let that moment spoil their evening. Everybody’s with you. They’re not there to watch bad things happen. They’re there to see the things you practiced for. 
Just like Yo-Yo-Ma said, “The greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? So it’s not about how many people are in the hall. It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.”


The key here is to see what works for you. Trial and error. Be in the moment and respond with what your body needs. Maybe some days you need a power pose, or another day to give yourself a hug. Only YOU know.

Also remember, you are most likely not going to be able to make the nerves go away, nor do you want to. Nerves give performers that edge. This is about learning how to deal and COPE with the nerves so they don’t get the BETTER of you.

Make the shift from enemy to friend.

Viewing Your Own Performance

Something we do a lot in the class I teach at SUNY Dutchess is critique one another. We all give constructive feedback. We do this by starting with something we enjoyed about the performance and share something we think that could be improved.

I want to explore how we can be doing a better job of that for ourselves! This has the potential to have a big impact on our performances.

I was inspired after I came across a video by Tim Welch where he talks about this very topic.

I ask my voice students to record their weekly lessons and to listen back and keep a journal. In their journals they write down what they’re hearing: they transcribe the vocal warmups and the feedback they get from me throughout the lesson and as we work on songs, and any insights they have while listening. It’s also practice for them to hear themselves and to write what they like and what they need to work on. 

Doing this reinforces the information. By listening back and writing down what you're hearing it gives you more time to process information that you might not be able to IN THE MOMENT because it is a lot to take in, in a short amount of time. 

When you are learning how to sing you are learning how to coordinate A LOT of muscles (muscles in your larynx, as well as in between your ribs, abdomen, your whole body). It’s a tremendous amount of information to receive all at once. You need time to reflect and process. Listening back gives you that opportunity and reinforces what we're working on.

Another positive bi-product of listening back is that you become the authority of your own listening process. You are taking charge of the experience. Most importantly, you are learning how to be your own teacher.


Listening back to a performance is equally as revealing. You’re watching all of your hard work as a final product which you can STILL learn from. Because here is the thing- It’s not really the final product.

The thing I love about listening back to a performance is that it gives you another shot at it.  It’s an opportunity to relive the moment. You get another shot at it the next time you get up to sing for people. And the time after that… and the time after that…..and the time after that…… 

If you have recorded your performance and you’re watching back, you can see the aspects that went well… that you liked…. and also the aspects you would like to improve.  It gives you an opportunity to incorporate the NEXT TIME what you felt was missing from what you watched. It’s like a do-over. 

The more you learn to watch yourself in a recording in a CONSTRUCTIVE WAY, the more you are going to glean helpful information from it and the more you are going to grow and get better.   


An interesting observation I've made: the first thing I always hear when I say to a student to record themselves either with audio or video is “OMG I can't stand to watch myself," or "I can’t stand to hear myself.”  100% of the time. (I’m sure there are people out there who actually do love watching themselves…. I’ve just never met them.)

Interesting right? No one likes to watch themselves. Confession: I HATE WATCHING WATCHING MYSELF. This is why I'm writing on this topic! The thing is… and I’m talking from experience… Hating on yourself……Not so helpful. It's not constructive.

One of the things I love most about the class I teach is the generosity shown to one another. No one has trouble finding aspects of a performance they liked and appreciated along with constructive critique. This generosity being expressed- we need to do this for ourselves. 

Part of being able to watch yourself in a constructive way is being able to separate, (as Tim Welch would say), "the crazy from the constructive." “I suck” is the crazy… or ”It’s BAD”  or OH GOD I hate it… it’s awful….. I’m a terrible singer……it’s not constructive and it’s not specific.  You have no where to go from there. In fact when I hear those words I feel defeated. I don’t feel like trying, cause why bother? I suck.

There are definitely moments where you might cringe, but what about it specifically is cringe worthy?

Let’s use a system to critique ourselves.  Let’s have specifics to keep in mind while we’re watching ourselves. Concrete things to look for other than general hating on ourselves. 


Another helpful tip from Tim Welch: Before you watch your video, go into your body. Check your internal state. Find a way to get centered and feeling peaceful. Why? You're going to be able to think more clearly and be honest and generous with yourself if you're feeling centered.

And by the way, when I say being generous with yourself, I’m not talking about turning a blind eye to the things that can be better. You can see the things that you don’t like and still be generous with yourself. You can break down your performance in a loving way…. just like you do for others. 

So when you go to watch yourself, imagine it's your friend or classmate. See if you can show the same generosity to yourself that you show to others.

I have a theory! If you can approach this the same way you would for a friend, show the same generosity to yourself that you show to others, I'm willing to bet that you are going to be more generous in your performance. YOU WILL BE MORE GENEROUS TO THE AUDIENCE. You will be more open, you will be more willing to expose. 

OK, so to recap!

When we are about to watch ourselves-

1. Do what you need to do to come to a neutral place.

2. View the performance like you are watching a loved one.

3. When commenting on your performance, be specific. Zero in on what you liked and didn't like by using these guidelines:


1. Connection (Most important in my book!)
Are you being real? Are you connected? Are you being authentic? Could you go deeper? Could you raise the stakes for a more invested performance? Are you conveying what this song is really about? These are questions to consider as you watch yourself. 

2. Pitch
Are you singing in tune? Did you go sharp or flat on any specific notes?

3. Tone
How is your sound? For example, Is it too nasal? is it pulled back too much in the throat? is it too loud? Is it too breathy? Is there tension?

4. Body
Do you seem comfortable? Are you doing weird things with your hands? Are you stiff? Are you doing too much? Are the movements enhancing the performance?

5. Diction
Can you be understood? Are you clear?  


So give it a go! Record yourself, follow these steps, and see if you can watch yourself in a constructive way! Use all five topics and include additional comments/ thoughts you have.  Feedback from trusted sources is great and necessary, but let's learn to be our own authority. Let's stop waiting for feedback from others and and do it for ourselves. 


Acting Your Song: How to Break it Down.

These are steps I've developed inspired by a book by Joanna Merlin (Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide). This is a book I highly recommend!

I've tweaked it as I've used it more and more in the classroom and I will more than likely continue to do so. I encourage you to tweak it for yourself, as you develop and perfect your own way. Give it a try "as is" to see how it works out for you and I encourage you to leave feedback!



Intuitive Response. 
Go to a quiet place with no distractions.
Using a high quality, PROFESSIONAL (no high school productions!) recording, CLOSE YOUR EYES and LISTEN to your song with your imagination. Get lost in the world of the song.
What are the general images, feelings and ideas the song arouses in you? Also notice what happens physically when you listen. Maybe you feel your heart expanding, maybe a tightening in your chest.  There is no right or wrong. Simply notice and name the Feelings, Ideas, Images and Sensations you have while listening. Take notes.


SILENTLY (not out loud) READ the text. Resist the temptation to act it out yet or read it with feeling. Read it silently; be an investigator first to find clues to what the song is about. 


LISTEN to the song and find clues in the MUSIC to support what you’ve discovered in the text. Maybe you’ll find clues as to what the character is feeling. How does the music support or not support what he or she is saying? 

You may choose to sing songs as yourself, not as the character for whom the song was written, but it should be a conscious decision. If this is the case, still answer the questions as yourself.

-The World of the Song-
What is the year and day (exact date) and day of week?

What is the season? (summer, spring, winter, fall)

What is the weather like outside?  

What is the place? (city, state, & exact location: ie home, grocery store, park etc)  

How does the weather affect the character’s internal state right now?

What is the social class of the character?


Think about how time, place and social class affects this character. Play around with how it would influence the way this character walks, talks, interacts with others, physicality, how the character would hold herself/himself. Practice your song as a monologue with this in mind. Play around with how you hold your body, your speech, nervous habits you might have, etc. 

What is the song about?
Think of the song as a one act play. Describe the story simply, eliminating the details. Simply state what happens at the beginning, what happens in the middle, and what happens at the end of the song?


Then, narrow it down to one word or phrase to characterize each section.





Does the song end differently than it began?  (YES!) Singing a song is a journey. The character has changed in some way. Look for the contrast between the beginning and the end (even if it doesn’t seem like there is one…there is!!!) and name it.


-Who is the character-
How old is the character?

What is the character’s occupation?

What are the similarities and differences between you and this character (at least 2-3 aspects)?




What are the polarities (qualities OPPOSITE from the character’s principle qualities) in the character? Name at least one. (ie: tough gangsters might be sentimental, caring mothers can be fierce, and heroes can have weaknesses.) 



What is the character’s objective? Using a verb, Why is THE CHARACTER singing this song? What does the character want to do?  (Verbs define objectives. Find a verb that is active and can perhaps raise the stakes. ie ‘dazzle’ instead of ‘impress’, ‘seize’ instead of ‘take’.) 


What is the obstacle to achieving the objective? What’s in the character’s way of getting what he/she wants?



Who are you singing to? Describe this person in detail. 


What is your relationship to the person you are singing to or about? 


How is this person reacting to what you are saying?


Find around three significant moments. 
Moments are different than defining sections. They happen on specific words or on a short phrase. One might be the climax, or something humorous, or a hidden meaning etc. Give the exact word or phrase it happens on and what the moment means to the character specifically. 
FOR EXAMPLE: The climax in the song ‘If I Loved you happens towards the end and is the highest note in the song, and lands on the words If I Loved You. The character might be really saying, I do love you!

1st Moment:


2nd Moment:


3rd Moment:


What is the pre-beat?
Briefly, state what happens in the scene just before the character sings.


Narrow it down to a word or phrase. Use perhaps an objective, inner gesture (ie a clenched stomach), obstacle, atmosphere, relationship, or image. It will be a word or phrase that your character could be thinking right before the song starts. Be inventive. Write it down here:



FINALLY: Write helpful reminders in your music. (prebeat, moments, objective, sections, etc) Practice incorporating your discoveries into your performance by first speaking through the text as a monologue. Speak through it until it feels integrated. Now sing. 

Hello, 2017.

It is my intention to write a blog.

Yikes! This makes me feel uncomfortable. And thanks to a friend who introduced me to Year of Yes (Shonda Rhimes), this means that I really have to do it. 

My blog will include insights I have had during the week, specifically related to singing, teaching and above all else creativity. I'm going to share materials I've created for my Vocal Rep class, topics I'm exploring and excited about, sources of inspiration, and news worth sharing.

I'm currently busy preparing for a new semester with my private studio as well as at SUNY Dutchess. Part of the preparation involves reevaluating course handouts and topics for the semester.

I put together a basic 'How to Practice' guide that... hello!... I need to work on following. Overall theme? Don't skip steps.


repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.
synonyms: training, rehearsal, repetition, preparation

How much?

Plan on setting aside at least 30 minutes a day, 5 x a week. This includes all means of preparation, like speaking through your text, researching your song, researching the composers, memorizing, etc as well as warming up and singing through songs.


Find a quiet, safe place where you are able to sing out. Your car does not count.

What to bring? 

Your music, water, & recording device. (You may want to record yourself at times and listen back. It is also extremely helpful to video record yourself singing through your songs to watch back.) Here is a very helpful video by Tim Welch on How to Study Your Own Performance:

Warm Up

-Sit quietly for 5 minutes to center yourself. Close your eyes and observe your breath. (You bring everything with you to your practice session. Take 5 Minutes to let go of the angry post you saw on FaceBook that made your shoulders rise above your ears.)

-Stretch. (You can't sing if you can't get a low breath and you can't breathe if your alignment is all out of whack.)

-30 jumping jacks. (Singing is a sport. ENERGY is required.)

-Go through the warmup you've developed with your teacher. Start out singing softly and with as little effort as possible. Build from there. Pace yourself. Take frequent breaks (this is why recording yourself is helpful, you sing a little..… then listen….. sing a little….then listen and repeat.)


-Check in with your body. Are you holding tension somewhere? Can you do something to ease the tension or find release? PLAY.

-Go on FEEL, not on sound.

-Go with where your voice is that day. Don’t push it if it’s not there.

-When you’re warming up, be a technician, not a performer. This is not about making perfect, beautiful sounds. Take the emotion out of it and think like a technician. Save the emotion and feeling for your song.

-Remember you are the only one who truly knows what is going on with your voice. If something doesn’t feel right, stop, take a break, and reevaluate.

-Warm up SLOWLY, by starting off SOFTLY.  When we add volume…. we engage more muscles. By humming softly you’re stretching like an athlete does before running a marathon. Don’t skip steps and start belting your song out without warming up. You’ll tire yourself out more quickly.

-Treat your voice with the respect, care and honor it deserves. Work on developing an awareness around your instrument. Notice when your voice gets tired and do what you need to do to NOT PUSH IT. Don’t sing if it hurts.

-Get sleep, eat well, exercise, drink lots of water, don’t smoke and don’t be around it. 

-Don’t sing on an empty stomach.

I'll be posting more in the coming weeks and I welcome your feedback! Feel free to comment below or send me private message. Would love to hear from you!