Meditate or Move?

Let’s face it, just the thought of going on stage can result in sweaty palms, increased tension in the body, elevated heart rate and racing thoughts…let alone what actually being backstage about to walk on feels like. Maybe you are someone who has walked out into the bright lights of the stage and simply stared like a deer caught in headlights.

You are probably familiar with the terms Fight or Flight and Freeze. When we are in one of those states our nervous system is dysregulated. When we are calm we are in a state that is often referred to as Rest and Digest.

But here’s the thing, within those states of arousal of the nervous system, everyone reacts slightly differently and therefore what gets you out of those states will vary. Your nervous system’s response to performance nerves is not my nervous system’s response to performance nerves.

It’s often put out there that meditation and stillness are the gold standard for conquering your performance nerves. The breath is said to be the fastest, most powerful way to address the nervous system.

I’m a fan of meditation. My own meditation practice is nearly 2 decades long and something I engage in every single day. But, when it comes to performance nerves, if I ask myself to just sit with them and breathe and notice, it is a recipe for disaster.

Part of what dictates how we need to respond to performance nerves is our own history with trauma. I define trauma as an experience that exceeds your capacity to cope. There can be big T traumas that are cataclysmic events like, a bad accident or abuse. And then there are small t traumas where things happen to us in small ways that cause us to have emotional responses that we don’t have the skills to cope with – these might range from a break up of a relationship or not getting cast in a show, or an audition that went poorly, for example.

Because of my own unique trauma history, I actually do better physically moving my body as a way of shifting myself out of a sense of anxiety and into an emotional space where I feel a greater sense of capacity to address what lies ahead. Movement moves emotion. And, movement can be mindful.

What is key, I think is for us to have an expanded toolbox of how to both understand what’s happened to us in our lives and also the various approaches we can take to deal with them.

If you are told to try meditation and breathwork to help with your anxiety and that literally pushes you into greater anxiety OR you respond to the perosn telling you like they are trying to sell you the worst lemon of a used car, perhaps there’s another modality that could help!

Movement that incorporates your ability to sense what is going on inside the body, your inner state, called interoception, and awareness of the position and movement of the body, called proprioception, can help you build a powerful toolbox to address your nerves.

Movement based options that are completely viable ways of addressing your performance anxiety (or other anxiety or trauma) include, cardio, strength training, balance work, rebounding.

What ways have you found that are effective in addressing your performance nerves?

Can you help a singer out?

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:

Normalize

Explain

Feel

Relate

Breathe

Be Present

 

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!

Are you waiting to be PERFECT???

Looking back I realize I wasted a lot of time and energy as a young performer being controlled by fear. No, it wasn’t paralyzing and it didn’t keep me off stage, but it dictated a lot of what I did and how comfortable I was doing it. I would think, “if I just _______, then I’ll be ready to ______.” I was waiting to be perfect. And, because I was never perfect it kept me from enjoying the amazing performing opportunities I had and not going after some I wanted. Really, I did it with my entire life but since you aren’t therapists and this blog is about singing and yoga, we’ll keep it to my life as a performer.

These days, I can’t tell you the number of times I hear singers say to me, “I’d come to yoga, but I’m waiting until I’m _________”, or, “I’m waiting to audition for my dream choir/roll/company until I’m ______________”, or even, “I’m going to schedule this recital when I’ve ____________. They are all waiting to be perfect.

Perfection will hold you back. It will force you to live from a place of fear that reminds you of your limitations rather than realizing your potential. Probably everyone around you is befuddled because in general we have an easier time seeing the potential of others. If only we could apply that to ourselves.

Obviously you need to be well practiced to perform and audition. I’m not advocated walking out on stage and half-assing it because you haven’t bothered to prepare. I’m talking about recognizing how capable you are, embracing your skills and abilities and loving the richness of life that comes when you are imperfect.

Will you fail? Maybe, but I bet you will learn more and reap greater rewards by trying and failing than not trying at all. I often tell my daughter, “perfect is boring, failure is interesting.” You might even discover that failure isn’t really failure and the world doesn’t come crashing to an end.

Don’t wait to be perfect or life will pass you by. Here are some steps you can take to let go of your perfectionist tendencies:

Raise your awareness: Notice when your inner perfectionist starts to intervene.

Give her a name: When your inner perfectionist starts up you can say, Thank you Perfect Karen, but I don’t need you to talk right now. I need you to sit down and shut up. If you really want to you can flesh her out, give her a name, the type of home she lives in, what type of performer she is and how she is always perfectly dressed (usually this means the total opposite of how you live, dress and perform because, you know, you aren’t perfect).

Change your inner monologue: Create a mantra for yourself. “I am enough”, or “I’ve got this”. Say these over and over and over again.

Meditate: Visualize your performance going well and you have a better chance of finding success without standing on stage trying to be perfect.

Go for it: Live and perform fearlessly.

 

Going to the Source: Using Yoga to Calm Performance Anxiety

In part one of this series we learned about the origins of performance anxiety and what the yogic perspective is on that state of mind. We now know the role the brain plays in putting us into the fight or flight stress mode and how if we stay there too long we will wire our brains to worry. In this post we’ll look at specific yogic practices and how, when in engaged in on a regular basis, they can help alleviate nerves felt around performing.

Yoga teaches us to practice awareness of our body, our breath and our mind. When we become mindful of these elements in our yoga practice, we can be mindful off the mat as well and apply them to our practice and performance. I define mindfulness as the act of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. It also involves acceptance, meaning we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Yoga also encourages us to connect; with ourselves, our audience and our fellow performers. If you are a spiritual person you can also work to build a connection to God or the greater Universe. Remember that we all fundamentally want the same things in life and very likely we are more alike than we are different. It can also be useful to remind yourself that people attend concerts to see you succeed, no one goes to watch you fail!

The first step in dealing with performance anxiety is becoming aware of it. Perhaps you’ve known for a while that you get nervous when you have to perform but you’ve never sat down and really looked at when those nerves hit or where you feel them in your body when they are happening. If you have a performance coming up commit to being mindful in that experience. Just observe yourself without judgement. Try saying to yourself ‘how interesting I’m _____’ (fill in the blank with whatever you notice yourself doing or feeling around that event). (N.B. This is a practice you can use anywhere – in teaching, working etc. I use it frequently when I get frustrated with my children as a way of becoming more mindful of what sets me off and how I can spend less time annoyed with them!)

This is a step that may come easily to you or it may take you a while. I believe we can not effect change until we fully understand the behavior we are engaging in. Become friends with yourself and really delve into what is going on. You may find it helpful to document the feelings in writing and keep a journal.

Assuming you master this phase and you know what is going on and what triggers you have, you can engage in breathing, meditation and physical practices to help modify your stress reaction.

Breathing: It might seem sort of strange to tell a singer they need to pay attention to their breath as it is easy to presume you already know more about the breath than the average person, but I would challenge that there is still more everyone can learn and the way yoga encourages you to look at your breathing is very different than how a voice teacher might teach breathing. Often there is an emphasis in singing lessons on inhaling, or the intake, of breath. How we exhale is equally as important!

The way to begin is to determine your breath ratio and figure out how you breathe on a regular basis. You can read a description of how to explore your breath ratio here.

Another practice for a pranayama beginner is that of the Complete Yoga Breath. You can read a description of how to do it here.

Asana Practice:
Specific poses are also beneficial for reducing anxiety. While regular asana practice will help you long term, you can also identify what your energy levels are like the day of a performance and tailor your practice. If you are low energy, you can do a practice that will raise your energy to help you. If you have a lot of nervous energy and practice that burns some of that off to help you focus will be beneficial. When you engage in your asana practice, try to use the complete yoga breath as your guide. When your breathing strays from being easily full, you are working too hard in a pose and should back off.

Poses that help alleviate anxiety by helping to calm the mind and open the heart center include:

Standing Forward Bend

Cat/Cow

Puppy Stretch

Triangle

Bridge

Head to Knee Pose

Staff Pose

Seated Forward Bend

Easy Pose

Meditation: Meditation is another useful tool for singers to alleviate anxiety. By training the mind to be present, we can be more open to our performances. To sing our truth we need to be sure that our hearts and our heads are in agreement. In the weeks leading up to a performance, you can commit time daily to visualizing your performance going well. When you do this, you set yourself up for success. Read on for suggestions of how to visualize your way to killing it on stage!

Visualization Meditation –

Nearly every performer gets nervous before going on stage. As performers we want to turn this nervous energy into positive energy that propels our performance to be even better. One way to do this is to practice visualization. In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of being disconnected and having a limited vision of ourselves. If you create a ‘me vs. them’ situation with your audience, you are disconnected from them. But, if you can believe that you are all a part of the same world, want the same things and they are there to receive the gifts you offer through your singing, you build a sense of connection.

If you have a concert coming up, I recommend starting two weeks before the date of performance (if you are someone with a very high level of anxiety, add more time, perhaps start four weeks in advance). Set aside time every day to visualize going through the concert flawlessly.

Find a comfortable seated position – can be in a chair, on the floor or the couch.

Orient your mind towards your performance and take 3 breaths to center yourself.

Envision yourself backstage where you will perform – be specific about what you will wear, who is there with you etc.

Imagine yourself walking on stage to stand wherever you will begin your performance. You fill the room with your presence, knowing the audience has come to see you succeed. Through your singing, you will connect with them, sharing your artistry.

Imagine yourself taking whatever position you will take and bowing your head to prepare to perform. Pick your head up and imagine yourself singing through your program flawlessly.

This has ended up being a long post, but I hope you’ve made it this far!

Once you try some of these practices on the mat, there are some off the mat exercises you can do too.

1. Think of three times during your day that you can be mindful. When you reach those moments in your day, stop and observe your thoughts and what you are feeling.

2. When you listen to someone else perform, think first of three things you liked about their performance.
3. When you practice, focus on only one element at a time – rhythm, text, sound quality etc.
4. Try re-framing an experience you perceive as negative to cast it in a positive light.
5. Build time into your day to do nothing – turn the tv off, put away your smart phone and just sit in silence.

Good luck! If you would like to have some help talking through the elements of performance that cause you anxiety and develop a strategy for how to shift your anxiety into positive energy to propel your performance, please contact me.

Going to the Source: Origins of Performance Anxiety

 

Recently I talked with a singer who told me she’d been to an audition and in her words, “bombed it”. She said she’d disconnected from her breath, forgotten the words and generally felt awful. She chalked it up to not having done an audition in a long time.

I’m sure that was a part of it. There is an art to auditioning, as any singer will tell you. However, as our conversation continued, she went on to tell me how, at the end of the month, she would lose the administrative job that has been the bread and butter of her existence for many years. She runs a music program for children in the mornings and then goes to her desk job in the afternoon and sings in a prominent chorus as well as doing her own solo work on top of it all. Time to practice, she indicated, was hard to come by. The more we talked, the more I began to wonder if it was really the length of time between auditions that caused her anxiety and subsequent poor performance.

In our bodies, anxiety is created in the amygdala, a part of the brain where primal emotions are generated. When triggered it bypasses the rational part of our brain and sets off a physical reaction. Unfortunately, anxiety is also addictive in the sense that the more you worry, the more you wire your brain to worry. Your mind, therefore, will either be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy.

Anxiety can strike before, during or even after a performance (or it can happen all three times). Your brain’s ability to bypass the rational part of itself means you are left with a racing heart, shallow breathing, shaking body, nausea, dry mouth, tense shoulders and jaw and sweaty palms. Mentally there are repercussions too. You might have trouble sleeping, feel depressed, avoid practicing, snap at people around you because you are moody, forget the words, be confused on stage, worry, wrongly assess your performance or assume everyone there is waiting to see you fail. Once you start down the path of anxiety it can be hard to short circuit and instead it can snowball, pulling you into a vicious cycle. Some of you have probably experienced that on stage where you get anxious before going on, get out there and feel your knees knocking together, you can’t ever connect to your breath and then before you know it you forget the words and lose your place in the music. Ugh. No one should have to experience that more than once!

Understanding where your anxiety comes from can be tricky. You might be naturally shy or anxious, be afraid of the audience critiquing your performance negatively or had a specific experience in your past that triggered your anxiety. Perhaps you are singing music that is a bit beyond your current capacity, or you haven’t practiced enough or performed enough to feel comfortable. Maybe you just haven’t been taking good care of your self or are your own worst critic, seeing only the negative aspects of your performance. It could be that there is a stressful event in the rest of your life that you haven’t dealt with and that emotion is being represented as anxiety in your singing. Maybe you are not yet mindful of your anxiety to even know what triggers it for you.

In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of disconnection from a larger Universe due to our limited notion of who we really are. In other words, we forget that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves, that we are more than our physical form. Instead we create ‘us against them’ situations and wrap ourselves up in our identities of being singers, parents, workers or any other hat you wear in your life, believing those identities to be who we are.  When we engage in those behaviors we disconnect from ourselves, our audience, (or conductor, band mates, pianists etc.) forget that we are all connected and box ourselves into specific identities. What anxiety universally tells us is that there is room for us to grow. If we befriend our anxiety we can see it as an opportunity to learn so as to make different, mindful choices in the future.

The time we spend on the mat in yoga helps us off the mat in these every day situations that arise. In yoga we get to know ourselves through the lens of compassion by being present. Present to our breath. Present to our bodies and what they can do for us. Present to the thoughts in our minds. If we pay attention through non-judgmental observation we begin to gain insight into our patterns. After our awareness is raised and we understand how we tend to act, we have an opportunity to make different choices at any given time because we are living in the present moment.

Let’s go back to the singer I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Her story told me several things: She hadn’t auditioned in a long time. She was facing a major life change by leaving a job she’d been at for a while which brought with it a need to find new patterns in her daily life and a big financial shift as well. Her life, in general, is a constant balance of juggling multiple sources of income, the demands of finding practice time, performing and fitting it all in around her personal life. Knowing what we do about where anxiety can come from, it becomes easier to see how her identification with her job, its end and the emotions surrounding that along with the constant stress of balancing her busy life on top of whatever other history she has with anxiety about auditioning/performing, how she typically assess her own performances and whether she is aware of any that, all contribute to her sense of anxiety. All of those things shunt her brain in the direction of anxiety, rather than staying open to connecting with the larger Universe and the people around her.

Her situation may sound familiar to you, or you could replace a few parts of her story with your own and see how this could be you. In Part II of Going to the Source, we’ll look at specific yogic based practices that when engaged in on a regular basis help quiet the mind, connect to the breath and turn performance anxiety into energy that can propel you to achieve your performance potential. Stay tuned!