In the second part of this two part series, we explore a simple trick to overcome performance nerves.
Managing your focus: a brain hack for the stress response
Have you ever wondered what it is that you should be thinking about during singing performances? You may have experienced that out of control feeling before or during a performance, complete with sweaty palms, whirring thoughts, worries, pressures, trying to remember your lyrics, steady your voice, appear confident and keep it together (plus likely much more). How do you manage these thoughts and reactions?
Singing and sports performance can be compared to each other, in that they both require a complex action to be made in the heat of the moment. A winning shot, or a killer high note, done with conviction, ease and flow. While this can1 for the audience in these moments! However, this is also the thing that can create a lot of anxiety for the performer…
What actually happens when these nerves get in the way and stop you from nailing your performance? When you suffer from nerves, your brain is left juggling so much in the moment, that it simply can’t focus on everything at once. Think about it: not only do you need the brain power required to complete the task at hand (fine motor control, coordination, learned skill), your brain is suddenly asked to deal with huge spikes of adrenaline and lots of other physiological responses (dilated pupils, fast breathing, increased blood flow, glucose production and more) created by the fight or flight response.
(In fight or flight, the sympathetic nervous system turns on, which makes you respond as if you are in severe threat or danger. An excellent resource on this can be found here:
In this moment, your brain becomes swamped with urgent requests and simply cannot execute it all. So of course, it drops some of the juggling balls. And the ball that is going to get dropped everytime is one that is least pressing: usually how to complete the task. In other words, your mind loses its FOCUS in times of stress.
Managing focus can perhaps then, be thought of like a brilliant HACK to override performance nerves.
If you can keep a clear focus and not enter that out of control, out of your depth state that the fight or flight response brings, then you won’t drop your juggling balls and you will be much more likely to nail your singing performance.
So, how do you keep your focus during performances?
The answer is definitely NOT to focus on how to do the skill. In fact, there was an excellent study done on golfers by Dr Gaby Wulf. She looked at the performance of golfers based on what it was they focussed on during performances. The simple question from the study was this: How is motor performance affected when your thoughts are focused on the movements you are trying to make?
The study found that the golfers who focussed externally (such as on feeling the ball “fly” from their swing, or the outward trajectory of the ball, for ex.) performed significantly better than those who focussed on their internal actions (fine motor control of wrist during the swing, for ex.)
Check out the cartoon which demonstrates this perfectly. And can’t we just relate to this as singers? The voice is an incredibly complex instrument, inside the body. It’s not like a tennis swing, where we can physically see the movement adjustments we need to make.
Difficult singing can require a lot of awareness and micro adjustments, just like the cartoon shows. So it makes sense that focussing on these types of actions in the heat of the moment of performance, where the brain is busy juggling other things, simply could not work.
Here is how you can make the hack of focus work for you:
CHANGE UP YOUR FOCUS during practices vs. performances.
For example: You may very well be learning about the anatomy of the voice, your technique, resonance, registration, phrasing, vowel shapes, bringing out the alliteration in your lyrics, and all the other fine motor skills necessary to become a good singer in your training and rehearsal space. But then when it comes to performances, give yourself permission to LEAVE ALL OF THIS BEHIND. You can trust that everything you’ve thought about and learned will be stored in your cognition from the practices you’ve done.
In performance, you can choose a different focus. This might be something physical, such as picking a spot on the wall behind you and “throwing your voice against it”, or it could be a feeling (Chaka Khan said her high notes felt ‘purple’ to her). Here’s the thing: No one can set your performance focus for you – it is best created by you, as only you know exactly what it feels like in your mind during those times when you nail your singing.
But just like the golfers, the idea is that for any kind of performance, you want to come out of your busy mind, drop the pressure to remember how to do it, and focus externally.
Practice is the magic sauce to make this hack work for you!
Remember: this brain hack of overriding your performance nerves with your focal points won’t work if you don’t feel rehearsed enough. That’s because if you haven’t practiced enough, 1. The skill you need to carry out won’t be automatic, and 2. You will feel under confident and not ready, turning on your flight or fight response and causing your brain to juggle all of these thoughts again.