We've all heard the phase ‘break a leg’ which a performer is supposed to hear before walking out on stage but etymologically speaking it sets up up for the big ‘A word’…Anxiety.
Nearly every student that I teach asks me about stage fright, performance anxiety, The Fear or whatever name you want to call it and it is without a shadow of a doubt the trickiest aspect of performance.
From a very young age I was singing in a choir and doing regular performances, then I went on to have private lessons and started doing competitions (many competitions..) and slowly but surely the anxiety crept up on me and I began to experience Proper Performance Anxiety (I felt like it needed capitals to add gravitas or something).
I felt it physically (primarily in my knees which used to shake as I walked on stage and in a trembling voice informed the examiners what I was going to sing). I also went hot and cold generally wanted the ground to swallow me up or to wake up and discover it was all a dream…
I found that the more I was performing the worse the anxiety got-the opposite of what I was told was supposed to happen… Then at the tender age of 16 I decided to stop singing for the time being as the nerves were too much to bear despite winning every competition going (I was laden with shields, trophies, medals and photos with mayors…) but I still found myself feeling sick to my stomach and looking for the exit door. (There were times that my mum had to literally push me into the venue whilst I desperately dug my feet into the ground)
These nerves seemed to worsen when I took up singing again after university. I remember singing at a music festival in portugal and my husband having to almost hold me down in my chair so that I didn’t run out of the theatre before it was my turn to sing.
Similarly when studying voice at the RCS I used to be ill for weeks after performances as I had worked myself up into such a state before the shows. It’s only recently since leaving music college that I feel as though my nerves are more in control. I think one of the key things that helped me is to actually care less! The reason I was so beside myself before every performance was because I cared so terribly much and wanted to impress the audience/examiner so terribly much. I was essentially getting in my own way; not trusting myself and listening to the cruel parrot on my shoulder. I feel I now need a subheading entitled: ‘The Parrot’.
Well that felt good. So, in laymen's terms we all have a devil and an angel on our shoulders. The angel tells us “everything is going to be ok”; “you can do it”; “I believe in you”; “What’s the worse that can happen?”; “You look great”.
The parrot or the devil, on the other hand, tells us: “Well wasn’t that out of tune”; “Im sure you started singing in German when its an Italian aria”; “Why on earth did you choose to wear that dress; you look so fat and ugly it offended the audience; “Go on, just give up; you’re beyond rubbish”.
It’s thus up to us which we silence and which we listen to. I have a perchance for listening to the parrot and letting him berate me into submission. I think the key to silencing the parrot is to speak to him (now she’s lost the plot you’re thinking) Engage in rational dialogue with him; for example:
PARROT: You’re just rubbish; give up its never going to work out you're just delusional.
ME: Is there any evidence for what you are saying? I have won many competitions, studied at a royal conservatoire and perform regularly…Is that delusional? I really don’t think so.
PARROT: Well, anyone can do that-how are you any different? There are many better singers than you so just quit while you're ahead.
ME: There maybe many good singers but I have just a good chance as anybody else- I’m talented and able so the world is my oyster.
PARROT: What a cliche but ok go on then, prove me wrong.
When you open dialogue with the parrot you feel more in control and you questions his comments instead of just believing them straight away. The world is full of types who want to rain on your parade and bring you down so why do it to yourself? If you really think about it, putting yourself down is one of the stupidest things you could do. Be kind to yourself- we tend to treat people we love with respect and care but when it comes to ourselves we let the parrot win and beat ourselves down. So I say, look after number 1, silence that evil parrot and do what you do best.