What is the worst thing you could do to a performer who is nervous about going on stage?
Try to talk them out of the nerves they are feeling, by saying things like “You’ll be fine….Don’t worry…Why are you so worried…Don’t feel that way you’ll be great.”
What we need to do to tackle nerves in the moment is this:
Let me tell you a little story to illustrate what I’m talking about:
This week I took my daughter to the first musical theater class of the spring (this is her 3rd time doing the class). One of her friends had signed up to, but it was clear she was really nervous about the whole thing – she had hidden in the bathroom of the lobby and when she came out she was crying. These girls are 5 years old. Her well-meaning nanny, who is an absolutely lovely person said to her, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Except, she clearly wasn’t fine.
Yoga told me maybe I could help this little girl who was suffering. I smiled at her and beckoned her over with my finger and said, “Are you feeling nervous about the class?” She sniffed and nodded. I then normalized it for her and said, “You know, I get nervous before I do something new too, especially if it involves singing.”
I went on to explain, “It’s funny how our brains get a little nutty if they think we are in danger.” She looked at me pretty interested at this point. “Our brains are super strong, ” I continued. “But sometimes they get confused and think there might be crazy snakes on the stage!” That got a little smile out of her and a look like, are you pulling my leg, lady? By this point the tears had stopped.
Then I helped her feel. “When I get a little anxious I feel it in my tummy.” I said. “Do you know where you feel it today?” She scrunched up her shoulders and pulled her arms in tight. “It just feels like this,” she said. (What a wonderful illustration of tension in her body, one of the physical manifestation of anxiety.)
“You know, ” I said, “I think everyone gets a little scared before something new. I know my daughter does and I do too. I bet everyone in this room does too.” And we looked around as we related to all the other parents and children in the room. “What if we took a big breath together?” I suggested. So, I held her hand and we both took a big breath in and blew it out. We talked a little more about what the room looked like and what things she would do in the class. I was present to her fears and her feelings which helped her to feel more at ease.
The doors opened to the theater and the teacher started to call students in. She was able to walk through the doors and not only made it through the class, but told me after it was fun.
There is work we can all do to understand the origins of our performance nerves and meditate on them to transform our relationship with anxiety. But, in the moment, when they are there, this is a powerful way to work with them. This conversation was fairly simple because of the girl’s age, but it doesn’t have to be complicated even if its an adult you’re talking to – you need to let the person know you know how they are feeling because you have felt that way too, ask them where they feel it in their body and talk a little about how everyone feels the same way, even though sometimes we don’t want to admit it.
Be present to your students and fellow singers. The next time you see them backstage suffering, be there with them in the moment. I guarantee you will make a profound difference in their performance experience!