How to train your body's responses to performance stimulus
You're backstage. You're well-rehearsed. You know your music and your moves, you've dug into the story, and you're ready to perform. What happens next depends on your autonomic nervous system (ANS). Your senses are continually gathering information to ensure your survival, and the ANS interprets that information and decides which response is most likely to keep you alive.
HOW YOUR BODY INTERPRETS STIMULUS
Let's look at the stimuli of performance: stage, lights, audience paying attention to you, the expectation of a fairly narrow set of behaviors, the pressure of remembering words and notes and choreography, the possibility or expectation of judgment ... and oh, please be creative and emotionally present!
The ANS will receive all that sensory input and might interpret it one of two ways:
Response 1: "This is so fun!"
If it responds this way, you'll be able to stay present in the moment, take in the surroundings, respond creatively, and enjoy the excitement. You'll be able to breathe and vocalize and move because you'll be in the nervous system state known as “social engagement.”
Response 2: "I'm going to die!"
If it responds this way, you'll have a much different experience. You might go into a fight-or-flight pattern, which features the following physiological changes:
• elevated heart rate
• shallow, fast breathing
• tight jaw
• wide eyes
• shaky legs or arms
• blood flow away from viscera (butterflies/upset stomach)
• hearing changes that de-emphasize vocal frequencies
Or, if you happen to have a more sensitive ANS (possibly due to PTSD or trauma), your body might go into a freeze response instead, which features this physiology:
• decreased heart rate
• shallow, slow breathing
• slack facial muscles
• blurry or tunnel vision
• numbness or heaviness in limbs
• difficulty moving
• hearing goes "offline"
If the body goes into either fight-or-flight or freeze, it can be very difficult to perform well. So what do we do?
TIPS FOR PERFORMERS
Notice and release.
Noticing your body state is a good start; awareness and curiosity help keep you out of fight-or-flight and freeze. If you instead notice yourself experiencing the physiology listed above, use your muscles to help release the burst of energy in your body. Jump, kick, run on the spot, do push-ups or recruit a buddy to push against. Singing helps too, because it elongates the exhalations, thereby activating the parasympathetic (calming down) nervous system.
Support each other.
If you are experiencing freeze physiology, you'll need comfort and safety; the presence of a supportive friend can be valuable. If you notice someone else in a freeze pattern, offer them the following exercise used by anxiety sufferers: notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
Tips for Directors/Leaders
Make performer emotional safety a top priority.
Give your singers a lot of low-intensity opportunities to be seen and heard. Consider “titration”: Expose performers to minimal stimulus to help them experience managing it, then slowly increase the amount.
Here's an exercise to build the resilience of singers whose nervous systems are more sensitive:
• Have them stand in front of the group as though they were going to sing, and notice their body's response.
• Have them stand in front of the group and sing one note or phrase, and notice their body's response.
• Have them sing a longer section in front of the group, and notice their body's response.
• It's important to celebrate the body's response even if it's uncomfortable, recognizing that the ANS is working toward your survival.
Build performer resilience.
Ideally, performers can build enough resilience in their autonomic nervous systems to spend most of their time onstage experiencing the "this is fun!" response. In that case, the "social engagement" part of the nervous system is activated, and the physiology looks like this:
• normal or slightly elevated heart rate
• full, easy breathing available
• relaxed, flexible face capable of a wide variety of expressions
• eye contact is comfortable
• limbs are available for movement
• physical sensations and emotions are available
• hearing is tuned to vocal frequencies
Clearly, the “social engagement” pattern is the one we want to experience onstage; we can breathe, feel, be in contact with one another, express ourselves, and engage our creativity. Recognizing that the autonomic nervous system controls our physiology, it benefits all of us to understand how it functions, and how it can either help or hinder us in performance. Let's build a culture of safety so we can enjoy the benefits of our collective efforts: enjoyment, accomplishment and genuine human connectedness.
Bonus Tip: Anxious? Hack your vagus nerve!
Inhale normally, exhale on a long, low "voo" sound. This stimulates the vagus nerve in the gut, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Repeat a few times before singing and notice the calming effect.
For more tips on managing stage fright and other resources on anxiety, visit adaa.org.
about the author
Donya Metzger is an associate teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, (almost) a somatic experiencing practitioner, has a voice studio, writes original vocal music, makes learning tracks, and works with singing ensembles worldwide.
This article was originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of The Harmonizer.