Singing when your body is tight with anxiety
I gave a masterclass for the vocal department at one of the main British conservatoires a few years ago and for some reason, the experience of one particular singer has been playing over and over in my head during the last few days. She was a soprano and she was petrified of singing in front of large numbers of the vocal department who were in the hall watching her. Her whole body was rigid and it was a miracle (and testament to a pretty solid technique) that she could sing at all. How sad that this should be the case and what does it say about the emotional and psychological side of the conservatoire experience?
Finding emotional safety
It became clear very quickly that she was terrified of the judgment of her peers, a very common factor in people’s experience of nerves, so the challenge was to help her to feel emotionally safe on stage. How though? I noticed that she was somehow making herself very small on stage, a form of protection, and setting the example myself so she wouldn’t feel self-conscious, I asked her to stand with her arms straight out to the side of her. This was surprisingly difficult for her, and her arms shook. We both did this for about a minute by which time she was feeling more comfortable. But it wasn’t enough.
Next, I asked her where on the stage she would like to sing, since she was so obviously feeling horrible singing directly to the audience. She told me she would like to sing standing behind the piano and with her back to the audience. Over the process of five or six attempts of the aria, she managed to inch her way back, each time feeling a little more comfortable until eventually she was able to stand comfortably and confidently in front of the audience and sing directly to them. She was starting to own the stage and was ecstatic about what she’d achieved: her body freed up, her sound was much improved and she had wonderful acknowledgment from her peers. Sometimes when we are paralysed with anxiety, we have to go slow and inch our way back to a sense of emotional security again.