Performers, like myself, spend a lot of time in potentially nervous situations. Standing in front of a crowd who hang on everything you deliver is pretty intense, and in the studio you have an extremely short time slot to come up with some kind of magical essence that will move people. Those who perceive this as a positive experience can do it over and over again. Those who see it negatively will most likely crash and burn (as many creative people do). The pressure can be immense, but there is one simple thing that can make all the difference to anyone who finds themselves in a nervous situation...the perception of fear and excitement.
Your heart races, you feel butterflies flapping wildly in your gut, your breathing intensifies, you feel a sense of heightened sensitivity as your eyes widen and you limbs quiver with anticipation. Fear or excitement? It's both. The only difference between fear and excitement is the way you think about it.
Teaching singers to deal with nervousness is something i really enjoy, because i like a good mind challenge. Most of the things that get in our way are to do with how we look at things, ourselves, and situations, and there's a real sense of satisfaction when a performer can break through a hurdle having met the challenge head-on...literally. So lets look at the example of 2 singers waiting for an audition.
Sally is nervous. That's what she's been telling herself all day ("God, I'm sooo nervous. I wish i wasn't nervous. I can't handle this nervousness!"). She sits in the waiting area to be called, wringing her hands, trying to breath in and out like her mum used to tell her before the school play would start as a kid). She's is trying to relax, tries to distract herself from even thinking about her cold hands and her body's shaking by disengaging from the whole idea. "Don't think about it", she tells herself. "Think about other things". She withdraws within herself in an attempt to escape.
Jen is also waiting to be called in. She's been bubbling over most of the day. She was so excited this morning that she went for a short run before she got ready, just to settle herself. She's been thinking about the audition all day, humming out her songs to herself, playing it over in her mind as her butterflies flutter away in her stomach, but she's been telling herself "I'm soooooo excited! This is going to be so great. I'm so lucky to be here!". She didn't believe herself at first, tempted to called it "nerves", but she resisted. In the waiting area she feels the excitement level increasing. She paces the floor, bouncing on the spot every now and then to discharge her adrenaline, and keeps herself focused an in a positive state of mind. Her body is doing the same things that Sally's is, but Jen keeps moving and keeps up her positive mind speak.
The two have totally different experiences with their audition. Sally has spent so much of her time trying to distance herself from thinking about the audition, that she appears disinterested in it. She has been trying to keep her body so still by attempting to relax, that as soon as she goes to sing, her cells fire up from the build-up of chemicals and she loses vocal control. She gets really down on herself and has given up before she's even half-way through. She leaves in tears, gutted by another sense of failure.
Jan bounds in to the room, and her energy is immediately obvious. She's been releasing her adrenaline all day, so she maintains a lot of vocal control. She brings to her audition a sense of excitement and passion, and though she makes mistakes, she keeps positive and moves on, so well in fact that some of the panel don't even notice her errors. She leaves with a feeling of success.
The flight-or-fight response is our body's way of preparing us for engagement. Whether you call it excitement or nervousness, it's the same physical thing. Chemicals get released into our cells to prepare them with optimum power and strength, and are there to save your life. One of the mistakes people make when they have these feelings is to try and calm them down, but our body is geared up for battle, not for meditation.
If you focus instead on releasing the pressure physically (jump up and down, run around the block, etc), and tell yourself over and over how excited you are (even if at first you don't believe it), you can make a huge difference to your experience. You can then learn to USE that amazing zing and turn it into an opportunity to deliver in a way you can't when you're in your comfort zone. Harnessing this energy instead of denying it can turn a good delivery into something quite remarkable.
Are fear and excitement the same? Try it out for yourself, and you be the judge.