Getting rid of fear as a performer: Challenging our sympathetic nervous system to behave differently.

You’re probably reading this because that internal voice is often telling you that you are “not good enough”, or that you will be “judged against other singers”. Maybe you are just scared of being scared. You know that when you sing, you freeze up and you are scared of the simple act of this happening!

I was inspired to write this article after watching another recent video of Janet Tabaka. I believe that the content of this video is extremely important for a performer of any level, particularly when dealing with fear.

Before we go on, here is the video:

Some of you may be a little perplexed by a few concepts: Why would we appreciate or even thank fear?

The video is very accurate about what fear does: “It’s job is to warn you not to walk alone in the dark.” Biologically, fear is a flight or fight reaction that animals need in order to avoid predators or hazardous conditions. When we have not made peace with fear, we see our audience, peers, family, teachers and audition panels as predators to our singing. It is entirely possible, however, to see the event as one where we are in a controlled ‘fight’ mode like a martial artist. Where we are alert, sharp, excited but somewhat calm and confident.

From our previous article: 7 Unique tips for overcoming performance anxiety, stage fright and nerves, we know that our autonomous nerve system has two modes: sympathetic and parasympathetic. You can think of parasympathetic being ‘paralyzed’ or ‘sluggish’ because you’ve just eaten, so your body is making you feel tired and lethargic so that the digestive system can take over. Sympathetic is when you are engaging with a high-alert activity and when your fight/flight mode can kick in. The muscles become tense, adrenaline rushes through the blood stream and we are highly alert.

We do not want to feel sluggish and lethargic when we sing… So we DO need to engage our sympathetic nervous system to a degree. And boy do we know it when that goes out of control! Our body springs into action. Our muscles feel stiff, our mouth starts to dry up and we want to escape our current situation.

So, how can we change how our sympathetic nervous system behaves so we can appear to be more like a martial artist rather than a cowering mess? Janet Tabaka’s original video already serves as the crux of what we must do: We must accept fear for what it is, appreciate what it does and treat it like the ‘back seat passenger’. By doing this, we acknowledge that fear is there and we heed its warnings where necessary, but we make the final choice as to how our sympathetic nervous system will function.

Are there any other ways to help work with fear? Here are some additional steps! One of them is heavily inspired by the original video, but consist of my own process that I use myself and with students:

  1. Stop thinking of fear as a ‘problem’ that you face alone.The first thing you should do is search for ‘celebrities on stage fright’. Here’s an example of Pavarotti on nerves:

Here’s one from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and her mid-career crisis:

Franco Corelli is also a singer known for severe performance anxiety. All the greatest singers have stage fright and performance anxiety. There is no true way around it.

  1. Speak to ‘fear’ 

Let’s go back to the original video from Janet Tabaka. She has an open dialogue with ‘fear’, thanking it for keeping her safe, but that she will go on with or without him. This open dialogue is something that you could mindfully have with yourself in the morning or in the evening before you go to bed.

Keep the dialogue ‘mindful’. This is a state where you are not judgemental about your inner dialogue, feelings or external surroundings, you are just aware of them. Speak to your body:

“Thank you for your consideration. You are always there for me when I am about to take a step into something I’m unsure about, like a warrior walking into uncharted territory. You keep my wits about me, and that is why other people respect me. You ensure that I maintain my integrity around other people. Sometimes, when you’re not there, I embarrass the heck out of myself – but that can be fun! It can be a learning experience.

When I sing, however, I ask you to become my strength, my energy and my stage presence. Ensure that I have my head screwed on, so I know my words, so I deliver the best performance of my life time. Keep my body and voice open as if to embrace and ‘bring on’ the audience. Thank you for always making me humble, so that I am constantly improving my art. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

This is the type of conversation I would have with fear. Think of fear as ‘other’ to you, as someone who gives you strength.

  1. Continue to improve your craft

Go and find a book of Salvador Marchesi’s exercizes or Mathilde Marchesi’s exercizes for Soprano and mezzo. (you can even get it on Amazon as you can see here!):


Do a lot of boring scales in highly comfortable ranges on the days that you do not have a lot of singing gigs coming up. Do not procrastinate doing these as they are your means to discovering poor habits without transferring those habits to songs.

  1. Choose easy songs and don’t worry about your ‘fach’

The greatest performances often come from singers who master a really simple song. Rather than pushing for a piece that you’d love to perform but do not have the mastery to perform yet, learn a whole lot of easy pieces that are comfortable in your voice. Choose songs that are ‘just challenging enough’ to help you improve your singing publicly. Stop worrying about choosing songs that sit right in your ideal fach, since one’s true fach does not emerge until the voice settles.

  1. Take up swimming, or exercize that gets you used to releasing your lungs

One of the most difficult things about nervousness and fear is that it affects your breathing. No matter how bad the fear is, it never affects my breathing. This is because I swim about 3-4 times a week and do yoga about 1-2 times a week at home. My body is SO USED to releasing my rib cage that I can do it even when I am petrified.

If you don’t know how to swim, start with a flutter board. No one cares at public swimming lanes how well you swim in the slow-moving lane! It doesn’t particularly matter how good you are at it, as long as you are always improving on yourself.

If you want, you could even visualise fear as a suave man wearing skeletal make up like in the video! There’s something very comforting to think that fear has a persona and that they are just warning you of things. Let the manifestation of your sympathetic nervous system be something that uses fear to stay alert, sharp and punctual, but work with yourself daily on reaching a state where, despite having any level of anxiety, you are prepared and confident in almost any scenario.

Happy singing!

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Credit: Calvin Peter photography

Michael

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