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  • Scott Carlton

NERVES - THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

No honest performer, public speaker or sports professional will deny that they experience nerves before a performance or other important event. Adages such as “you’re only as good as your last performance” serve as a reminder that a lot is on the line when we present ourselves to the public.

Let me distinguish among the various flavors of nervous tension:

The Good

You are prepared. You have mastered your material. You have performed your material before your teacher, coach, and an invited group of colleagues and friends, and you have performed it several times without stopping. You know how much to vocalize before a performance (because you have a well-established warm-up routine, and you know when to stop vocalizing and when to stop repeating difficult phrases and high notes. Immediately before the performance you feel a buzz of excitement and anticipation in your body (I personally often felt this as a sensation of light tingling in my teeth!). Perhaps you are nervous, even very nervous, but you have an unshakeable inner confidence that you are ready to perform.

The Bad

You are mostly prepared, but have not successfully repeated and mastered all of your material. That high note is pretty good when sung in isolation, but when sung in the context of singing an aria beginning to end, it is “iffy”. But you allow yourself to indulge in the “magical thinking” that somehow it will come out alright once the footlights hit you. “Just to be sure” you repeat the hard parts too often, and feel slightly tired and stressed before the performance. With luck, all goes well, and this luck perpetuates your feeling that you can leave some of your performance to chance, trusting on the energy of the moment, hall, the audience and the music to carry you.

The Ugly

The worst-case scenario: you are sick, but cannot cancel. Or you are not prepared. You have not mastered your material. Memorization is shaky. The difficult notes and phrases are “iffy”. You feel a sense of nervous exhaustion. There is a drop in energy in your body and mind and you may feel detached from yourself and your surroundings. You resort to: “deal-making with God”, or frantically calling teachers to help you. You wish the performance would be called off by force majeure. You cannot distinguish between being truly sick and being nervous. A sense of doom hovers over you and you tread the stage as if in a trance, hoping for the best.

From the above it is obvious that, apart from not being actually ill, destructive nerves arise from (a) lack of adequate preparation; (b) lack of a warm-up routine; (c) over-practicing and over-vocalizing – not knowing when to leave well-enough alone and (d) performing repertory that is not right for you.

HOWEVER!


The paradox of live performance is such that, in my experience, sometimes “good” nerves have led to a mediocre performance, and “bad” (and rarely, but almost never “ugly”) nerves have led to a stellar performance. The conclusion: “Prepare, then Let Go”, and the only way to trust this device is to perform many times in front of people. If you have the good fortune to attend a well-run conservatory or university, you will have built-in opportunities. Otherwise, If you are a beginner, find a church (as a soloist or cantor), a nursing home (when it is again safe to enter them) a restaurant (when they reopen)_, even the subway – it doesn’t matter where – and perform, over and over. I have heard courageous and talented young singers in the subway and in Central Park in the dead of winter. If you are an experienced professional, you have good coping skills. But often even singers of the highest profile experience the most intense pressure and cases of crippling nerves. Often the intensity of nervous pressure arises with the stature and visibility of the gig.

Nothing develops a singer more than experience. Nothing is sadder than the performer who only performs for himself or herself in the living room, waiting for perfection to arrive. Keep in mind the words of Birgit Nilsson (“The Stage is the Best Voice Teacher.”)

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