Cathleen Wilder
Laughing Spirit Music Project

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Naked Before the World
(or, why we have performance anxiety and what to do about it)

Singing is an incredibly vulnerable act. We sing freely when we are in the shower and it's just God (Goddess, existential void) and us. But try getting up in front of a group of people and... whoa, watch out!

I believe this is because singing is such an intimate form of self expression. We sing for others to share something of ourselves, something sacred, special, beautiful, meaningful or playful. We expose our hearts, souls, talents and values when we sing. And we make our VOICES heard. Somehow, most of us in this culture have learned to hold back our gifts, hold back our voices, cut ourselves off from our feelings and be "good" girls and boys who are seen and not heard. This works well for those who wield power over others, but it cuts us all off from deep communication with ourselves and others.

My approach to overcoming performance anxiety is to think of it from a social perspective. Human beings are social animals. We must have contact and support from each other for survival. This is a genetic need. (Think of how babies who aren't touched or held enough die from "failure to thrive").

Whether we realize it or not, performing puts us face-to-face with our innate fears of rejection and humiliation. There is always a chance, since performance takes place right there in front of others, that something could go wrong. We could forg et the words, lose our place, or sing the wrong notes. This primal fear causes our adrenaline levels to rise before a performance, giving us the rapid heart beat, sweaty palms, shaky knees, dry throat and shallow breathing known as "stage fright."

Shaking, sweating, hyperventilating and cotton-mouth are not exactly ideal conditions for singing. Fortunately, there are many practical things we can do to reduce effects of this anxiety. Here are some tools I have learned over the years to help make singing in front of others nearly as stress-free as it is when I'm alone:

1) Remember that it is our birthright to enjoy our voices in song. The urge and ability to sing is a gift from nature. Singing for others is our gift to them.

2) Reject the "scarcity mentality" that works so well for record companies. There is enough to go around. We can't all be superstars, it's true. But there are talented people all around us. Imagine how rich our lives would be if they/we could all be heard!

3) Perform what you love. The best perfomers in any style sing the same songs (or arias) over and over. I'm certain Joan Baez has sung Amazing Grace thousands of times for herself and others. Think of how many times your favorite singers have performed their best songs. The closer the music is to your core, the more comfortable you will be, and the more clear you will be that you are singing to express, not impress.

4) Perform in situations that are appropriate for the music you are doing. (Do I really want to be in the kazoo band at this wedding?) (Do I really want to perform these heartfelt songs I wrote for this wild, enebriated bunch?) When you give the gift of song, think about the recipients. The singers we most respect also turn down inappropriate gigs all the time.

5) Get to know your inner critics. These are the voices that say "You're stupid!" "You can't sing!" "What the heck are your doing up here?" and "Everybody is going to laugh at you!" Who are these voices and where do they come from? What purpose do they serve in your life?

Have a chat with them and let them know you appreciate them, but would they kindly simmer-down a bit? Confront them with reality : "I'm not stupid, I have a PhD; " "I'm here because I love music and have something to communicate;" and "This is a room full of supportive adults, they are more likely to applaud than laugh at me."

Learning your music well is one of the best things you can do to reduce anxiety. Perform what is well within your abilities. It's great to stretch yourself, but stretch gently when it comes to performance. For instance, you might want to try singing something with 4-5 verses in public befor e you take on Barbara Allen (15 verses)!

Memorize your music. Sing it backwards: last verse first, then next to last verse, and so on. Sing it alone and with accompaniment. Sing it in the car. Listen to it on the bus. Write out the verses and read them aloud. Study the meaning of the poetry.

Visualize yourself performing the music. Imagine the the room or stage, the audience, what you look like and what you will sound like. Mentally go through the entire performance exactly the way you want it to sound. Don't overlook this important step! It may seem too simple to be worthwhile, but once you try it, you'll realize what an indispensible, efficient and effective tool it is.

Everything you do to nurture your body and soul will enhance your singing.

Regular aerobic excercise, yoga and meditation reduce stress and support your immune system. You will be generally calmer and less prone to illness if you are able to exercise a regular basis.

Ground yourself, literally, by feeling the support of the Earth beneath your feet. Draw on that support for strength and reassurance.

Drink a calming/warming herbal tea. (Coffee is a stimulant and a diuretic, which contributes to nerves and especially to dryness. Sugar, alcohol and cigarettes also dry your vocal cords).

Gently warm up your voice for a few minutes just before you perform. Humming and sighing are better for this than fancy vocalises. The warmth and power of your own voice can also be very soothing.

Slow, deep breathing is essential for good singing and is one of the most effective ways to calm your nerves.

© 2005-2012 Cathleen Wilder. All rights reserved.