Adrenaline and Vocal Performance 2: Practical Strategies

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The Yerkes-Dodson curveThe Yerkes-Dodson curve

In my previous post on this subject, I looked at some of the effects of an over-active sympathetic nervous system on singers in performance. This often gets framed in terms of stage fright/performance anxiety, but the fight or flight response can also be responsible for bringing us into a state of peak performance. We don’t want to damp down this response completely; we just need to moderate it so we get the benefits of its stimulation without losing control.

A classic bit of research back in 1908 produced the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which shows that people perform least well at complex tasks if they are either under-aroused or over-aroused, and at their best somewhere in the middle. So, the strategies that follow all work on the principle that you need to keep performers below the optimal level of arousal before they get to the stage. This will allow the flush of adrenaline as the performance starts to lift them into the ideal zone, rather than beyond it.

Engage the parasympathetic nervous system

The rest-digest system is the yin to the sympathetic nervous system’s yang. The two keep the body in a state of homeostasis. So one way to manage situations that are likely to over-engage the fight-flight response is to consciously appeal to its complement for balance.

This can apply to both personal pre-performance rituals and warm-up activities. You’re looking to slow and deepen the breathing and relax the muscles. Use a pace that is measured and steady and that invites a state of attentiveness and calm.

You specifically want to avoid an analytical approach that clutters the mind with last-minute corrections and details to remember, as these both provoke anxiety and encourage a self-conscious (and hence isolating) state in performance. It is too late for that stuff now; it is time to trust your preparation.

It is also a good idea to encourage a slow, quiet approach to any conversation between singers in the period immediately before the performance. There’s an excitement, ring, clarity in the tone and energy to the pace of interactions in the voices of an ensemble poised to perform, but letting that energy out in conversation allows the singers to over-wind each other at a point where there isn’t any musical activity on which to expend that energy. Conscious attention to keeping each other calm keeps the benefits of the preparation going up to the point of performance.

Open the ears

This is a specific subset of the general engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system. Given that arousal involves the closing down of peripheral awareness into a narrow focus, deliberate attention to opening up awareness both helps moderate the rush of adrenaline and mitigates its isolating effects.

So spend time in warm-up doing listening exercises that direct attention to the overall sound of the ensemble and away from the individual’s attention on what they themselves are doing. Elaine Fine writes about corralling the overtones in violin double stops in terms of herding animals, and this is a good metaphor for vocal ensembles too. Get the attention away from the individual sheep-dog and notice where the sheep are flocking too.

Get into the musical part of the brain

Now I don’t know the neurology of what’s going on here, but I am convinced that there is a part of the brain that lights up to harmony. It registers when you are in the middle of acoustically consonant sound, and signals to the rest of your body and mind that all is right in the world.

This is why ‘harmony’ is both a musical term and a metaphor for social cohesion. And the more happy times I spend making music, the more it seems to me that the physiological experience of lined-up overtones is a strongly reassuring process.

So, getting that bit of the brain lit up in anticipation of performance is an inherent part of the first two strategies: it combats anxiety and it connects you aurally (indeed, viscerally) with the other singers. As a bonus it shuts up the verbal, running-commentary bit of your brain that sometimes muscles in to try and run the performance, only to spend the entire time over-reacting too late to things instead of getting you into a state of flow.

Do lots of performances

The more novel a situation is, the more likely we are to experience a strong fight-flight response. It follows that a primary way to bring the state of arousal into a more manageable scale is to do lots of performances. Make the experience less novel.

This is probably the most important of the lot of them. And there’s nothing much else to say about it!

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