By Wendy Nixon
“Yes!” exclaims Julia to a fellow soprano following a dress rehearsal. “I finally got the third verse words right, just in the nick of time!” Julia strolls confidently home, knowing her mother has planned a healthy dinner and a quiet night to help her conserve her energy for tomorrow’s eagerly anticipated choral concert. Unfortunately, her evening unfolds much differently than she had hoped.
Julia tucks into bed on the early side of her normal bedtime and settles in for a refreshing sleep, but she has a difficult time winding down. Her brain spins with lyrics and loops challenging melodic snippets endlessly. She rises in the morning feeling as if she’s been rehearsing all night long. Breakfast seems like a good idea until the first bite tastes like sawdust in her dry mouth and the butterflies in her stomach scream, “Not hungry!”
Panicking and madly flipping through her music binder, Julia erratically jumps from piece to piece, finding that hardly any of it seems familiar. “Only two hours until concert time!” she tensely shrills as she paces the floor, wringing her hands. “What am I going to do? I’m going to let my choir down, look foolish, and my conductor will be so angry with me!”
Julia is experiencing Music Performance Anxiety (MPA), a condition that has physical and psychological manifestations that can inhibit a musician’s performance quality and experience. Fortunately, choral conductors are in a position to help singers of all ages under their leadership manage their MPA by becoming informed and employing some simple strategies.
Managing the Physical Symptoms of MPA
Frequently occurring physical symptoms of MPA include being unable to relax, dry mouth, frequent urination, shaking/trembling, nausea/indigestion, hyperventilation, hot/cold sweats, and light-headedness. There are three strategies a conductor can implement to help singers like Julia cope with the physical symptoms of MPA: breathing exercises, gentle physical warm-ups, and pre-performance routines.
Deep breathing can help calm the mind, lower the heart rate, and prevent hyperventilation. A simple deep breathing exercise conductors can teach singers involves expanding the belly with an inhalation that lasts for four slow beats (60 bpm), then singing a mid-range pitch on an “ah” for four beats and then repeating the exercise a semi-tone lower for five consecutive pitches. The number of beats can then be increased to five, then six slow beats for those same five pitches. This exercise can take about 10 minutes, but it can be adjusted as necessary and is very effective.
Self-led physical activities such as stretching, walking, napping, and doing yoga or progressive muscle relaxation can be helpful. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where different muscle groups from the toes to the head are individually tensed for 5-10 seconds then released for 10-20 seconds while the eyes are closed and the mind focuses on the difference between the sensations. A conductor can also incorporate physical warm-ups at the start of rehearsals to release unwanted tension, particularly in the jaw, throat, and shoulders. Simple moves like gentle neck and shoulder rolls, self-massage of the jaw, and massage circles, where the singers stand in a circle and massage each other’s shoulders, are effective. This can be done along to a recording of an uplifting song. Singers also enjoy taking turns leading these exercises. Applying physical strategies can help reduce muscular tension, thereby improving the function of the vocal mechanism, the efficiency of the body in supporting vocal production, and having a positive effect on a singers’ visual presentation on stage.
Pre-performance routines can help a singer get in the right mindset to focus on performance. A conductor can help singers develop an awareness of what procedures or rituals would be beneficial to them as individuals. For example, many athletes employ visualization in their pre-performance routines. Likewise, conductors can lead visualization exercises for their singers, helping them to picture and feel themselves singing with calm focused confidence while breathing deeply. A short, positive, and relevant phrase to repeat in their heads may be helpful. With respect to water, singers should be instructed to hydrate up to an hour prior to performing to help with dry mouth, and in extreme cases, be permitted to bring water on stage. Attire matters; cool clothing can help reduce hot sweats and flat shoes can help singers feel more grounded when shaking or trembling are felt. Simple routines, like going to the bathroom and eating a sufficient amount of easy-to-digest food, are helpful. Remembering these necessities is highly beneficial to coping with physical discomforts.
Some singers prefer to have a quiet time prior to performing while some prefer to go over challenging sections of music or affirm each other. Each singer can learn what activity would be most beneficial for him or herself through experimentation. A pre-performance pep talk by the conductor can include a little humor, affirmation that the singers know what they are doing, and that the conductor has confidence in them. It might also be helpful to include two or three specific directions/reminders (no more!), and a short review of the purpose of music and why we choose to sing (this can be done around the circle with each singer contributing an idea).
Psychological Symptoms of MPA
The psychological symptoms of MPA center on fear. They include the fear of forgetting notes/rhythms, the fear of letting others down, fear of social disapproval, fear of MPA symptoms negatively affecting performance, negative self-talk, feeling terrified, and experiencing a lack of focus or concentration.
The aspects of fear in the context of MPA can be reduced by conductors planning with intentionality, coaching singers on the practice of mindfulness, and creating opportunities for singers to desensitize to performing. Conductors must plan in advance for sufficient and effective rehearsal time for the performance material to become almost automatic, for vocal technique to develop, and potentially for memorization of the material. We’ve all heard the expression: “Practice, practice, practice,” but choristers may need some guidance in what that entails. For example, they may not know that they are responsible for self-studying and that practicing for shorter periods consistently over time is more effective than cramming for extended periods at the last minute, as Julia was attempting to do. Conductors need to remember that the implementation of last-minute changes is rarely successful and highly anxiety-inducing. Letting go of the fear of forgetting is imperative so that the mind is free to apply what has been well-rehearsed and the singer can enjoy the aesthetic benefits of performing music.
Cultivating mindfulness, a state of being aware of your thoughts, is a useful approach to prevent the negative thoughts or fears surrounding the prospect of a performance that can maintain and amplify anxiety. Conductors can help singers by coaching them in the mindfulness process. Once negative thoughts about performing have been discussed or written down, negative thinking can be replaced with positive affirmations such as, “People are here to listen because they want us to do well,” or “Singing is joyful for me because…”
Creating opportunities for singers to desensitize somewhat to the performance experience will help with MPA. Singers can use practice recordings, practice with small groups, and sing for friends and family. Informal presentations could be incorporated into rehearsals by asking for volunteers to sing solos that haven’t yet been assigned, encouraging volunteer quartets to sing excerpts from the performance material, or getting a small group of singers or a section to face the rest of the choir while all singers are singing. Other ideas for informal performances include inviting friends and family members to attend a rehearsal, performing for another ensemble, doing a flashmob-style presentation at a city centre or mall, or offering to sing at a hospital ward or long-term care facility.
The Importance of Trust
Trust is the most important ingredient in the conductor-chorister relationship in order for the musical experience to feel satisfying for all involved. Singers trust in their leader to prepare them well before they will feel comfortable exposing themselves vocally in front of an audience. Singing can be a vulnerable experience, and the fears that singers have can best be alleviated by being in trusting relationships with themselves, their fellow musicians, and their conductors.
Bryk and Schneider have defined relational trust as having four key components: personal regard, personal integrity, respect, and competence in core responsibilities (2003). Personal regard is demonstrated when conductors go the extra mile to show they care by being encouraging, supportive, and communicating expectations clearly. Recognizing the singers as individuals is essential, and can be accomplished as easily as greeting them at the door and personally welcoming each singer by name. Participants want conductors to assess their needs, provide feedback, to be aware of what each singer’s comfort zone is and how far he can be pushed, while simultaneously making sure not to single out one person in front of the group without their consent. The reciprocal nature of trust necessitates that a conductor in turn trust the singers in the groups they lead. When conductors talk openly about their own experiences with MPA, they let people know that it’s normal and common. In opening up and being vulnerable too, the conductor shows the choir that she trusts them, and the mutual nature of trust is nurtured.
Personal integrity is a commitment to walk the talk. Choristers need their conductors to demonstrate, encourage, and instill confidence. Reflect the image you want to see in the choir by modeling calm, confident behavior and appearing in control. Express confidence in the choir, and look them in the eye and say, “I believe in you. Enjoy what you are singing and make it come alive.” When singers feel that the conductor is confident in him or herself and the choir, they will trust that the situation is safe for them to more readily express themselves vocally.
Respect is communicated when interactions convey good intentions and shared understanding (Reina and Reina, 1999). Good intentions are communicated when a leader’s approach is positive: smile, be upbeat, have fun, and make it fun! People learn best when they are enjoying themselves. Conductors cultivate shared understanding by communicating their own enjoyment, acknowledging the choristers’ musical successes, creating a safe environment where everyone can be themselves and take risks, and remembering that what they give out energetically will be mirrored back to them. Conductors must show respect for the singers under their leadership in order to develop trusting relationships and be part of the choir, not separate.
Competence involves carefully designing a learning opportunity. Conductors must be organized, prepared, and knowledgeable. With regard to repertoire, tailor the choice of the material to the ability and taste of the majority of the group, but include some pieces that challenge. Clearly outline choir membership expectations (home study, attendance, and memorization), and learning intentions to help singers plan their own lives to uphold the required commitment.
Singers in choirs need for their conductors to be knowledgeable in many realms, such as vocal technique, the language of music, the expression of music, conducting, rehearsal techniques, and teaching strategies, to name a few. One participant said, “Teach, don’t just conduct.” Create physical and vocal warm-ups, ask students for suggestions, implement theory, technique, memorization strategies, and management strategies for dealing with MPA into rehearsals. Conductors can continue to develop their knowledge base by pursuing new learning opportunities for themselves.
Conductors are in a privileged position to create conditions where singers like Julia can thrive, feel confident about their vocal contributions to a choir, and carry that positivity out into the world. Conductors should be informed about Music Performance Anxiety in order to help singers, their audiences, and themselves experience more fulfilling and enjoyable performances. MPA is a normal reaction to public presentation of oneself and, at a moderate level, some will argue it can enhance performance; however, when MPA consistently prevents singers from doing their best work, it is recommended that conductors incorporate three key strategies: physical relaxation and deep breathing, sufficient preparation, and the development of relational trust with the singers in their ensembles.
Wendy Nixon Stothert recently completed her Master’s in Educational Leadership at Vancouver Island University, in B.C., Canada, receiving the Governor General’s Gold Award for academic achievement. She has taught middle school and secondary music and now embarks on a new adventure in teaching elementary music. Wendy also directs the Just in Time Vocal Jazz Choirs, three adult community ensembles, and has guest conducted. Her research regarding Music Performance Anxiety is informing her constantly evolving teaching practice and her personal performance. Singing with people of all ages to help spread positivity through music is one of her greatest joys. Contact Wendy with feedback or questions: firstname.lastname@example.org