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.