“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright

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Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.

 

* Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039c5f6/Afternoon_on_3_Proms_2013_Repeats_PSM_5_Camerata_Nordica/#programme-info, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thought – performance mismatch: How to actually do what you think you are doing

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Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?

It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.

As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.

I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because  when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.

And what do I most often see?

They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

They are not opening their mouths to sing.

They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.

In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.

Open jaw: 

  • small number of muscles used
  • relationship of head to body is left alone
  • breathing mechanisms left free to do their job

 Open head:

  • muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
  • muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
  • relationship of head to body altered for the worse
  • combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms

If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?

According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.

So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.

When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.

Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?

 

The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!

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I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dodging the perfection trap

How good are your worst days?

I fell to thinking about this after experiencing a crummy day. The low part of the day occurred when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up for his cello lesson; only then did I realise that I’d left the cello on the other side of town, and that there was no way of going back to get it in the time available. And the teacher wasn’t answering her phone. Oops.

Some of my students have been having crummy days too. Sadly, theirs have been a little more serious than mine. External circumstances have knocked them sideways. One, for example, had to deal with a minor crisis that entailed both emotional upset and a degree of hard physical work that would ordinarily have caused significant back pain.

When this student came for her lesson, she told me how bad her week had been, and about how difficult it had been to keep thinking ‘Alexander’ thoughts in the midst of all the upheaval. So I asked her about how she’d handled the incident. My student then explained about all the planning she’d done so that her life was disrupted as little as possible, and that she’d done all the physical work. And, she said, oddly, she wasn’t as tired or sore as she’d anticipated.

“So did you use Alexander thinking to help you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she replied.
“And did it help?”
“Well. Yes. But I couldn’t keep it up all the time.”
“Ah,” I said. “But isn’t that a very high standard to set when you’re in a crisis?”

From where I was sitting, my student had achieved significant success. She’d experienced the crisis but hadn’t reacted in her usual (old, habitual) way either to the emotional stimuli or the physical work that came afterwards. She had taken care of herself wonderfully. In my eyes, she had done brilliantly. In her own eyes, however, she hadn’t done as well as she had been pre-crisis, and was therefore a failure.

 There’s such a temptation to judge our progress and our success using our good days.  Musicians are brilliant at this. ‘I could play that obscenely difficult semi-quaver run on Monday, so that’s now my minimum standard for success. If I don’t get that run right, I’m a failure.’ That’s the sort of thinking I used to indulge in on a fairly regular basis.

Sportspeople do it too. Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a classic example. At his best, he plays the game at a standard that is truly near perfection. Indeed, Ronnie strives for and expects perfection. So when he has an off day and plays only excellently, he often gives post-match interviews where he expresses great dissatisfaction with his ‘poor’ play.

Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself… Sometimes people get excited about shots I play, breaks I make, and I think it was terrible. I’m my own worst critic.”*

Perfection is a tough standard to set for yourself. It is, pretty much by definition, unachievable. If we try to judge our progress by our good days, we are falling into a less extreme version of the trap of expecting perfection. If we take this path, we are more likely to discount our successes and, like my student, judge our efforts (and ourselves) as failures.

When life throws you something difficult to handle, it’s going to be harder than normal to keep your head and keep thinking constructively. That’s why we spend time in Alexander Technique lessons practising thinking constructively around simple activities like walking, or sweeping, or raising an arm (I once had a lesson about lifting a teacup). By working on activities like these, we are creating the building blocks that can lead to success in activities and situations that are a bit more complex.**

What would happen if we gauged our progress by how well we get through our crummy days? Is your worst day less worse than before? Then rejoice! For if we all rejoiced a little more, wouldn’t that do a lot to change our view of ourselves and our world?

 

*Quotes from an interview with Brian Viner, The independent, 7 January 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/ronnie-osullivan-i-still-let-my-demons-get-the-better-of-me-1859989.html

** cf. FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat collected edition, pp.588-589.