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Fearful Phonation

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by Sharon Paquette Lose

tage-frightYou’ve prepared for the big day by learning every note on the page, lyrics locked away like the ABC’s, and every rehearsal attended—yet, you take your place on stage and the blinding lights call out your inner deer—you’re frozen. With a blank expression, you realize you’ve forgotten everything and you’re wondering how you’re going to get your paralyzed limbs moving again. Not to worry, we’ve got you covered.

Stress Response
Essentially the emotional state referred to as “stage fright” encompasses the body’s stress response system known as the “fight or flight” response. When the brain experiences an event that triggers this response, such as walking out to sing a solo in front of countless audience members, it begins to send signals to the autonomic nervous system (ANS). As suggested by its name, this part of our nervous system controls functions that are involuntary such as, when our heart beats faster. The ANS is made up of two parts; the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. In the case of stage fright the brain has sent out a signal that releases hormones through the body causing the heart to pound, muscles to tense, breathing to quicken, and sweat to show up. We feel anxiety, fear, distraction, lack of focus, and hyperawareness—accessing our memory for lyrics and melody in this state is less than ideal.

How does tension effect phonation?
Muscular tension effects proper phonation in a myriad of ways. The act of singing involves laryngeal muscles and ligaments, the diaphragm, abdominal muscles, intercostal muscles, and throat, jaw, neck and tongue muscles. Stiffness and tension due to anxiety can create a host of vocal production problems including; sharpness or flatness in tone, a tight or weak tone quality, and even an inability to reach a particular note—the dreaded voice “crack.”

Parasympathetic System to the Rescue
The good news is there are some very simple techniques to access our own parasympathetic nervous systems, most of which I learned from my yoga teacher rather than my singing coach. Some of my favorite techniques to elicit relaxation in the body are “box breathing”, stretching, repetition of a calming word, and visualization.

Box breathing is a technique where you inhale for four beats, hold for four beats, exhale for four beats, hold for four beats, and repeat the sequence. You can trace the shape of a box with your finger in the air to remember which part of the pattern that you are on. I personally also like to count my exhalations out for six counts rather than four (more of a trapezoid than a box) which can add an extra sense of relaxation to the body by helping to slow down the heart rate.

If you have a moment backstage, it is always a good idea to stretch the back, arms, legs, shoulders, and neck while breathing deeply. This sets the “rest and digest” system in motion in the brain and has the added benefit of distraction as you focus your attention on each muscle that is being stretched.
The calming word technique is akin to a mantra meditation. Choose a word that seems peaceful, such as “calm” and simply repeat it over and over in your mind. This can have the effect of detaching your mind from the situation at hand by helping to focus thoughts elsewhere.

Visualization works in the same manner as repetition of a word except in this technique you imagine yourself in a calm place and attempt to make it very vivid in color and detail so that your brain is tricked into responding as if you really are there. Another visualization that is particularly effective for me, is one where you imagine each part of your body from the toes up to the tip of the head relaxing one section at a time.

Tips for staying calm
Some tips for staying calm for a performance are; be sure to get a healthy amount of sleep the night before, arrive early and become familiar with your surroundings, eat a healthy meal and include a banana as they have calming properties, and imagine yourself succeeding.

Stage fright can be debilitating for performers, especially for those who suffer with anxiety. The good news is, much of the physical responses that seem to come out of nowhere in these scary situations originate in the brain. We can work with our bodies and our thoughts by understanding how stress responses work and what the body needs to calm down. Don’t let a little fear hold you back from experiencing the joy of sharing your voice with the world, breathe deep and keep singing for many years to come.

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