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Learning to Love Nerves


By Daniel K. Robinson (2011)

Performers love to perform. Performers don’t always love the nerves that
accompany performance. Recently, while watching a student performance I was
reminded of the levels of anxiety that can accompany new performance
experiences. One student, in preparing for his first ever public performance,
reported that the anticipated concert had left him sleepless the night before.

Nerves, clinically known as ‘performance anxiety’, do not randomly choose their


victim. Scholars estimate that between 50% (Tree, 2004) and 69% (Wingate,
2008) of performers experience some form of stage fright. Anecdotally, I believe
the figure to be much higher. David Roland (1997) in his book The Confident
Performer writes “Every professional artist I have spoken to confesses to
experiencing some anxiety before performing, even when they have had many
years of performance experience” (p. 5). The point is, regardless of the
statistics, you are not alone in your experience of performance anxiety.

Before discussing some strategies for managing performance anxiety lets define
what constitutes as ‘nerves’. Sharon Tree (2004), in her article Performance
Anxiety: What Causes the Singer to ‘Choke’ and How to Overcome Such
Problems defines nerves as “a form of social phobia…that is experienced by a
range of people in a range of fields on any occasion in which one must present
oneself before others, with or without scrutiny” (p. 38). Tree goes onto describe
the ‘fight or flight’ of performance anxiety as a “cognitive-physiological-
behavioural chain reaction” (p. 38). Roland (1997) simplifies the description by
asking his readers,

Do you ever experience tension, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or nervous


anticipation? You might be relieved to know that all artists experience some
anxiety about performance. Artists who experience anxiety to a severe extent call
this ‘stage fright’. Whatever word you use, some self-doubt about your ability to
perform is perfectly normal and understandable. In fact, most experienced
performers become concerned if they don’t experience some nervous anticipation
before performing. (p. 3)

I resonate with the last sentence of the above quote. I have been referred to as
an ‘adrenalin junky’. I love the heightened sense of awareness that comes with
my performance anxiety; but it hasn’t always been that way! In the early days
of developing my craft as a performer my performance anxiety would often
escalate to a point leaving me dry in the mouth, seemingly incontinent and with
no memory for the lyrics. These are not the only symptoms of ‘out-of-control’
nerves. Other physical signs can include increased perspiration, nausea and an
augmented heart rate. This is not an exhaustive list, but I am certain you will be
able to identify at least one as a symptom resulting from your experience of
nerves.

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Having defined what performance anxiety is, let’s now turn to the management
strategies which can assist in de-escalating the nerves while still embracing the
adrenalin. Again, the following suggestions are by no means comprehensive and
I direct the reader seeking more detail to David Roland’s and Sharon Tree’s
independent works (listed in the references below) for a more thorough review
of the subject. The ‘triple-threat’ frontage (cognitive-physiological-behavioural)
of performance anxiety provides a good framework to offer brief managerial
suggestions:

 Cognitive: The mental approach (or perception) of a perceived threat can


determine the level of cognitive response. Tree (2004) suggests that
developing ‘self-awareness’ by keeping a journal as helpful for some. The
practice of ‘writing it down’ can also contribute positively to developing a
‘realistic appraisal’ which Tree recommends “should allow for the
likelihood of an imperfect performance, and reinforce that flawlessness is
not the goal” (p. 44)
 Physiological: Breath management is recognised as a key strategy in the
de-escalation of surging adrenalin. Many trained singers have had the
opportunity to develop the skills of managed breath flow. These same
skills, when applied to the slowing of inhalation/exhalation patterns can
assist in calming the performer. Many performers have also reported that
body awareness disciplines such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais
are also helpful in appropriating good muscle tonus.
 Behavioural: A behavioural strategy that I have seen used with success
is the ‘mock performance’. The mock performance is achieved by mentally
situating the performer in the performance setting (generally with eyes
closed) and working through the different stages of the performance:
walking to the stage, introduction of first song, singing the first song etc.).
At each point the mock performer is encouraged to describe the response
of the mock audience and the resulting sensations (anxiety levels).

As already stated, this is a limited list; but it hopefully provides some helpful
hints in managing the nerves. Of course, some actions (or the lack of action) can
lead to performance anxiety. Pat Wilson (2001) states it plainly: “You have every
reason to fear it if you have failed to prepare for your work” (p. 32). Lack of
preparation aside, when managed well, performance anxiety and the adrenalin
that generally accompanies it can be your best friend – you may even learn to
love it!

References

Roland, D. (1997). The confident performer. Paddington, NSW: Currency Press.


Tree, S. (2004). Performance anxiety: What causes the singer to 'choke' and
how to overcome such problems. Australian Voice, 10, 11.
Wilson, P. (2001). The singing voice: an owners manual (2nd ed.). Strawberry
Hills NSW, Australia: Currency Press.
Wingate, J. (2008). Healthy singing. San Diego CA: Plural Publishing.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2011 Page 2 of 2