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Episode 4: Me and Performance Anxiety

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Me and Performance Anxiety

As I see it, performance anxiety is a fact of life – as long as we care about what we’re communicating, we can expect to feel anxious about it sometimes.

The challenge is to manage the anxiety. That starts with listening to it, and treating ourselves kindly.

Visit http://mvmusik.com/fpa to download the meditation mentioned in this episode.

You can subscribe to Can’t Wait to Hear You wherever you get podcasts.  If you have a question about your voice or how you’re using it, please email letters@mvmusik.com. 

Our music is thanks to Katya and Ada.
The show is edited by K.O. Myers at Particulate Media.

TRANSCRIPT

Your voice is unique to you. It grows as you grow. It changes as you change. If you’re curious about the relationship between your voice and your body, your heart and your mind, welcome. My name is Michèle Voillequé and I can’t wait to hear you. 

Performance anxiety is a part of my life, and maybe it’s a part of your life, too. What I mean by performance anxiety is feeling nervous before it’s time for me to do something I think is important. So before I sing, before I give a speech or a talk, sometimes even before I meet a new student for the first time. 

And even before I have an awkward conversation with a loved one, there’s nervousness. There are a bunch of body sensations that I don’t like very much. And what I’ve found is that it’s it’s vital for me to pay attention to those feelings, those physical sensations, and to make room for them, to make friends with them, to accommodate them.

Because if I don’t, if I just press on and ignore them, they inevitably derail me. Or if not derail me, they get in the way of the best possible tone, the best possible sound, maybe even the best possible thoughts.

Earlier this year, I had, an amazing experience of managing my performance anxiety brilliantly, and I want to share that with you, because it’s, it’s so great when things work. So hopefully you can learn from what I’ve learned, and I’ll start with how I knew what I had been doing to prepare myself was working.

In May of 2023, I gave a recital in my hometown of Idaho Falls, Idaho – my first public recital there. I had given lots of house concerts before, but this was my first recital in a public space. So it felt like a really big deal for me, and it was a wonderful opportunity. 

I was singing in the Idaho Falls Arts Council in one of their galleries which seats about 150 people, and we had sold about 120 tickets, maybe? So it was a cozy space, but also a comfortably full space. It felt really good. 

One of the things that I do before performances, if I can, is I meet people in advance of the performance. So I need to spend the day of a performance, or I prefer to spend the day of a performance by myself – going for a walk, eating good food, being lazy, collecting myself, you know, just getting all the things together. I don’t want to have to worry about anybody else. I just want to deal with myself. 

But then when it’s like 20, 25 minutes before showtime, it’s really helpful for me to go out and, greet the audience and say “Hello,” and “Thank you for coming,” and “I’m so happy to see you,” and “What’s new with you?”

Just little small talk. It helps remind me that I’m, that I’m a person, that I’m on the earth with other people who have lives and stories and, that I’m connected to them. And it just does, it really helps calm my nervous system to meet people ahead of a show. 

I know that isn’t true for everybody. And I’m not trying to say that’s the best way to do it, just that’s how I do it. 

At this particular performance, it was really important to me that I do that, because my father and his wife were going to be attending. They were coming from out of town to hear me sing for the first time, you know, in a long, long time. 

And I hadn’t seen them yet. I hadn’t seen my father in two years and his wife for even longer than that. And I knew that if I didn’t give them a hug before I went on stage, I would probably lose it. So it was even more important to be out mingling in the lobby looking, “Dad, where are you? Hello? Are you going to make it?”

And one of the first people I saw as I was, you know, making my rounds through the lobby was my very first voice teacher. And I went up to her and I said, “I am so happy to see you. Thank you so much for coming.” And she said, “I was your first voice teacher. Do you remember?”

And I said, “Of course, I remember.” 

And she said, “Have you improved?” 

And I didn’t know what to say. I thought, “That was really snarky, and that snarky is kind of familiar, but that really sounded like something you would say.” I don’t remember what I said in response. I can imagine that I said something like, “Well, you know, you’ll let me know at the end of the night,” or “I hope so,” or something like that. I don’t know. 

I didn’t spend very much longer in that conversation, but how I know that my performance anxiety routine – calling it a routine is calling it is giving it too big of a thing – but like how I knew that everything I’d done to prepare myself for this recital had quote unquote, “worked” in terms of managing my psyche and my emotional well-being and my self confidence… How I knew that what I’ve been doing works is because that comment, “Have you improved?” didn’t rattle me at all. It just bounced right off. 

I heard those words, and I thought, “That’s snarky. That sounds just like you. Here we are. Here’s my first voice teacher sounding just like her. Wow! The world hasn’t changed much, has it?” And I kind of thought,“Now I remember why I didn’t study with you for very long.”

So, I was telling this story to another performer. I told him that I, you know, go out and greet the audience ahead of a performance and he says, “Oh, I never do that. I have bandmates who love doing that. I never do that. I just, I keep me to myself. I don’t want to see anybody before it’s time to go on, and that’s exactly why. Because I don’t want to hear, ‘Have you improved?’ Or I don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, I really hope you play this thing.’ Or somebody starts telling me some big complicated story that I don’t have the bandwidth for at the moment.” He said, “I just, I don’t even want to entertain the possibility of that, so I don’t go out.” And I totally understand that. 

So how is it that the question, “Have you improved?” – how did that not rattle me? That’s what the rest of this episode is about. 

I did get to hug my dad before I went on. He, they got there almost at the very last minute. So I got to greet lots of people before I greeted them. And, it was great. It was great to see them and to sing for them.

So me and my performance anxiety. What’s true for me is that the more prepared I feel, uh, the less anxiety I have. And, what does prepared mean? 

When it, when it’s singing, prepared means knowing the music, and more than just knowing the notes. To me, it means I have written all of the words down. I have committed them to memory in kind of a poem-reciting/story format so that I can talk my way through my – I can pronounce my way through my recital without any music, and feel the storyline in it.

Of course it means knowing the notes and when to come in and when not to. Uh, at this particular recital I had a binder that had little cheat sheets in it for me to look at because it was a lot of material and you know, it’s not a master’s recital. this is among friends. And it was a lot of music. It was, the program was 75 minutes without an intermission. So it was quite a lot of material. 

But, okay, knowing the words, knowing the music, understanding the accompaniment, feeling really at home with the pieces. And this is possible because I gave myself opportunities to do those pieces before this recital.

So the month before the recital in May, in April, I gave the exact same recital, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, in front of an audience, a smaller audience, in a familiar room, in a room that I sing in a lot, with a piano that I’m really familiar with, used to hearing. 

I had an accompanist, but still, like the, what the piano sounds like, it matters to me. I notice the difference. So I gave myself a quote unquote “dry run for Idaho,” but of course it was a real performance here in the Bay Area, but it was also a dry run for Idaho. 

And I got to see… with a different audience, did my concept work? Did my idea for the, for the evening, for the, all of these pieces, did they all make sense? Did people enjoy hearing them in the order that I presented them? You know, and were they good? Did it work? 

So I had proof of concept before I got to Idaho, and so standing there in front of my voice teacher, I felt in my bones, “What I have to present tonight is good. It’s not just good. I think it’s really great. And I love it. I’m so proud of myself. I’m proud of the composers whose work I’m presenting. I think that this is just gonna be an amazing collaboration. I love my accompanist. We work really well together.” 

I’m going into the performance just having a love fest about it, like I don’t have any doubt that what I’m about to do is worthy. And if you don’t like it, if somebody doesn’t like it, that’s okay. It’s not for them. Not everything is for everybody. But I know that what I’m doing is meaningful to me and it’s going to reach somebody. 

And it helped that I had proof that it had already reached a couple dozen somebodies before I got there. And then even before that April recital, the April Dry Run, we can call it. I did a section of the program in February as part of a fundraising event. 

And the section of the program that I did was probably the most emotionally difficult section to do. It’s a moving poem followed by a deeply emotional song that I had spent, I don’t know, five years learning how to sing without crying.

Like really, a tour de force, you might say. So in February, I performed that song for the second or third time in public without crying. So again, even before that February performance, I had tried out that really difficult thing a couple of other times in front of an audience to see if I could do it. 

So those, you could call them little baby steps, right, doing little bits of the program ahead of time, and in some cases long ahead of time – there were pieces on this program that I’ve been working on or that I had sung, clearly before the pandemic, you know, in public. So a lot of the program was so well known to me, it was almost like you could wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to sing it and I could do it.

And that just feels so comfortable to me. And similarly about speaking, reading a poem in public, those have gone the best when, it’s not that I’ve memorized my words, but I have pronounced those words or said those ideas out loud enough times that I just know I know what’s going to come next. 

Even if I’m going to be reading from notes, or if I’m reading a poem but I’m, you know, reading it off of a piece of paper, I’m not reciting it, I just feel like I’ve, I’ve set my little choo-choo train on a track and I’ve given it a push and it’s just going to go, it’s going to stay on the track. Because I’ve laid that track down. I’ve practiced and practiced and practiced. 

Or another way to think about it, I’ve iterated and iterated and iterated. I’ve written the thing, I’ve said the thing, I’ve rewritten the thing, I’ve said the thing a different way. I’ve just given myself lots of attempts to get at what I mean.

And that just feels so solid – when the words and the music or the words or the music feel like they’re almost a part of my body now – that just feels so comfortable. 

So addition to giving myself lots of attempts, there’s also noticing and tabulating all of the small wins in those smaller attempts. So not writing something off because it was “just” one song on a fundraising program, or it was “just” a studio recital where I was singing for some of my teacher’s, other students, right? Low stress, right? “It’s just other students. It doesn’t really count.” 

No, it absolutely counts. And remembering that those, those were wins. and those wins happened and how I felt in those successful attempts, even if they didn’t go exactly the way I wanted to. 

So a successful attempt in my book, is an attempt that you complete. And then you can reflect on, “did it go exactly the way that I wanted it to?” But the first thing is, did I do it at all? Doing a thing and reflecting kindly on a thing and making a note for future attempts of what you might, what you want to keep and what you want to try differently, that’s the path.

So success, a successful attempt is having tried it at all.

I think that’s not the common definition. I would love to change that about our world.

I mentioned some other things about the day, the day of performance: getting good sleep, getting to have a walk, getting good food, getting to knit, if that’s what’s going to calm my nerves or distract me for a little bit of time. Another thing about the performance day, and this is true for singing or speaking, is getting to warm up in the performance space.

In the case of Idaho, my accompanist and I were able to travel there a couple of days ahead of time, so we were able to warm up in the space and get, uh, get used to the space, have a sound check even. Was the sound check a day before? I don’t remember. It might have been the day of.

And then going in early in the afternoon, the day of the performance, and getting to sing in the space again, getting to play the piano again. And so with those two experiences in this space, it just, you know, separated by a sleep, my brain, my body gets to, it becomes more familiar.

When you just arrive at a place and then you have to perform and you’ve had you’ve never been there before and you don’t know what the room sounds like and you don’t know where the bathroom is and you don’t know all of the – that’s incredibly stressful. But being able for me this time, being able to go the day before, knowing where everything is, getting to say “hi” to people who work in the office, feeling the room in that kind of light in the afternoon, which will be different from the evening, but it’s just a different experience of the space. It’s a different memory. 

And then coming back the next day at more or less the same time of day, like same people in the office. I’m here, the room, you know, similar light, oh, they’ve decorated, oh, now it’s a sound check. You parcel out all of the new and different that your brain has to make sense of. Because again, new and different for your brain is often a threat. 

It’s scary enough to be standing up and doing something, you know, on your own, singing, speaking, whatever, offering up an idea, right? That alone is scary. But then when there, there’s all of this other, new stuff, like the sound of the room, the look of the room.

I think I’ve gone on about that enough. 

Our brain often registers things that are new and unfamiliar as threatening, and that doesn’t help your performance anxiety at all. So finding ways to make yourself familiar with the space that you’re going to be performing in – it’s worth your time.

Something else that helps me a lot with performing, performance anxiety, with life in general, is breathing, just breathing. And you’ve been breathing as you’ve been listening to me, and I’ve been breathing as I’ve been talking, and taking time to notice my breath when I start to feel nervous, or a little funky, or a little off.

For me, performance anxiety doesn’t even immediately register as nerves. It’s just, it can be just like a strange feeling in my body. A lot of the time that’s a tightness in my chest. Sometimes it’s a, it’s not a tightness in my stomach. I can’t even really tell you. It’s not, it’s not something that’s happening in my chest. It’s happening in my trunk. And it’s just a little funky. And I feel that funky. And I know, oh, something’s awry. Some part of me is scared of something. And what I do then is, I notice that I’m breathing. And I notice my next three breaths. And I don’t ask my breathing to change.

But I do notice, often, that when I start to notice my breathing, my breathing does change. So, for me, that’s step one, when I have an uncomfortable physical sensation. I just stop, and I notice my breath, and I notice that sensation along with my breath. 

And then often what I’ll do is take a scratch piece of paper and draw a stick figure of myself. And, some of you, if you want to try this yourself, maybe you like a stick figure, maybe you prefer the gingerbread person version of yourself. I’ve sometimes done that too, but when I try to draw myself as a gingerbread person, I I look way more, uh, avant garde than I care to. So I’ll draw a stick figure of myself, and I will draw on that stick figure where I’m feeling funky in my body.

And I’ll just, you know, make a little external map of all the places I’m feeling funky. Again, breathing, noticing that I’m breathing. And I’ll just spend a minute looking at the map. And sometimes, that alone is enough for the sensations to soften and resolve.

One of the things I notice when I’m looking at the map, though, is all of the places that are not funky. There are the funky places with X’s or little scritchy-scratchy marks. But then there’s the rest of me that’s fine. And I’ll hold both of those ideas in my mind. This part’s feeling funky, say, my chest is feeling a little constricted, and my legs are great.

My trunk is feeling a little nervous, somehow, and my elbows are cool. They have no problem. The more I can understand that it’s a part of me that is feeling funky, and not all of me, that really helps to contain the anxiety, the nervousness. And then, for part three for me, to begin a conversation. “Oh, chest, you’re feeling kind of tight. What is up with that? What can you tell me?” And sometimes I’ll get an answer right away.

And sometimes I won’t. And that’s when I need to approach myself like a very small child. Like when small children are upset and they can’t even talk, they’re so upset, and you just kind of, you have to make gentle suggestions. “Did you want to play with the ball? And they’re, you feel like they’re hogging it over there?”

Or, “Did you think it was your turn for the swing? Oh, of course. Okay. Well, I hear you. Yeah, you thought it was your turn for the swing.”

Making suggestions, and usually then an answer comes, like, what’s this tightness in my chest about. And then, yeah, if there’s more than one body part more than one body sensation I’m not happy with, I’ll interview that one too and make notes or not.

Sometimes it really helps to write things down and sometimes I don’t need to. And usually by the end of this process, the breathing, the making a map, the asking kind, gentle questions, usually by then I feel calmer and based on what the answers were to “why am I feeling anxious right now?” That can often give me a list or information of things that I can change.

Oh, I’m feeling this nervousness is about that piece of music. I’m worried that I’m going to sing this part wrong. So, what I can do is pick myself up, go get that piece of music and rehearse it. Go over it, you know? Or, this nervousness is about, I can’t remember what time we’re supposed to meet. Did we say we were going to be there at 5:30 or 5:45 and how am I going to get dinner? 

Again, it’s a solvable problem. And that might have been a question that was spinning around in my brain. Well, actually, it probably was a question that was spinning around in my brain, not getting my attention. And now my body feels icky. And so now I can pay attention and find out, oh yeah, that’s, that’s something that I really need to solve. Okay, we can’t wait anymore for that answer. We need to figure this out now. 

And so that, that compassionate listening and um, intelligent problem solving, that’s really at the heart of managing my performance anxiety. 

The last thing I want to tell you about, about how I manage my performance anxiety, well, the last thing today – I’m sure there are things I’ve forgotten and they’ll come back in another episode – but the other thing that’s true that worked for me in Idaho was I took special stuff with me. I took my pair of rubber ducky socks that my voice teacher had given me for Christmas because they are magic. 

When I have on rubber ducky, my, those rubber ducky socks, I feel like I’m a put-together person. Which you may think is really funny because they don’t go with very much. But I feel strong and good wearing them. I also took a scarf that I had been given by a dear friend, because it was May, but it could still be cold. And I wanted to have, again, that warmth and love and representation of that warmth and love with me on this adventure. 

Some people I know have magic underwear, some people travel with a favorite stuffed animal, or, uh, their favorite pencil. It, you know, it was actually really calming to me – I keep a pencil in the binder of music that I’m working on, and it stayed in the binder on the way to Idaho. And it was really calming to open that binder when I got to Idaho, and, yeah, there’s my pencil. There’s my pencil! 

It may seem silly but again things that are unfamiliar and new get it often get interpreted by the brain as threats, so the more familiar things you can surround yourself with when you’re doing something that is a little bit scary, for me, my brain eats it up.

I guess the last thing, yeah, I said that was the last thing, but here’s really the last thing that’s going back to being in the performance space. When you have the opportunity to be in the performance space ahead of time, you get to figure out where you’re going to cast your gaze, what your anchor points are going to be. 

Because when you’re singing or speaking to people, when you are giving and they’re receiving, especially with music, but also with just spoken words, the faces of the audience are not always the kinds of faces that are going to feel encouraging. 

So much of the time I’m singing a piece of music that is taking people into themselves, into a deep emotional experience, and their facial expression is not focused on building rapport with me. Their facial expression is showing me that they are taking something in really deeply. 

And for some people, that could look like a frown. It could look like they’re stricken. It could look like any number of things, because they’re not thinking about making me comfortable. They’re just receiving what I’m putting out. So, it’s really not comforting a lot of the time to look at the faces of the people that I’m singing to. But I can sing to the spaces between their heads, and they will still have the impression that I’m singing right to them.

Because at even, you know, a 15 foot distance, if I’m singing to your ear you will still think I’m looking you in the eye. It’s just the magic of optics. So when you get to warm up in a space ahead of time, you can kind of feel out, okay, where can I cast my gaze so that people will feel like I’m connecting with them, but it’s a safe space for me to look at? In the case of this art gallery, it was great, there was art to look at. 

Often there’s a doorknob. Um, when I’ve sung in a church sanctuary, you know, there are doors at the back of the sanctuary that everybody comes in. And when those doors are closed, there’s a doorknob there. And those doorknobs are generally right at the right height to feel to the audience like I’m singing, I’m looking them straight in the eye and singing to them. Also, you know, stained glass windows, or just even a color of a stained glass window, singing to that blue, that little blue square there, or that strange patch on the carpet. And in my imagination, um, well, I call them anchor points, right?

In my imagination, these spaces in the room become like imaginary friends, and they become places where I can put imaginary friends. So I have a couple of stuffed animals in my teaching studio that are just really helpful for students to sing to sometimes, and I have a really clear mental image of them.

One of them is called Peaches the Penguin, and the other is floppy-eared bunny from Canada. So she’s just my Canadian Bunny, and I can, in my imagination, put them in different corners of the room so that I’m singing to Peaches or I’m singing to the Canadian Bunny and they are full of compassion and love and they think that whatever I do is the best thing that has ever happened.

So I’ve brought with me a positive feedback loop. I’ve brought with me all of the positive experiences that I’ve had. I’ve kind of compressed them into these imaginary friends, or imagined stuffed animals, or anchor points in the room, and I’ve created my own sense of safety. I’m no longer there all by myself.

I’m there with friends. I’m there with love. I’m there with joy. I’m there with success. And again, success is having tried. 

So, I really hope this is helpful for you. If you would like an mp3 of me walking you through the meditation that I outlined in this podcast, you can just go to the show notes, there will be a link there for you to get it and download it and use it for yourself. 

Thanks so much for listening.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new people find the show. Subscribing ensures you’ll learn about new episodes as soon as they come out. If you have a question about singing or speaking or being, please send me an email at letters@mvmusik.com

That’s letters at M as in Mary, V as in Victor, M U S I K.com. 

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