We are human. We fear what we don't understand. Understanding the basics about performing anxiety can make it go away, for good.If you dread the thought of singing in front of a group of people, you are not alone. Millions of people suffer from performing anxiety, commonly called "stage fright.” Even the best of the best singers feel anxious on the stage, probably as much as any of us do, however, they just don’t let that affect their singing. For example in an interview last year Adele told NPR: “I get so nervous with live performances that I'm too frightened to try anything new". She also stated that at some point she was declining singing for really large audiences because big shows gave her more anxiety.
What you identify as performing anxiety is your body’s "fight-or-flight" mechanism kicking in, which is why symptoms of stage fright are similar to symptoms that occur when you are in real danger. When you are in distress your body releases adrenaline into your system; and we recognize this adrenaline rush as a sign that we are in danger – whether from a lion hunting us or from the faces of strangers staring at us as we sing.
As much as this adrenaline rush might make you want to panic, it can actually be really, really good for your voice. The key is to keep your BREATH calm, and read on, to understand how adrenaline works.
Here are some effects of adrenaline:
1. Sharpens our senses, enhancing our hearing and vision;
2. Strengthens our bodies by redistributing blood to the muscles;
3. Increases our agility by altering the body’s metabolism;
4. Increases your intelligence by maximizing blood glucose levels for the brain;
5. Increasing oxygen flow (to fuel everything) by expanding the air passages of the lungs, increasing the heart rate, and increasing blood pressure.
Everything on this list makes you a better singer, except the drastic change in your breathing.
The key factor to singing through the stress of performing is your breath. When you turn into this adrenaline-driven, super-human, your body needs much more oxygen than it normally requires. The easiest way of fueling this much oxygen is to take short, quick inhales, very frequently, which is what we tend to do when we are under stress. (Think: hyperventilating). However in singing we need long inhales with a lot of time in between each intake, like in meditation.We sound nervous (i.e., shaky voice) only when our body forces us to sing with a breath that is not suitable for singing.
If, instead of letting your breathing become shallow, you keep your breath under control with long and deep inhales and exhales, you will find that your voice is not affected by your nerves. Instead, you’ll be pleased to find that you sing more efficiently, sounding more vibrant and having an easier time with your higher notes.
The secret to keeping the breath under control is simple; in order to keep your breath relaxed, you have to establish good breathing habits in your body when you are not in fight-or-flight mode. While you should do this all the time, it is especially important leading up to a performance. Here’s what you should do to prepare:
To maintain a nerves-free breath the day of performance, try the following:
1. In the morning, do breath exercises, focused on encouraging long, effortless inhales.
2. Throughout the day and until a few hours before your performance, remind yourself how it feels to inhale long and effortlessly and how it feels to exhale long and easily.
3. In the last hours before performance when you start to feel nervous, keep practicing the correct breath habit as if your life depends on it. EVERY breath you take during this time should be long and relaxed and you should enjoy every long exhale you let out until, you are on the stage singing. (Factor in about two hours of intense pre-concert jitters; that’s about average for most people, so plan to spend extra time focusing on breath for at least that length of time before curtain up. Of course, the time might vary based on your personality, but learn that amount of time and prepare accordingly.)
If you manage to keep your breath low and easy all the way to that moment, when you sing your first phrases you will think “Holy cow, this feels great!”, and the symptoms of fight-or-flight mechanism will turn to a pleasant experience for you.
Like I said before, you know you are nervous only when you feel the adrenaline rush in your body. Please understand that feeling nervous is normal and it does not mean that you will perform less than perfectly. With your heightened senses singing under such pressure certainly feels different than singing casually in your car, but you can learn to appreciate this new exciting way over time.
If you don’t give your brain a chance to take over and redefine the way you breathe, fight-or-flight mechanism will make you sound better than ever.
I experienced a lot of performing anxiety in college. I still do. However, I learned why I feel this way and it doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, it keeps me sharp and makes me sound better. I hope for me, and for you, this excitement never goes away.
People jump off bridges with a cord strapped to their legs to feel what we get to feel safely, singing a song on a stage. Embrace your nervousness and the thrill of performing – consider yourself lucky that you can get your thrills from something much less likely to threaten you with injury or death