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?
-tornado in my heart
-butterflies in my stomach
-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.
#4. PHYSICAL EXERCISE
Exercise of some kind right before might be helpful. Running up and down stairs or jumping jacks to shake things up.
#5. GET INTO CHARACTER.
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.
#6. POWER POSE
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.
#7. TALK TO YOURSELF
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. :))
#8. GET CLEAR ON YOUR GOAL
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.)
#10. BE THE HOST
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.