Making Your Nerves Work for You: An Addendum

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yerkes-dodsonFollowing last week’s post with the slides from my break-out session at the LABBS education day, I received an email from one of the participants with a question that I thought other people might also be interested in. Yvette asked:

I wondered if you had any tips for when the nerves suddenly kick in on stage - for me my legs suddenly shake or on an "oo" vowel my lips start trembling?

You see what I mean? Nobody else has ever had that experience I’m sure…

The answer comes in two halves.

The first is to understand that the experience of nerves ‘suddenly kicking in’ is simply the sensation of an extra dose of adrenaline getting released into your blood stream in response to your brain’s recognition that here is a moment where readiness for action would be really useful. If this dose of adrenaline produces bodily responses that start to get in the way of your technical control – such as shaking, dry mouth, shallow breathing – this tells you that your warm-up took you too far up the hill of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, so that you have just popped over the top rather than landing at your peak.

Hence, you need to plan to leave your warm-up in a state of slightly lower arousal. If you are sounding absolutely amazing in the warm-up room, you’ve probably gone too far. You therefore need to spend your warm-ups putting more focus on the parasympathetic nervous system. Major on calming activities that engage a deep-set and regular breath, listening exercises that open up your perception, and pace everything in steady, predictable tempi. A blissed-out, trance-like state will set you up so that the final dose of adrenaline provides the energy you need to shine, rather than sending you over the edge into manic mode.

Clearly, gauging the optimum state to leave the warm-up is a matter of trial and error. Only repeated experience will teach you to do this reliably. So, we still need the second half of the answer to deal with the days when you get on stage and think: oops, overdid it on the adrenaline today.

The key here will again be to engage a parasympathetic response to balance out the over-arousal. If you are in control of the pace of the performance (as a soloist, quartetter or director), taking a few extra moments to settle before starting to perform gives you the chance to reconnect to your breathing and collect your thoughts. As a bonus, this is often experienced by the audience as good stage-craft, too – as part of creating the atmosphere of the music to follow.

As a chorus member, you have less control over timing, but you can still treat the time when your director is preparing the ensemble to sing as your private preparatory space. Focus on breathing out slowly, and consciously release muscular tension in the back of your neck and your shoulders. Think of what a really calm and in-control person would be like, and adopt that character – you’ll find your internal state is quite willing to follow your pretence.

These kinds of routines are things you need to have practised beforehand. Include them in your visualisations of the performance, so when you get to the stage, this is part of a familiar and established personal routine. Again, the goal is to dispel the adrenal punch before it gets so strong as to induce counter-productive physical symptoms, and the routines achieve this in two ways. First, by balancing out the over-engaged sympathetic nervous system by deliberately engaging the parasympathetic system. Second, by giving you something to do that you have control over during the moment when you are liable to feel most exposed.

Yvette also asked:

Also someone recommended a book on the topic - do you remember the title?

Yes, Rose Hopkinson from NoteOrious recommended Barry Green and Tim Galwey’s The Inner Game of Music. I would certainly second her recommendation – it’s got some great ideas in it, some of which I have even blogged about before.

While we’re at it, here are some other posts you may find useful:
Adrenaline and Vocal Performance
Adrenaline and Vocal Performance 2: Practical Strategies

Also go and have a look at the blog on The Bullet-proof Musician. I just did, and there’s lots of good new material since last time I visited, but there’s gold amongst the older posts too.

I bought a copy of "The Inner Game Of Music" to help with performing in quartet and would recommend it. Very reasonably priced too !

Although the author is predominantly a cellist, he does work in several other areas of music, and keeps an open mind as he writes. As a result, we 'a cappella' singers should NOT tend to get that feeling of "oh, he doesn't understand the nuances of our art form, so this book doesn't apply". Quite the opposite - there were so many places in the text where I made a personal connection and thought: "So true".

One particularly simple but striking thought is the formula "P = p - i", where capital 'P' is the level of our performance, lower case 'p' is our potential, and lower case 'i' is the level of our negative thought and behaviour which gets in the way. Particularly as a baritone (!), in the past I've over-emphasised the aspects of getting the music 'technically' correct at rehearsal. In other words, I'm trying to maximise 'p'. The trouble is that, whilst 'i' can often be reassuringly low as we sound confident in our front room rehearsals, for some of us it rises disconcertingly in the minutes before and during our presence on stage. This book is really about controlling 'i' rather than 'p' !

One final point: I also bought it along with another inexpensive little booklet called "Keeping Your Nerve!" by Kate Jones, one in a series of titles on confidence-boosting strategies for musicians and performers.

Thanks Liz !

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