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Do I HAVE To Go Up There???

(Or How to make stage fright Your friend)

To those of you out there who experience stage fright: What if I told you that the heart pounding, flop sweating, knee knocking, sheer and utter dread you feel at the mere thought of going on stage might actually be a good thing? "Ali," you say, "You've got to be kidding me! Have you ever actually performed? Like, solo? In front of other actual human beings?!" Dozens of times. Hundreds, if you count singing in front of a voice teacher. And if you deal with performance anxiety, I've felt the same dread you do. Now let's talk about this a little...

What is severe performance anxiety, or "stage fright", as many of us singers, dancers, speakers and actors call it? Why does it happen to us, and how can we get rid of it? Spoiler alert: that last one is a trick question. More on that later, but let's start with question Number 1.

Merriam Webster defines stage fright as "a nervous feeling felt by someone who is going to perform in front of an audience". Clearly the author of that definition has either never performed or has reserves of poise and confidence unavailable to us mere mortals, but it gets the point across... sort of. For me, the difference between "stage fright" and a case of plain ol' nerves has to do with the severity of the anxiety, whether I'm able to control it, and how it affects my performance. If I'm a little shaky walking on stage, but can calm myself with a deep breath, that's nerves. If I forget half my words, pinch off my high notes and can't keep my body from shaking, that's stage fright. Sounds like fun, right?

So where does this oh-so-pleasant phenomenon come from? Let's look to evolutionary biology for that answer. Imagine you're a cave dweller some tens of thousands of years ago, out for a walk. All of a sudden, a huge prehistoric creature comes charging at you from out of nowhere! Your mouth goes dry and your gut feels like it's hosting a battalion of flying saucers. Your muscles tighten to the point of shaking. Your heart is pounding a million miles a minute. You're painfully aware of every tingle of the fingertips, every sight, smell, sound. If "Cave You" is like "Cave Me", your body temperature feels like it just about doubles. Your body is in emergency mode. People often refer to the "fight or flight" response, but you actually have three choices: You could A) Freeze and get trampled, B) Run away and miss dinner for a week for your entire tribe, or C) Grab you spear and go for it. Newsflash: All these annoying body reactions are meant to lead to Responses B or C, in order to protect "Cave Us" from the adverse effects of Response A.

It actually kind of makes sense: Back in our Cave Days, heightened senses helped us to better sense both danger and opportunities to deal with it. Our hearts beat faster and our digestive system switches gears to pump fuel to our brains and muscles, getting them ready to face threats. Nowadays, dry mouth makes it hard to speak or sing, our senses doubling kind of freaks us out, and our heart pumping hot blood to our muscles and skin at twice the rate makes us feel like we're on fire. And the shaking -- the annoying, annoying shaking.

Nowadays, we have a lot less use for the benefits of "fight or flight" than we did thousands of years ago. And it's not really like we're about to be stomped by a woolly mammoth every time we stand in front of an audience. So why the heck do we still have it? And why on earth does it manifest as stage fright when we perform? Because just as large, angry animals make us extremely physically vulnerable, singing or dancing or speaking in front of others -- exposing our artistic imperfections and our deepest feelings -- makes us extremely emotionally vulnerable. In short, just because we're not actually going to be trampled doesn't mean it doesn't feel like we're going to be trampled.

"Yeah, yeah, great. Literal woolly mammoth, figurative wooly mammoth, survival instinct, autonomic responses, yada, yada. So how do we get rid of it?" Remember earlier how I said that was a trick question? And how I said all those pesky autonomic responses were actually there to help you? Here's the thing: that's just as true for "Singing and Dancing You" today as it was for "Cave You" thousands of years ago.

Here's the thing -- nervous energy is just that: a form of energy. If we learn how to use it, it can actually be an ally. You know those annoyingly heightened senses? They can help you hear each click of your dance partner's heels, so you know just when to make your next move. That extra muscle engagement that makes your legs shake? Imagine transferring it to your core to support your singing. That nagging voice in your head that screams, "Don't miss your entrance! You're gonna miss your entrance, aren't you?! You can train it to calmly but firmly remind you to count beats and watch the conductor. That adrenaline surge that makes you feel like you've had five too many Red Bulls? You can channel it into your most powerful and expressive performance ever. Well that all sounds great, Ali, but how do I do it?! Good question. Here goes:

For starters, mentally prepare for mishaps as part of every performance and they're a lot less likely to mess with you when they happen. How, you ask? First, envision something that might distract you, then envision yourself not flinching: "If my dance partner misses a step, I will keep the beat until it makes sense to get back into our routine." "If I forget a word, I'll hum and smile. Better yet, I'll always think one phrase ahead, so I'm less likely to forget!" Now this is great in theory -- you can imagine that you're most poised person on the planet, but when you're actually in the hot seat?

To begin with, know your material. Backwards. Practice like crazy, until you're belting out audition songs in your sleep, or your tap routine starts doing itself while you're in line at the supermarket. The better you prepare ahead of time, the less likely you are to be thrown when someone in the audience coughs, or your choir-mate comes in a beat too early.

Second, don't just practice your monologue or song or dance routine -- practice grabbing your spear. Practice using every breath to calm and focus yourself. Practice always thinking ahead to the next phrase or dance combination. Let your obnoxious kid brother throw things at you while you sing, and practice not flinching.

Finally, keep putting yourself out there, even when you're sure a woolly mammoth is waiting backstage to trample you the minute you start performing. If you're a singer, Karaoke is a great way to start. If you're not comfortable singing the first time you go, watch, and make plans to sing the next time. If you're a dancer or actor, ask friends to watch you perform your routine or your monologue. Then do it, even though you really don't want to. Once you've honed your singing or dancing or acting (or all three) to a high enough level, go to audition after audition after audition. The best way to learn how to channel nerves into something you can use is by making yourself do it. A lot.

The first time (okay the first fifty times) you put yourself out there, it will feel like you're going to die. But each time you do it will likely be a little bit easier, and easier still, and easier still, as you turn that utter fright into an energized, exhilarating performance. Pretty soon, you'll be surprised to find that walking on stage no longer feels like a walk to your doom. And before you know it, you might even catch yourself having fun. That's right, I said fun. Believe it or not, channeling that heart pumping, adrenaline rushing, thrill riding surge of energy into the performance of your lifetime is actually pretty darn exciting.

But it's not FAIR!!!!

(Or Why life in the arts sucks, and how to put on your big kid pants and cope)

I promise this article is not as harsh as the subtitle makes it sound. (seriously, I promise! It gets better by the end.) And no, people who voice their hurt by unfairness in the arts are not whiny babies. But here's the hard truth: the arts will never be fair. Let me say that again: The. Arts. Will. Never. Be. Fair. And we as singers, painters, dancers, and underwater basket weavers need to learn to live with that if we're going to survive.

WHAT???!!!! Ali, isn't that a totally defeatist and unhelpful thing to say? No, it's not. To be an artist of any kind, one must pursue their passion with open eyes. If we're going to put our whole selves into what we do, we need to prepare ourselves to be bruised, battered, broken, mangled and otherwise messed with. If we go into the arts unprepared for all the crud life is going to throw at us, we run the risk of letting that crud destroy us. Before I go further, let me clarify some things about unfairness in the arts. To me, there are different kinds of "unfair"...

One of the most obnoxious kinds takes the form of "isms": racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, lookism -- I could go on. More often than not, the leggy, size two blonde is going to get the part over the 5'3" size eight Latina who sings and dances circles around her because... life. When we can, it's really important that we call out these "isms". I've reposted a number of articles on the good ol' Facebook about how 55 year old male movie stars get cast with 22 year old female co-stars while most actresses start losing work around age 30. This kind of unfairness will never go away completely. But we can and must do our part to lessen it as much as possible.

The next kind of unfairness takes place on a more personal level. There will always be that high school drama teacher who gives the lead in the school play to the same person, Every. Single. Time., whether or not they're right for the part. There will always be that choir director that writes you off because you flubbed your first sight singing audition, even if you nail it the next five times you try out. There will always be that gallery owner who gives a full show to her mediocre nephew, while refusing to hang even one of your pieces. If you're blessed with stunning looks, there will always be those jerks who think that none of your successes have to do with talent or hard work. Always. Bad news: complaining about this kind of unfairness to anyone but your mother (who will totally understand) makes you sound like one of those bitter whiners accusing others of getting by on their good looks. Again, not fair, but... life.

The next kind of unfairness is perhaps the cruelest: it's logistically impossible for the arts to be fair. No, really -- think about it! Maybe the person who always gets the solos in dance class is actually the best dancer in the class, and happens to work her butt off. Is it fair that nobody else ever gets to do a solo, even if they dance really well too? No. Would it be fair to give those solos to less qualified dancers, just so "everyone gets a chance"? No. One of my students was recently told by a director that the only reason she didn't get the lead in a show was because she was 13, the male lead was 18, and the leads had to kiss in the second act. Was it fair that she missed out? Absolutely not. Would it have been fair to deny the male lead his part for a younger actor who wasn't as skilled? Absolutely not. See the problem here? Sometimes there's no such thing as fair. Let me say that again: Sometimes there's no such thing as fair. Sucks, huh?

This leads me to my next point: If you work really, really hard and sing or dance or sculpt or write really, really well, you deserve to achieve everything you dream of achieving. Really, you do! But perhaps the suckiest truth of all is that nobody owes you that success, even though you absolutely, totally, unequivocally deserve it. In fact, other than treating you with respect and judging you solely on your talent /whether you're a "fit" for the opportunity at hand, nobody owes you anything. Yup, I just said that. Let it sink in. Make it your mantra.

Gee, Ali, I thought you said this wasn't gonna be all doom and gloom! It's not, I promise -- just getting the hard truths out of the way. So what's the point, if it's never gonna be fair out there? The point is that you need to sing or dance or sculpt or write because it feels like the equivalent of breathing air. If you do it solely for financial success, or to get that conductor you admire to acknowledge your singing talent, it will suck your soul dry. If you base your opinion of yourself on whether you get that solo, or whether that one critic reviews your novel well, you're not letting another person steal your joy, you're handing it over to them. Considering they probably never wanted it anyway, why on earth would you do that?

Well fine, I'm supposed to do my thing for its own sake, and not care what other people think and yada, yada, yada... You make it sound so easy. Oh, no -- it's not remotely easy. Remember how I said that life in the arts will beat you up? It totally will. But if you find ways to cope, you might make it through with a few less bruises. So what are those ways?

You can start by creating solid personal "touchstones" to hold onto when life threatens to knock you down. I recently auditioned for something I really wanted to do, but didn't get chosen. How did I keep it from taking the wind out of my sails? Well first of all, I rocked the audition (I say this as someone who has tanked an audition or two). My vocal technique was solid, my pitch was good, I was dynamic and expressive, and for the part when I sang in Italian, my diction was excellent. So regardless of the decision made, I know I gave a performance to be proud of. Second of all, I had a blast singing! Letting myself get lost in my performance was one of the most fun and empowering things I've ever done. Nobody can take that from me. Finally, I found the part of me that equates singing with oxygen. If you sing because it's impossible not to, money and recognition suddenly seem less important. I didn't get the result I hoped for, but remember what I said about handing over your joy?

While you're getting your touchstones firmly in place, you can build a nurturing community in which to make your art. Here's the thing about nurturing: it feeds itself in the most wonderful ways. I sing in a fantastic women's chorus here in Sacramento. Part of what makes it so great is the bond members have formed with each other. If one of us sings an awesome solo, the rest of us are right there cheering her on. When I feel down about something, these fabulous ladies boost me up. When one of them gets a job promotion or has a baby, I share her joy. Seriously folks, create and soak up as much community and connection as you can -- build reserves of the warm fuzzy stuff, so you can draw from it and keep singing when things get tough.

Building community provides opportunities to practice grace and gratitude. Guess what: it's hard to congratulate a friend on getting the solo you wanted -- really, it stings like crazy. Guess what else: doing so will make you stronger -- remember what I said about community feeding itself? And what about gratitude? I, for one, have so very much to be grateful for when it comes to my passion for music: students and colleagues who inspire me; goofy choir mates who make me bust up laughing at every rehearsal; a chorus director who leads me and my singing sisters to musical heights we never thought we'd reach; instructors who have helped me become the singer and voice teacher I am today; a husband who will always be my biggest fan. But grace and gratitude aren't always easy. When things are really unfair, chances are the last thing you want to be is gracious. That's why it's something you practice, just like piano or Zen meditation. I promise it's worth it. The more you do it, the stronger you get!

Fostering grace and gratitude is a great way to develop a healthy perspective and get out of your own head. You know what? That snide remark a critic made about your painting is totally insignificant compared to your next door neighbor's cancer or your baby's first steps or that totally gushy birthday card from your one true love. When the hard stuff of being in the arts feels like a grand piano about to drop on your head, step back for Heaven's sake! Then look around. There's so much to see, and some of it's kind of beautiful.

Finally, KEEP CREATING!!!!!! I can't possibly emphasize this enough. When you find out you weren't cast in your favorite musical, drop everything if you can, and go sing something. When that magazine rejects your short story, drop everything and write another one. When the teacher's pet gets the dance solo for the fifty millionth time, close your bedroom door, blast the radio and dance your heart out -- as close to immediately as possible. It's the very moments when we want to go to bed and hide under the covers -- when we feel least like doing what we love, that we most need to do it. You are the only one who can keep you from singing or painting or dancing or underwater basket weaving. Please, don't hand over your joy...

Care Of Your Instrument

That's right, when you sing, you are a musical instrument, just like a piano or guitar, and any instrument needs to be properly taken care of in order to function well. A pianist hires a tuner when his instrument begins to lose pitch, right? A cellist always keeps her bow well rosined, and carries her instrument in a case when she travels. Your instrument is no different. Here are a few things to do (and not to do) to ensure that it performs well for years to come:
  • DO NOT SMOKE! If you've never smoked, don't even think about starting. If you do, STOP NOW! Smoke is seriously damaging to the throat and lungs, both of which are essential to singing.

  • Drink plenty of water – this may require more effort than one thinks, as the goal should be to avoid becoming thirsty. This is essential on days of rehearsals, lessons and performances, but important every day.

  • Consume caffeine, alcohol and salt in careful moderation. All of these substances tend to dry out one's throat.

  • Manage your stress level, through long walks, keeping a journal or whatever works for you. Keeping stress in check reduces muscle tension, improves awareness and control of one's breath, and makes it easier to concentrate when singing.

  • Get plenty of exercise. While this is not advised right before singing, getting your heart rate towards the high end for twenty minutes at least three times a week leads to increased energy, muscles kept loose by frequent use, and a stronger breathing mechanism.

  • Be careful, though, of activity that leads to tension in the back, arms, shoulders and neck. This can lead to labored, shallow breathing, improper larynx position, and a tight throat, causing pinched tone and eventual vocal damage. Stretching before and after a workout, massage and hot water/steam soaks can help to alleviate muscle tension caused by exercise, stress or other factors.

  • Get plenty of sleep. Expecting your instrument to perform well on little rest is like expecting a trumpet to play well without keeping the valves well oiled! Sleep deprivation can lead to swollen, dry vocal cords, low energy, decreased breath support, poor posture, and lack of attention to proper technique. Over time, any of these factors can cause vocal damage.

  • Sing music that you genuinely enjoy. You'll naturally have better breath support, and be more committed to using proper technique. Besides, it's more fun!