POSITIVE NERVES VS NEGATIVE NERVES

Several singers have asked that  the perennial topic of singers’ nerves be discussed in one of my blogs.  I am happy to do so  both as a performer and as a teacher.

Iit is safe to say that all performers have, do and always will deal various nervous reactions .  They “go with the territory”.  It is a fact that nerves are an indisputable part of performing, be it in audition, live performances, recordings, etc.   Rehearsal situations also can trigger the “nerves” button in us all.  The first rehearsal with a new conductor, new stage director, first rehearsal  in front  on the whole company – so many things.

President Roosevelt’s now famous words ”  We have nothing to fear but fear itself” should be every singer’s mantra. But it takes work to be able to do this successfully.

It is important to be able to recognize the difference between “positive ” nerves, which get our adrenalin up and running, or “negative ” nerves that cripple us psychologically, physically and, of course, emotionally.  Both types of nerves can be listed under one heading – “Performance Anxiety”.

The most prevalent type of performAnce anxiety , of course, is the negative type..  But the successful and, yes, comfortable performers,  manage to control them through various intellectually sound approaches.

There are tried and true truths  to “dealing with the obvious symptoms of the”bad” nerves such as heart palpitations, sweaty palms, dry throat, shaking legs, high breathing, shortness of breath, memory problems, etc.  They all lie,I believe, in the singer’s careful preparation.

The intelligent,  slow, solid preparation is multifaceted, especially for a singer, who must deal with words and music, interact with other characters, move easily and fluidly, create a believable character, etc.

A singer who devotes him or herself to preparation will slowly and meticulously address the following steps:  1)  A complete study of the music to be performed, not just the pitches, but the composer’s markings, the composer’s chosen rhythm and key .  Why did Mozart put a certain  aria in the key of ………. ?  These things are  in themselves a fascinating study and brings the singer into closer and closer context with the work.

2) Intimate knowledge of the text – in the language of the work…. not a loose, vague translation into our own language.  The wonderful collection of libretti  and translations  published by Nico Castel is an indisputable tool to help the singer know the syntax of the language, be it Italian, German, etc. followed by the way (the syntax) that phrase would be said in English.. He also, of course, uses the IPA symbols brilliantly.

A word of caution re IPA. Using it alone without knowing the text intimately, is only a tool to guide us but it is too often used as a short cut to truly relating to what the poet or librettist wrote. A singer who uses IPA exclusively in singing a foreign language ends up making sounds — sounds without real meaning.   That singer will remain “outside” the emotional power of the text and only makes  room for one to be a nervous performer.

3)  Learning to “Be” rather that to “Act” will put the singer into the very heart of the aria, the role, the song.  That entials the individual imagination of each performer — using one’s own life experiences, one’s knowledge of the plot, the period in which the opera takes place, etc.  This is the most fascinating and wonderful part of all.   There are no limits.  When one comes up with a definite “Point of View”  negative nerves on stage will not have room to get into one’s psyche.

3) Technical preparaton is, without question, at the top of the list.  It is often said that “one must put the technique on the back burner when performing” but we must have a technique to put on that back burner.

“Am I afraid of high notes — of course I am.  What sane man is not?” was the response Pavarotti gave in an interview.  Despite that honesty, he will always be remembered as “King of the High C’s”.  How did he conquer that fear?   Because he had a solid, clear image of what he needed to do in his mind before he actually executed a challenging phrase.   He had a flight plan and that prevented doubts and fear from taking over.  Knowing your instrument and how it works comes first, of course.  The mind will make a blue print of how to coordinate its parts, and all in the service of beautiful singing.   Technique will be a means through which he can go to the level demanded of a performer on stage. It is not and end in itseLf but allows us to express the music and text in a profound way.

Of course, there are simple and proven physical exercises to allow the body to release negative tensions prior to performance.  Breathing is, of course, one of them.  Leontyne Price writes that she would take long, slow, releasing breaths and then sigh them away (Yawn/Sigh) and she would do this 20 times the day of a performance and before going on stage.  Here are a few movements that are very helpful: marching in place; putting your hands against a wall with one foot behind the other and “leaning into the wall”; shoulder rolling (backwards only) or beginners’ easy T’ai Chi moves. These all help coordinate the body and calm the mind.

It is well documented that famous divas of the distant past would not even read a murder mystery the day of performance for fear that they would become agitated.  Makes sense.  In our world, of course, the successful singer does all kinds of stressful things around performance time and on a performance day such as interviews, contractual discussions, jet lag etc. etc.  The privacy the older singers knew no longer exists, of course.  Our time is filled with a million distractions a day. However the day of performance should be “free” of mental or physical stress. Going over the text, reading it aloud, sensible vocalizing of short duration are essential to your performance preparation.

When finally on stage the hours of preparation will put you at the ready to share with your public all that you know and feel about the work you will sing.   With this as your goal you will feel the often crippling symptoms of negative nerves disappear or diminish greatly. The fear of being accepted or not by the public will not be your mind set.The great coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova claims that she needs to feel the audience is not there. Thomas Hampson has a wonderful way of handling the “facing the public” anxiety — “Bring the audience into your world – do not go out to their’s looking for acceptance”.   It was the legendary soprano Licia Albanese who shared with me her way of handling this anxiety when she said “I learned early on that if I went out to ‘tell a story’ my fears about singing disappeared.” These mental concepts allow the performer to focus on conveying all he or she knows and feels about the song or aria through the voice and through their whole  being.

Summing up, negative nervous reactions to performing  can, as we see, be brought  under control by what we do long before we arrive  At the performance stage., which includes auditioning. Then  Postive nervous energy will be the fuel that makes us feel we are at the starting gate and we that just cannot wait for someone to open it so we can enter the stage with energy and exuberance and confidence.

Advertisements

THE SINGER’S FIVE “P’s

Several months ago I realized that some of the most important words used  as we become and remain   good singers, artists, musicians begin with the letter “P”.  From these I have latched onto 5 of what I consider to be among  the most important tools we can use  to develop our craft.

They are POISE, PERSEVERANCE,  PATIENCE, PREPARATION & POINT OF VIEW.

POISE:  This is a very descriptive word and has a good “feeling” about it.  The concept of Poise, in our context as singers,   is both physical and vocal .

The physical is, of course, the way we hold and use  our instrument which happens to be our body.  T’ai Chi, Yoga, Alexander Technique are all great ways to be conscious of our posture and the coordination of its parts.   As a recent devotee of T’ai Chi, I am amazed at the similarities it has to beautiful signing:  physical coordination, concentration  – long lined movements, lyricism, timing, etc.  It involves both the mind and the body.

Vocal poise is the earmark of belcanto singing, of course and it is heard in all of the great singers both past and present as they sing long legato lines,  smoothly blend all registers of the voice, have total control over vocal dynamics and are able to execute breathing-taking crescendi and dimuendi (messa di voce) . This too requires mental and physical coordination plus a great dash of musicality.  Just listen to the messa di voce of Giuseppe DiStefano of the 50’s and 60’s and the same vocal elegance of  one of today’s finest singers, tenor Matthew Polenzani.

PERSEVERENCE:  This  “P” is very, very important to develop.  The singer’s state of mind is the key.  For instance, in not winning a role, or a first prize it is so easy to wallow in a defeatist frame of mind.   A less-than-stellar audition or performance may have a singer very depressed and discouraged.  But would it not be more productive to patiently address what could make that audition or performance more beautiful and hopefully successful the next time round ?   Sometimes we learn more by a negative than a positive outcome.   Most successful singers have known disappointments but they have a firm belief in their abilities and long-term goals.   Only a calm sense of patience and faith in one’s potential will help a singer or any artist reach the bar they set for themselves.  That bar is yours – you develop it and you work towards it despite the setbacks or disappointments.  Instead of thinking of there being a “problem” think of there being a
“challenge”.

PATIENCE:

In today’s world,we  are so used to instant gratification – technology allows us to do amazing things in a flash.  We also are exposed to media shows that give a performer instantaneous exposure to millions of people, be they ready or not.  I call this “The American Idol Syndrome”.  Some of them go on to earning outrageous amounts of money.  Its philosophy is the opposite of patience in one’s craft and focuses on fame and fortune – not necessarily hard-won success.

So many of us become “impatient” at not being able to execute a vocal challenge instantly and just keep pounding away at it relentlessly. Rather than just stopping, taking a breather, going onto some other aspect of your vocalizing they become frustrated, discouraged and, of course, vocally exhausted.    It is amazing how vocal challenges end up solving themselves if we “take a breather” and come back to it later.

In a recent talk with Mr. Polenzani  on that very subject he considers his art a “work-in-progress  – as do so many, many other singers that we respect a great deal.  When asked in an interview  how it feels to “have made it” – he emphatically responded that he does not think of his career in that way.  Instead he is constantly growing as a singer, artist, actor, etc.    To listen to the interview between Joyce DiDonato (one of the great singing actresses today)  and Dame Janet Baker ( a living legend) is to hear how they carefully prepare their new roles.  It is done slowly, carefully and meticulously.

PREPARATION:  This “P” requires a much longer discussion, of course.   And I look forward to doing just that in an upcoming blog.  But suffice to say now that it is best to develop a system that works for you in learning a new piece.  Some singers say they first begin with the words, and others begin with the music.  Then there are those who do both at the same time.   But a successful singer does  his or her  homework and does it well.  This Preparation has to be painstakingly done – learning the meaning of each word, the syntax & punctuation of the language,  complete rythmic & pitch  accuracy, musical values, vocal command of the works’  demands, the background of the opera,  etc. etc.    Maria Callas called it “The Wedding Cake” approach – learning one layer at a time and putting the bride and groom at the top (words and music) only when all the layers have been carefully prepared.  

POINT OF VIEW:

Stephanie Blythe, in her wonderful Master Classes at Manhattan School of Music, uses this “P” as the premise for working with singers.

It is so easy to be “told” by a teacher, a coach, a conductor, a stage director, what to feel about a specific character.  This tends to diminish the singer’s own input.   The way to being able to handle  this is, of course, to already have a definite idea about what the character’s goal is in saying the words they say and why the composer set it in his or her way.   The imagination is the key to this skill and should not be hemmed in by the opinions of others exclusively.  Half the fun of learning a piece is getting to the inside of the “why, who, where”. Finding the goal a character might have in exclaiming the text is a wonderful challenge.  Using your own imagination will allow you to absorb and try what others suggest but you, at least, have a starting point.

I will welcome your ideas and thoughts on these 5 words — they will have specific meanings for each individual.

Joan