How to Manage Your Nerves

Context

Why does it feel like sometimes our own mind and body are working against us?


“In many ways singers face a ‘double whammy’ when they perform. Assuming mastery of the instrument and mastery of the music, the singer must still then master the effect of adrenaline on their body-instrument…The singer has enough to deal with without the probability that physical sensations within their own body-instrument strive to derail them! The singer needs to determine what the brain is telling the body and reprogram it.”

Sharon Tree

Your body is engineered with a self-preservation mechanism which is so sophisticated that it can be activated by the slightest hint of a threat – whether the threat is actual or perceived.  This mechanism is crucial for our survival individually and collectively. Therefore we aim to neither despise it nor uninstall it.  

Instead we aim to:

In this blog we’ll be focussing on ways to shape your adrenaline before, during and after performance scenarios so that you can still deliver storytelling with the vocal choices you’ve prepared. After all, a little adrenaline is actually vital. So…how to stop a little adrenaline from becoming too much adrenaline…that is our job!

Typical Signs of Adrenal Arousal

To manage your adrenaline response, you first need to understand how YOU respond. I encourage you to keep a diary of some sort and try to start recognising your low-scale responses as well as your more intense experiences.

I believe that learning to recognise your rising adrenaline and do exercises to lower it promptly is critical to managing your nerves before a performance or audition or exam or even a lesson.

After all, you’re likely to jump up a couple of notches on the scale when they call your name. And anything above a 5 out of 10 or so is going to start having a negative impact on your voice and preparation.

So why not learn to keep your adrenaline arousal at a gentle hum of 1-3 while you wait to go on, instead of it raging at 7-9 before you even get in the room?

Which of these typical signs do you relate to?

See information on The 5s and its application below for more tools.

What Causes the Threat?

Our perception of threat arises “when we think we are being judged”. It does not occur “when we think we are in control, when we are practising or when we are singing for fun.” (Dr Jenevora Williams)

It’s obvious that many audition and performance situations seem custom-made to give us the feeling of being judged. And yet, we can reframe our thinking so that our expectations of ourselves fit the scenario and pivot towards the supremacy of storytelling instead. After all, we are willingly walking into these situations – it’s not like someone ties us to a chair and says we can only be freed by singing for them!

So there must be a way to inflate the passion and drive that brought us there and bring the threatening clouds of questions and doubts into submission.

Let’s start by considering two areas of our subconscious thinking that can reassure or inflame our perceptions of performance – our self-talk about ourselves, and our self-talk about the audience or panel.

Self-Talk

In his interview with Brent Vaartstra, psychologist and professional jazz musician Rodney Brim uses the analogy of an instructor to describe our self-talk.


“…if you could take your self-talk out of you and put it as an instructor and embody it separate from you, would that instructor be pretty affirming or mostly notice things you screwed up on or be slow to give compliments or go ‘good grief you still didn’t get those high notes’…?”  

Rodney Brim

Back in 2019, I wrote a blog about this. So I encourage you to go there for more information and ideas.

For now, I urge you to start paying attention to the quiet messages you are sending yourself. If you forget a line – what does your inner voice say to you? If you don’t sing a note like you planned it – do you have a physical reaction that accompanies that inner voice of criticism?

I confess this is an area I could work on! Whether my inner voice is benignly sarcastic (“Good one, Sharon!” accompanied by a facepalm), or it is more toxic (“Far out, you’re an idiot! You know better than that!!!!)….I realise it predisposes me to the land of shame and imposter syndrome. I don’t need that! YOU DON’T NEED THAT EITHER!!!!


“Perceiving performance as a threat is an example of negative self-talk and perceiving it as a challenge is an example of positive self-talk. You can boost your self-confidence through positive self-talk or undermine it through negative self-talk. Most artists aren’t aware of whether their self-talk is positive or negative.”

Dr David Roland

TERA

The second area is one where we have thoughts, perceptions or even chatter about the people we are going to sing for. There is a useful tool drawn from the coaching landscape that I find very useful. It was first introduced to me in an acting workshop by Lexi Sekuless. It can also be explored more on various coaching sites, two of which are linked in the references at the end of the blog.

What do we find threatening enough to spike our adrenaline?

T – Tribe…..how much do the people I am performing for feel like my “tribe”?  Do I belong? Are you with me or against me?

E – Expectations…..do I know what to expect? Can I visualize the room, the set-up, the view from my performing spot? What is coming next?

R – Rank…..do I endow the audience with more importance than me?

A – Autonomy…..do I feel that I have no authority in the situation? Am I making my own choices right now?


Change Your View of Mistakes


“Even top performers cannot be perfect. None of us can be a hundred percent perfect. Trying to be so is the biggest single cause of nerves, insecurity, depression, low self-esteem. These can cause even the most capable and talented people to give up.”

Ruth Bonnetti

At some point in every journey of skill acquisition, we shift from a position where we allow ourselves to make mistakes as part of learning to where we judge ourselves for making mistakes and not being perfect.

A healthy place to work towards is one where we recognise that we are human instruments, with systems that will always fatigue and need recharging. Mistakes are natural and can be welcomed as normal within this understanding. And yet we criticise ourselves for being weak or less or not enough, instead of embracing our beautiful humanity and living with mistakes. I propose we don’t always even try to learn from our mistakes…just move on and stay in the moment of music making that is rich and satisfying and playful.

Many years ago, I heard a wonderful analogy from Pastor Tim Hanna, former CEO of Compassion Australia, one Sunday morning in the early 2000s. There is a reason that the rear view mirror in a car is the size it is. We are not meant to drive staring at it exclusively. But look at the size of the windscreen facing forward! Let’s look ahead at the road in front of us.

And so, singers would do well to let mistakes fall on the road behind them…because as sure as you stare at them in the mirror, you’ll crash again because you aren’t watching where you’re going. If it really matters, you can analyse the mistake later on and figure out why you made it. But try not to let your pride drive you to neurotic problem solving while you’ve still got a couple of verses and choruses to go!


“Many artists would have experienced the domino effect that making one initial mistake can have in producing others. The lesson from this is to let go of mistakes when they happen, leave them in the past where they belong and stay focussed on what you are doing NOW.”

Dr David Roland

I want to draw on the work of two people to give you some tools in this really important area. Russ Harris, psychologist and author; and Sarah Marshall (http://performingartscounselling.com.au)

A Mistake Ritual (Sarah Marshall)

During a 2020 webinar for ANATS (“Conquering Performance Anxiety”), Marshall proposed that we all have a mistake ritual. Do you know what your ritual currently is? Which aspects could you improve?

Your helpful mistake ritual should be rehearsed daily so that it flows naturally into performance situations. Don’t let yourself get away with negative mistake rituals even during your private practice.

PHASE OF RITUALUNHELPFUL ACTION EXAMPLEHELPFUL ACTION EXAMPLE
Get through the denialDisbelief that mistake occurred.Stay in the present
Physical responseUsually tightening, constrictionRelease physical tension eg arm gesture outwards, move feet, thumbs out for a deconstricted throat
Cognitive responseNegative self-talk/criticismTechnical process cue – eg where is my breath coming from?
No heroics!Inner tantrum, outer diva moment, blaming others…Get back in the moment

Your Relationship with Failure

If you find it hard to accept failure or knock-backs, that is going to feed into your nervousness about performance situations. Take some time now to reflect on your individual philosophy about this aspect of life.


“…in learning to do anything well, we’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way. And the farther we venture into uncharted waters, the more likely we are to screw up. Now, I don’t know anybody who likes making mistakes or screwing up, but if we can accept failure as an essential part of all self-development, we’ll be much better off than if we fight it.”

Russ Harris

In his book “The Confidence Gap”, Russ Harris provides the following reminders to help us reframe what we think about failure.

  • Regularly remind yourself that failure is a fact of life. Collect relevant stories. For example, “Albert Einstein wanted to attend the prestigious Swiss Polytechnic Institute, but he did not pass the entrance examination.”
  • Think of failure as nothing more than honest feedback, telling you that what you are doing isn’t working.
  • Play by the rule “True success is living by your values.”

“I haven’t failed; I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

Thomas Edison, after years of unsuccessful experiments to create a lightbulb

I particularly like Russ Harris’s “Six Steps for Rebounding from Failure”:

  • Unhook from unhelpful thoughts
  • Make room for painful feelings
  • Be kind to yourself, in word and gesture
  • Acknowledge what worked and appreciate any improvements
  • Find something useful to help you learn or grow
  • Take a stand by acting on your values

Build Your Home Base

It’s time now draw these thoughts together into your new adrenaline management strategy. Write up a plan of areas that speak to you from this blog. Make a list of the areas you’d like to research more or the books you’d like to read. Then, start trialling and practicing your plan. Don’t leave it until the day of the next audition or performance. Use it daily and figure out what works for you. Revise it. Repeat it. Renew it as you grow and as time passes and as life changes. But don’t put it in a draw. Use it.

Clear thinking and decision-making will lead you to a plan. The simple fact of a having a plan will make a huge difference…I promise! You will still feel nervous. You will still make mistakes. You will still have to reframe your self-talk. But you will have a plan for it and that will be another great tool in your kit.

Here are some final tools to assist with practicing mindful ways of staying in the present:

Planning – see the recent blog on Auditioning, include the section on Attitude Prep which prompts you to consider what you will constitute as success.

How to Stay in the Present (Dr David Roland):


The 5S

This is a method for the management of adrenaline and performance anxiety, based on an exercise by pilot and psychologist Captain Tom Bunn (fearofflying.com), in conjunction with coaching experience by Sharon Tree.

It is recommended that this be practiced at times of low stress to enable recall during high stress.

  1. List 5 things that you see in your peripheral vision. Speak them aloud one at a time, slowly, beginning each with the words “I see…”
  2. Eg: “I see a fan, I see a table, I see a window…”
  3. List 5 things that you hear. Speak them aloud one at a time, slowly, beginning each with the words “I hear…”  Take your time, there is no rush. If you are in a quiet landscape, it is ok to repeat a couple.
  4. Eg: “I hear a clock, I hear a fan, I hear a car…”
  5. List 5 things that you feel – as in tactile sensation, not emotions. Speak them aloud one at a time, slowly, beginning each with the words “I feel…”
  6. Eg: “I feel the fabric under my fingers, I feel the chair behind my back…”
  7. Closing your eyes, take a moment to sense the temperature of parts of your body, comparing their right and left sides. Eg, Is your right or left cheek colder? Your left or right foot warmer?
  8. Hold both hands in front of you, about the height of your sternum. Lightly tough each fingertip to its partner on the opposing palm, i.e. thumb to thumb, index finger to index finger etc. Close your eyes. How lightly can you maintain the touch so that each pair of fingers receives equal pressure? Notice your breathing. Now gentle increase the pressure of each pair in turn until you’ve travelled through all 5 pairs. Notice your breathing. Return to equal pressure. Lower your hands to your lap and open your eyes.

Application:

  1. Decide how much adrenaline your forthcoming activity requires in order to complete it efficiently, without debilitating interference (on a scale of 0-10 ,10 being the most fear you’ve ever experienced, and 0 the least.) (Hint – singing in public should be around 3 or 4 under most circumstances in order to avoid hindering breath management and laryngeal set up.)
  2. Measure your adrenaline at the present moment. If it is less than 2 on the scale, try to imagine a performing situation that would make you nervous, and then measure it again. When it is around 5 or higher, being The 5s. 
  3. When you have finished all of The 5s, measure how much adrenaline you think you have again. Notice how far it came down. 
  4. Repeat The 5s until you arrive at the desired amount of adrenaline, then sing through a performance piece from memory. How does it feel to sing with that amount of adrenline?

It is likely that you will make modifications to The 5s that suit your personality and environment. Keep a notebook to record the elements that work for you. How did you do them? For how long? 

When you are experiencing a 0 on the adrenaline scale, you will feel as though writing things down is superfluous and unnecessary – of course you’ll remember! But when your adrenaline is up above an 8, a certain degree of paralysis can enter your critical thinking that prohibits recall of useful tools. So, a notebook and a degree of repetitive practice will make these exercises feel as routine and habitual as brushing your teeth. Then once oxygen has reached your brain and your adrenaline has lowered, you can make good choices again.

Sources & Recommended Reading

Bonnetti, Ruth. (2002). Practice is a Dirty Word. Words & Music Publishing, The Gap, Qld.

Bunn, T. www.fearofflying.com

Gorrie, J. (2009). Performing in the Zone. www.thezonebook.com

Green, B. (1986). The Inner Game of Music. Doubleday, New York

Harris, R. (2011). The Confidence Gap: A guide to overcoming fear and self-doubt. Trumpeter Books, Colorado

Marshall, S. http://performingartscounselling.com.au

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

Roland, D. (1997). The Confident Performer. Currency Press, NSW

Tree, S. (2004). “Performance Anxiety: what causes the singer to ‘choke’ and how to overcome such problems” in Australian Voice, Vol 10

Vaartstra, B. (2019). “Brain Hacking for Speeding Up Your Jazz Improv Success”, Learn Jazz Standards Podcast.Episode 159. 

Williams, J. (2021) in Vocal Health First Aid training module

https://www.growthcoaching.com.au/articles-corporate/4-ways-to-build-safety-in-the-coaching-relationship?country=au

https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/how-to-use-neuroscience-to-make-your-conversations-irresistible

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