Adrenaline and Tempo: Taking Control

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I recently had a question from a director that struck me as one of those that I’m sure a lot of us grapple with on occasion. So I gave her some specific advice for the performance she was preparing for in the immediate future, but said I’d give it a think and blog in more detail about other things to consider after the big gig.

This was her question:

When I'm directing, even if in my head it's painfully slow.... It's much faster! I know it's linked to my nerves/adrenaline of competition but recently realised it happens a lot

My immediate advice was twofold:

  1. Note that this is the case, so if your brain says, ‘Gosh this is slow,’ another bit of your brain can say, ‘Maybe not - don’t speed up just yet’
  2. Take a deliberately relaxed tempo in the warm-up room to give space for your adrenaline to add impetus on stage without going over the top

These strategies were all about managing the current situation, which is all you really want to be attempting in the fortnight before a major performance. But in the longer term, it would be more useful to find ways to decouple the subjective experience of time that gets distorted by the sympathetic nervous system from the directorly judgements of tempo.

You are always going to get a significant adrenaline load for big performances, indeed it is very useful in such situations to have your blood chemistry facilitating alertness and speed of thought. So not only is it futile to try and stop the process of arousal, it is undesirable. But equally, you want to be sure that you can choose the tempo you perform at, rather than it being driven by your metabolism on a particular occasion.

So, practice strategies I’d suggest:

    Mental rehearsal. Practise audiating the music with a particular focus on finding exactly the pacing that brings out what you find most interesting and distinctive in the music.

  • Record, reflect, compare. Periodically run a piece and record it in ‘performance mode’ in rehearsal. Giving it a sense of occasion (and, actually, also the act of recording it) will activate the adrenaline above standard rehearsal levels. Before you listen to the recording, run your immediate aural memory of how it went and consider how you felt about the tempo. Then listen to the recording to see if your objective ear agrees. Comparing internal and external impressions will help over time to develop an external ear for use in real time
  • Rehearse the music at different speeds. This is an excellent exercise for the whole group, not just the director. As well its primary goal of increasing control over tempo, you bump all kinds of different elements of technique out of autopilot in the process. Slow singing gives you more time to think, but makes you focus on keeping vowels open; fast singing makes the breathing easier but makes you work harder on synchronisation. And while the singers are busy working on all that, the director can exercise their conscious control of pacing.

And in performance, as well as the strategies I’ve written about in the past for engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to counter-balance the adrenaline, it is worth inserting in your preparatory routine a moment where you deliberately connect with your intended tempo. In that moment where you are gathering your thoughts and the singers’ attention, audiate your intended pulse, so that when you gesture the singers to start, they are joining in with a musical process that is already in action.

There is time to do this, just as there is time for the singers to exhale slowly before they sing. Both acts are part of centring yourselves as performers, and will be read by the audience as you taking ownership of the stage and creating the imaginative space for the music to emerge into.

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