Alleviating Performance Anxiety through Preparation

Performance anxiety is a big problem among performers of all kinds and at all levels of experience. Finding ways of dealing with anxiety and turning nerves and adrenaline into positive forces in your performance are just as important as great technique. Whenever those butterflies in your stomach get out of hand, this article offers some dependable methods for working through your anxiety.

Facing the symptoms of performance anxiety

Knowing what you're afraid of is half the battle. After you pinpoint the source of your fear, you can take charge of it. The most common fears are

  • Voice cracking during the performance and not being able to hit the high note
  • Looking stupid in front of friends
  • Forgetting the words to the song
  • Fearing success or failure, rejection, or the unknown

You may find comforting the knowledge that thousands of other singers face the same icky anxiety you feel right before a performance. The symptoms include butterflies in your stomach, shaky knees, dry mouth (sometimes called cottonmouth), a sudden urge to cry or run away, trembling hands, a racing heart rate, nausea, runny nose, cold hands but sweaty underarms, and the urge to pee no matter how many times you visit the bathroom.

News Flash: Adrenaline isn't the enemy! In all honesty, you want a little adrenaline to boost your performance.

Assuming that you must be calm before a performance is the same as setting yourself up for huge pangs of anxiety when you don't turn out to be as cool as a cucumber. Expecting to be nervous and jittery, on the other hand, can enable you to sing through your anxiety. In fact, you can use the fight-or-flight excitement of adrenaline coursing through your body to enhance your performance. By reframing your thoughts about the performance, you change from fight-or-flight adrenaline to a rush of excitement to seize an opportunity.

Your symptoms are out in the open, and now you can talk about how to relieve your anxiety. Make a choice to change your thoughts about your performance. If you continually dread the symptoms that you know are going to arise, the following tactics won't work. So remind yourself that you're anxious because you fear something; the symptoms don't just randomly appear.

Practicing well to alleviate performance anxiety

The biggest key to alleviating anxiety is preparation. Preparation isn't the same as overpracticing or aiming for perfection. Overpracticing means that you practice so much that you lose sight of the joy of singing and only focus on singing perfectly. Aiming for perfection takes the joy out of singing because everything becomes a contest, if only with yourself.

The following pointers can help get you prepared and ready for performing.

  • Staying positive and motivated as you practice. Figure out a way to motivate yourself. What kind of reward do you need to get yourself to practice regularly? People who don't like being alone oftentimes don't like to practice. You must recognize that and then be even more disciplined to do your work. Your positive thinking during your practice sessions carries over into your performing.
  • Setting goals for each practice session. The first practice session goal may be to successfully sing the song through without words to find consistent breath flow. The second practice session goal may be to keep that same easy flow of breath as you sing the words. Trying to tackle too many things at once causes frustration.
  • Practicing at the level you intend to perform. That means you have to practice all the details of your song separately, and then gradually put them all together until you consistently create the sounds that you want to create in your performance.
  • Setting a deadline for memorizing the song. The melody and words of the song need to be in your long-term memory. When you attempt to memorize the song the night before the performance, you may be overwhelmed trying to deal with the excitement of performing and remembering the words at the same time.
    Have the song memorized at least one week before a performance. That gives you seven days to work on the song without looking at the music. If you're singing a group of songs, you may want to have them memorized earlier so you have time to work with the accompanist and work on your acting objectives as you use your singing technique.
  • Speed-reading through your text to help you remember the words. Forgetting the words of a song that you've memorized usually happens because your concentration momentarily slips. For example, you may start thinking about being happy that the high note sounded good and suddenly, as you're getting back to business, you realize you haven't any idea where you are in the song. Practicing your concentration and speed-reading through the text on a regular basis helps you put the text into your long-term memory and not just short term.

Playing to your strengths

Doing things that you know you're good at builds confidence and relieves anxiety. Setting yourself up for success by playing to your strengths makes even more sense when you're nervous about performing. Use the following tips to put yourself in a winning frame of mind:

  • Choosing pieces that enhance your strengths. Singing one song in a performance means that you have an opportunity to find a piece that really enables you to show your areas of expertise. When you need to choose ten minutes of music, the task naturally gets harder, but finding the appropriate material is part of the preparation.
  • Focusing on your strengths. Singing songs that require agility is a great goal when that is something you feel confident doing. If not, make the performance about your fabulous tone, breath control, or any other aspect that you feel confident sharing.

Managing your thoughts before a performance

Performers who don't experience performance anxiety may tell you to just get over it and stop being afraid. These people are adrenaline junkies. They love that rush of adrenaline that hits just before the performance. But trying to stop being afraid may only frustrate you. You have to deal with your anxiety, which is different than adrenaline. Anxiety adds a sickening sensation on top of the adrenaline. You don't want to stop the adrenaline, but rather eliminate the underlying fear that leads to anxiety about performing.

Anxiety brings negative thoughts into your head. Negative thoughts may try to convince you that you're going to forget the words even though you know the song cold. Just hearing so much busy talking inside your head can ruin your concentration and make you forget the words.

Sometimes you can use negative practice to find the extremes of your symptoms. Try making the symptoms worse the next time you practice. By visualizing or imagining a critical audience, you may experience some symptoms of anxiety. Notice what those symptoms are and how you feel about the audience. As you feel that sense of dread, sing through your music. Visualize yourself being able to complete your task regardless of how grumpy your imaginary audience looks.

Making a list of the negative thoughts that frequently pop into your mind is a way to manage your thoughts. By facing those thoughts you can recognize that they aren't helpful and can therefore switch to positive thoughts instead. Making a list of affirmations to counter your negative thoughts also can help you retrain your mind to focus on the positive. Affirmations include saying things such as: "My singing is improving each day. I am confident that my breath control gets better with each practice session."

Removing the audience as an anxiety-inducer

Your thoughts may turn to the audience whenever you become concerned about what they think of you and your singing.

You can't get rid of the audience; after all, an audience is a necessity for your performance. You can, however, pretend that the members of the audience aren't really in the audience — an option that works for some people. You don't have to sing directly to the audience or look them in the eyes. You can look over their heads and not have to worry about reading the expression on their faces when you look them right in the eyes.

Doing your job as you sing means that you must tell a story. Insecurity can lead you to believe that everyone is looking at you harshly. Reframing your thoughts so that you accept the audience and let go of the hostile image you may have of the audience can go a long way toward overcoming your doubts. You've probably heard this suggestion for overcoming stage fright: Imagine that all the people in the audience are sitting in their underwear. You can also remind yourself that the audience chose to attend your performance, and they want to hear you sing well.

Building performance focus

Have you ever been so focused on a task that you lost track of time or were startled when someone came up behind you? That's the kind of focus that you want as you sing. Focus totally on your task at hand, leaving the rest of the stuff for later. To help you practice concentrating, try

  • Staging some distractions. Practice in front of an audience of friends and ask them to randomly whisper, rustle paper, drop a book, or stand up and walk around while you're singing. The first few times you may lose your composure, but just laugh it off and keep trying until you can hold your concentration and ignore the distractions.
  • Practicing concentration. Set a timer for five minutes and practice focusing totally on your singing for those five minutes. Five minutes may seem like a short amount of time — until you have to fill it with only one task. You may find your mind wandering and thinking about something else after a few minutes. That's okay. Set the timer and try again.
    Working up to concentrating for the full five minutes may take a few days. You can also practice focusing and then intentionally letting your mind wander so you can tell the difference.
  • Leaving distractions at the door. That fight you had earlier in the day, the report that's due tomorrow, your upcoming vacation — any number of everyday concerns may occupy your mind. Create a ceremony that enables you to leave those distractions at the door.
    Put a basket outside your practice room door and mentally dump all your worries and frustrations into it before you enter the room. You can also write a to-do list before your session, so you know exactly what you need to think about right after you practice. Acknowledge that you still have to resolve those issues in your mind and then move to the current task at hand.
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