Dealing with Nerves in Performance

When it comes to using our voices publicly, whether singing or public speaking, a lot of us experience pre-performance jitters which can very well get the best of us. We approach the stage as if we are up against a ferocious lion, so naturally our survival instincts kick in.  Our bodies go into what the psychology world calls fight/flight mode.  But does fear have to overtake us, and are there strategies that can help us enjoy the art of public performance?  I was recently interviewed for a colleague’s video blog (see below) and was asked the question, how should a singer deal with nerves?   I think really comes down to one seemingly obvious word:  preparation.  There are two main components of preparation need to be focused on in order to achieve a successful performance.

Prepare your voice:

First off, prepare your voice for the demands of the performance.  Work with a qualified voice teacher to help you get to where you need to be vocally so you don’t have to think about how you’re going to get that high note in a power ballad, or how you are going to be able to  better project your voice for a dynamic speech.  Build a secure foundation of vocal muscle memory, so your voice is capable of meeting the demands of being on stage.  Strength train those vocal folds daily in a healthy balanced way through repetition of vocal technique exercises assigned by your voice teacher.   Also, keeping vocal hygiene a priority will make a big difference in the quality of your voice.

Prepare the rest of your body:

The second important aspect of preparation is preparing your body to work with the nerves.  Nerves can very well lead to anxiety and anxiety is our body’s way of telling us there is a potential threat.  However, our bodies don’t actually know the difference between an actual threatening situation and a thought.  We can change our thoughts regarding the situation and try to look at the aspect of performing as a positive experience – that there’s no threat involved.  Mindfulness meditation as well as visualization techniques have been used by professionals to help people achieve better awareness when it comes to controlling performance anxiety.  Dr. Noa Kageyama is a psychologist who specializes in performance anxiety and works with musicians.  On his website Bullet Proof Musician  he gets more in depth on the subject of performance anxiety and explains the different kinds of anxiety.  He also recommends helpful ways of preparing for performance.

“Many make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on trying not to be nervous. Focus instead on developing a more effective response to the inevitable nerves. Spend more time practicing performing, rather than practicing practicing.” – Dr. Noa Kageyama

Performance anxiety exercise:

One excellent tool Dr. Noa recommends, (which I have used with my own clients with excellent results), is rehearsing with an elevated heart rate – getting your heart rate up by running on the spot and then practicing the song or practicing the talk.  You may be out of breath, but doing this will get you used to the sensation of singing with a rapid heart rate.  After rehearsing that way you can become somewhat de-sensitized to the feeling of being nervous.

Need a quick confidence booster?

If you need a confidence boost, try pre-performance ‘power posing’ (hands on your hips or hands above your head) as outlined in Amy Cuddy’s book Presence.

To boost your confidence during your performance, try fixing your posture, which will also help you to get access to proper breathing.  Prior to going on stage, you can also try slowing down your breathing to calm your nervous system down.  (elongate your inhales and exhales)

Whenever you get the opportunity to use your voice publicly, remember to enjoy the process.  Yes prepare well, and then let go.  Take it all in.  Before your know it the performance is over and you may just find yourself wanting to do more!

Headshot for websiteAlida is a voice and music educator based in Vancouver, Canada.  A graduate of UBC School of Music, Alida holds an IVA Advanced Certificate in voice teaching.