As someone who has been performing for decades both as an instrumentalist and a singer, I have had to cope with anxiety many times before and during a performance. I’d like to offer some tips that work for me:
Before a performance:
Be prepared. It goes without saying that you should be well prepared before any solo performance. Rehearse by yourself or with a vocal coach until you are very comfortable with the piece. You should have the piece memorized or nearly so. This will free you from unnecessary mental processing (finding notes, remembering lyrics) during the performance, and you’ll be able to more fully apply yourself to your vocal technique and artistic interpretation.
Rehearse in front of other people, particularly people you aren’t 100% comfortable singing in front of. The singing mechanism that you have when you’re full of adrenaline may be a very different mechanism than you have when you’re totally comfortable. You don’t want to be totally surprised by what adrenaline does to your voice, because this may distract you and negatively affect your ability to sing your best. Ways to practice with a little performance anxiety include: Know your weak spots. Is a particular note too low or too high for your comfort? Do you tend to run out of breath in a certain spot? Single those spots out for extra practice. Be honest with yourself: if it’s likely you’ll mess up a particular spot during your performance, rehearse it with a workaround, for example, by sneaking an extra breath, or by backing off or adding embellishment to a note that is likely to come out sounding strained. You don’t have to commit to performing it this way, but you’ll feel more comfortable having rehearsed some options.
- Singing for family members in your home.
- Singing for a long-distance friend via Skype.
- Asking for an extra run-through with your conductor, or accompanist/backing musicians. Sometimes it’s more nerve-wracking to sing in front of peers than for the audience, so you should have a few opportunities to work through the piece until your fear of peer disapproval dissipates a bit. (It will, with repetition.)
- If you can’t manage any of the above options, try opening your doors and windows while you sing through your solo at home – there’s a good chance that neighbors or passersby will be able to hear you, which can produce a little bit of performance anxiety for you to work with. Don’t overdo this – you don’t want to annoy your neighbors!
During a performance:
Use imagery to help mitigate your anxiety. One of the most effective images I like to conjure is that the audience is just a big group of friends at a Christmas party. Or you can try to imagine yourself as an Olympic athlete getting ready to compete. Try to emulate their attitude of being focused, in control, capable, and eager to get started, even if they aren’t exactly relaxed. Someone once suggested to me that I should invent an “undercover agent” character for myself, playing the part of a singer who has to get things right on stage or the bad guys win.
Allow mistakes to happen without giving them undue attention. Music isn’t frozen in time; rather, it travels through time, and your mistakes will quickly drift away into the ether and be replaced by other, more beautiful notes.
Allow yourself to feel nervous! There’s no point in trying to swallow your anxiety, and there’s no reason to feel ashamed by it. Nerves are normal. Rather than labeling nervousness as a negative feeling, try to let it flow through you without judging yourself. Once you remove the negative self-judgment, you may even find yourself being able to re-frame these feelings: what was “nervous” can be re-labeled as “excitement.” ls through time, and your mistakes will quickly drift away into the ether and be replaced by other, more beautiful notes.
Focus your attention on people in the audience who seem to be kind and accepting. Pick them out early, preferably before your solo begins. The people you choose to focus on may not be the people you know, because you may find yourself worrying about having to listen to them evaluate your performance after the show. There always seems to be a kindly-looking person in the audience with her head cocked to one side, who seems to be enjoying every minute. Let that one person be the critic inside your head while you’re singing, and forget the rest.
Don’t worry about being the best in the room, just don’t be the worst. If you’re singing with an ensemble, realize that somebody, somewhere in the ensemble is producing less-than-perfect music, and challenge yourself to at LEAST do better than THEM. If another musician messes up, challenge yourself to improve the quality of the show with your own singing. Let others’ mistakes give you a confidence boost now – you can feel guilty later. (I’m not proud of this technique, but it works for me.) If you think you’re actually the worst musician of the bunch, focus on an audience member, and realize that your worst day on stage is probably better than their best day singing in the shower.