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The emotionally prepared singer.

TO BE SUCCESSFUL SINGERS, students need to do more than take care of their vocal instruments. They need to take care of their emotional well-being. A student with superb singing technique, but who suffers from anxiety, or lacks confidence and self-esteem, is less likely to succeed. Too often, however, either students never get the help or information they need, or they rely on untrustworthy sources. A comprehensive training regimen should therefore include courses or access to resources that develop skills to ensure that students are emotionally capable of achieving and sustaining professional success.

Most ambitiously, of course, universities could offer courses that address these issues as part of the curriculum. Where possible, budgeting for free counseling or courses in performance psychology would ensure that students get information from trained professionals. Addressing these issues at the outset of training would help remove barriers to students' development and allow them to improve more rapidly and with less frustration.

Where a university's resources are strained, however, a teacher who has the skills to identify and address these issues will be better able to guide that student to long-term success. Individual educators should develop relationships with mental health professionals to whom they can refer students. Further, they should develop skills to address the most often seen patterns that impede a performer's success. By doing so, teachers can help students learn to identify the emotional habits that compromise vocal development and also help students to build a support network.

This article identifies and proposes solutions to some of the most common psychological performance roadblocks voice students face. Gwen Walker, a former professional music theater actor in New York City, addresses these issues from a somatic and practical perspective, based on her research in the Alexander Technique and her many years of experience as a professor of voice at a university for the performing arts. To offer a cognitive perspective, she has solicited input from Dr. Cody Commander, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist.


The emotional toll of a career in the performing arts is well documented. In a 2012 study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity in the Arts, Thompson and Jaque wrote, "Our study adds to the body of research that suggests there is a psychological cost for participants engaged in the creative arts." (1) This is unsurprising when one considers that the entertainment industry subjects an artist to a continuous cycle of auditioning and rejection, and that the feedback that artists receive is often negative or nonexistent. The 2012 study further finds that people engaged in the creative arts are more imaginative and emotionally vulnerable than average. (2) This, too, is unsurprising. Success in the entertainment industry demands that performers remain open and vulnerable. Not only does a career in the performing arts exact a psychological cost, but performers are more likely to be adversely affected by the pressures exacting those costs. For example, constant rejection is among the main psychological obstacles facing any performer. This, in turn, creates two primary and related roadblocks to a performer's success. First, rejection erodes confidence, which is essential to optimal performance; without confidence, or the skills to develop confidence, performers are simply less likely to succeed. Second, rejection creates anxiety; anxiety causes tightness in vocal muscles, shortness of breath, and other physical responses that impede the ability to perform, further eroding confidence.

This dynamic crystalizes a central paradox facing many young performers trying to succeed in the entertainment industry: more success as a performer improves confidence, but opportunities to perform often remain unavailable until the performer gains confidence. Compounding the problem, teachers often provide ineffective advice that exacerbates and perpetuates students' problems. For example, teachers may tell emotionally fragile students to just "buck up and tough it out," or "you're so talented, I don't know what you are afraid of," rather than provide appropriate and meaningful support.

Instead, teachers can develop tools to help a student address anxiety and build confidence. Following are scenarios encapsulating five common psychological roadblocks that performers encounter. Proposed solutions to these scenarios are first provided by Dr. Commander and then by Professor Walker.

Scenario 1. A student experiences performance anxiety because the student is consumed by comparing his or her abilities to the abilities of others.

Dr. Commander: The issue of comparing ourselves to others is a very common mental mistake for performers who want to be the best, and there are two essential components to ameliorate the problem. The first step is understanding that comparing ourselves to others is a cognitive distortion. This cognitive distortion, commonly called "unfavorable comparisons," asserts that all performers have their unique strengths and weaknesses and therefore cannot be accurately compared. (3) The second step, and perhaps more effective, is developing the understanding that others' performances and abilities do not directly affect his/her abilities to perform. More specifically, one's vocal abilities, physiological makeup (i.e., muscle strength and conditioning), and knowledge are independent of someone else's. I developed the "coin analogy" to demonstrate this principle, which states that if two pennies were flipped in the air (referring to two performers), the chances of one penny landing on heads (referring to performance) would not be influenced by what side the other penny landed on. If performers can understand and practice this principle, they can learn to just focus on their abilities and performances rather than being sidetracked by others.

Professor Walker: Teachers can seek to readjust a student's perspective to something more powerful and empowering. Stated simply, a performer's goal in developing his or her creative instrument is to cultivate individuality. Performers must discover what is different and special about them as individuals and learn to amplify it so that they are more like themselves and less like others. Each performer can only be as good as his or her own individual talents, and developing and expanding those should be the only focus. Though students can learn from watching others, comparing themselves unfavorably leads them away from finding their own unique expressiveness. Similarly, if students merely imitate other performers, they undervalue their own unique skill set, which is what makes them individual and interesting in the first place. Further, imitation usually results in little more than a pale reflection of the person imitated, rather than a truthful display of an individual's artistic expression.

The heart of the issue is often connected to a performer's personal fear of failure or of risk. Our traditional educational system rewards high achievers and teaches students to avoid and even hide mistakes. Students learn that there is only a right or wrong answer, but in the performing arts one has to be brave enough to tell one's contemporary emotional truth. Though understandable, students often begin their training fearful and ashamed of being wrong. (4)

In the performing arts, however, students must learn to embrace--not fear--failure. Doing so involves overcoming years of training. In the arts, failure is often where the best learning and even epiphanies may occur. If students never risk failure, then it is possible that they have never pushed their own personal boundaries. When students learn how to dare to fail, they not only begin to develop their individual artistic sensibilities, but also may develop a confidence and capacity for success they have not yet experienced.

Scenario 2. The performer has high levels of anxiety whenever there are perceived high stakes. In such a situation, singers may shake uncontrollably, tighten most of the muscles in their body, or greatly inhibit breath (fight or flight reaction).

Dr. Commander: When performers experience overwhelming anxiety, the first physiological change that occurs is increased heart rate, followed by several physiological symptoms (e.g., dry mouth, sweaty hands, shakiness, etc.). Effective interventions include relaxation skills. Behaviorally, performers can learn and utilize deep breathing techniques, passive/progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation. Performers can also benefit from several cognitive strategies. A widely used intervention is "positive self-talk," which includes performers being able to tell themselves positive statements, similar to how they would encourage and support a friend. For greater success, performers need to talk to their selves in second or third person (e.g., "You got this" or "Let's go, Everly"). (5)

Another helpful intervention that can be used when a performer is consumed with anxiety is distraction techniques. The brain cannot focus on more than one thought at a time. If performers can practice redirecting their thinking, their brains will not be able to focus on the potentially threatening thoughts. Examples of how to do this include mindfulness strategies, cognitive fluency tasks, and establishing a "default thought."

Mindfulness is a specific therapeutic intervention that involves learning to stay in the present without judgment. (6) Through my work with performers, I have developed cognitive fluency tasks that distract the brain from the anxiety. A specific example is having performers name as many fruits and vegetables as they can, as quickly as they can. The novelty of the items listed keeps the brain focused on the task and redirected from the anxiety. The "default thought" is another intervention I developed to help performers redirect their attention from anxiety. This involves establishing a thought (e.g., winning the lottery) that can be used when a performer begins to have any unwanted thoughts. The performer would have to first acknowledge he/she is having an unwanted thought, then redirect him/herself to the default thought (e.g., "What would I do right now if I won the lottery?"). Thinking about this default thought in detail would allow the mind to become distracted from the previous threatening thoughts and ameliorate the anxiety.

Professor Walker: Students often have physical reactions to stressful circumstances that can be identified and addressed. Robyn Avalon, Director of the Alexander Alliance Southwest and master Alexander Technique teacher, discussing performance, states, "Never make your audience work hard." An audience goes to the theater to have its emotions manipulated by the emotions of the performer. Ideally, the audience feels what the performer feels. When a performer is very nervous, on some level, the audience experiences that same nervousness as well. When performers unconsciously hold their breath, the audience holds its breath. If the performer is tense, so is the audience. Students therefore need to discover ways of releasing tension when performing.

F. M. Alexander discovered ways of using conscious awareness to recognize and release habitual tension patterns, which interfere with the body's natural coordination and ease. An actor himself, Alexander discovered that the most common physical responses to stress are to shorten and tighten the back of the neck and to restrict the breath. (7) He further noticed that people largely have very little sensory awareness in activity. (8) In other words, in a stressful circumstance, a student may take very shallow breaths or hold the breath entirely, but be completely unaware of doing so. If performers become aware of how and where their bodies hold physical tension in stressful situations, releasing those tensions becomes more attainable.

After the student notices a particular habit or pattern that is restricting movement and breath, the student can then practice what Alexander called "inhibition." As he defines it, inhibition is stopping the pattern of disruption before doing it. It is in that moment of inhibition when students can make a choice not to engage a particular habit so that they can then discover the body's natural coordination and ease.

To be clear, some of the suggestions below are not based on Alexander's discoveries, but on teaching experience and somatic research. Many suggestions are ways to help students notice what they are doing habitually so that they may begin to make new choices, an idea that emanates from the Alexander Technique. It is recommended that students study privately with an Alexander Technique teacher in order to receive direct hands-on information, because the technique is difficult (if not impossible) to learn through reading, much like learning to sing. Additionally, Alexander was very clear that students cannot use their own "faulty manner of use" to change habits. One-on-one instruction will help students discriminate between their own faulty kinesthesia and tapping into what Alexander called the body's primary control.

Taking the above into consideration, when seeking to reduce tension in a perceived stressful circumstance, students may ask themselves the following questions:

1. Can the neck release into its natural curve? Straightening the neck by pulling the head back and down in relationship to the spine causes tension around the larynx, which prevents it from moving freely. This in turn adversely affects sound production. (9) Craning the neck and chin forward causes restriction in the breath and larynx as well. The "top joint" (atlas) of the cervical spine is perfectly designed to support the base of the skull (occipital condyles). (10) When the neck is released into its natural curve, the head balances on the spine, the larynx releases, breath moves more freely, and sound production is less effortful.

2. Are the feet gripping or pressing into the ground? The student can relax the feet and allow the energy to come up through the body and out through the top of the head and out to the fingertips. Try to imagine feeling lighter and creating space in all of the joints. This will release muscular tension in the entire body. Students should be standing neither with all of their weight on their heels (too far back), nor with all of their weight on the balls of their feet (too far forward).

3. What muscles are currently engaged that are not necessary for this activity? For example, are the shoulders lifted as a response to stress? Does the head lift and chin stick out when the student reaches for a high note? Is it possible to release some of the muscles that are tightening the neck and shoulders while continuing to perform the activity? Using inhibition as a tool works well here. If students notice that they are doing something that may not be helpful to freeing the larynx and the breath, using the tool of noticing the habitual tightening response and simply releasing it is a productive place to begin.

4. Is the student's pelvis released into its natural tilted position? The habitual holding patterns that the majority of singers have in the pelvis have a large negative effect on breath support. Many students tuck the pelvis underneath the body. It is possible to release the lower lumbar spine into its natural forward curve by allowing the pelvis to tip up in the back and down in the front. For the student who overarches the back, reducing the pelvic tilt should prove beneficial to breath and to resonance.

5. Is the pelvic floor held tight with tension? The pelvic floor is the bottom of the abdominal cavity and it pairs with the diaphragm when breathing. (11) When a student is stressed, a natural physical response is to tighten the pelvic floor and lift the surrounding organs, which causes clenching of the surrounding muscles. If the student releases the clenching and allows the internal organs to drop, the breath can move more freely and fully.

6. Are the student's shoulders released? Many students hold the shoulders up very high; others hunch shoulders forward into a slump position. In either of these positions, the neck muscles hold the shoulders unnaturally and this causes the arms to hold tightly to the sides of the body. However, the shoulder blades are perfectly designed to slide down and rest against the ribs on the back to support the arms. The student can try the following exercise to begin to release shoulder tension: Bring the shoulders forward, then up, then back and finally, release the shoulders down, noticing how this externally rotates the upper arm. This release allows the ribs to expand so that the diaphragm can function without as much restriction. If done properly, this is an effective tool in releasing muscles around the larynx, neck, arms, and shoulders.

In short, students should develop a habit of noticing their bodies' physical responses to stress. Releasing tensions in the body through noticing, inhibition, and the application of the Alexander Technique, has been scientifically proven to reduce the level of stress in the mind and in the body. (12)

Scenario 3. A perceived hostile environment causes the student to shut down emotionally.

Dr. Commander: Performers can frequently encounter stress regarding interpersonal relationships. An effective intervention that I frequently use with individuals is the "Stress Equation." This illustrates which type of coping one should engage in based on the nature of the stressor. The principal step in the intervention is assessing if the performer has control over the stressor. If the performer has control over the stressor, he/she should engage in an approach method (do something to solve it). If the performer does not have control over the stressor, he/she should engage in an avoidant method (do/think about something else). The mental error that too many individuals exhibit is avoiding the stressors they can control (e.g., practicing) and trying to approach stressors they cannot control (e.g., other people's behaviors). It is important to note that some stressors may be complex and have controllable and uncontrollable features. For this scenario, the performer cannot control how others behave, but can control how he/she responds and copes with it. Instead of ruminating about a hostile conversation or being rejected, the performer should take action on how to improve the relationship (e.g., learning conflict resolution and communication strategies) and improve his/her abilities to increase the chance of getting cast in a show. Effectively using support systems (i.e., mental health care provider, family, friends, teachers, etc.) can also attenuate the stress. (13)

Professor Walker: Though students may have limited options to change a toxic environment, they can further help themselves, as Dr. Commander briefly addressed earlier, by changing how they talk to themselves. Most singers suffer from what I call "dead end thinking," that is, having thoughts that do not lead to a productive end. For example, after singing a passage less well than the student would have preferred, the singer thinks, "That was awful." Typically, no subsequent thought will be constructive or help solve whatever the problem may have been. Instead, the next thought will likely be another negative and unproductive thought, followed by another and another. Singers must learn to change how they talk to themselves. Thoughts turn into actions, which, in turn, affect results. Singers must train themselves to think positively and constructively by replacing old dead end thoughts with new open ended thoughts and questions. For example, if that same singer sings a passage and does not like how it felt or sounded, she can ask herself an open ended question like, "What didn't I like about that?" or "What would I like to change about that, and how would I go about it?"

A useful exercise is for students to start by merely identifying ten negative thoughts a day. Most find it helpful to put a stop sign or a stoplight in their mind when negative thoughts appear. Once in the habit of identifying negative thinking, the next step is for the student to challenge herself to think of something more positive and productive. For example, change "I absolutely cannot work with this person," to "I can improve my state of being and my attitude so that this atmosphere affects me less." (14) Self-criticism is acceptable, but only if students learn to use it to build their skill sets and self esteem. Exploring the ways that students can identify and reverse dead end thoughts is important and will help them retrain their thinking to more constructive ends, even when faced with a hostile environment.

Scenario 4. The student does not feel well. The vocal folds are swollen, tired from overuse, or there is an upper respiratory illness of some sort. How does the student stay in the body without pushing the voice or panicking and becoming too nervous to sing?

Dr. Commander: Learning to effectively deal with injuries and illnesses is an important skill for performers. The primary step is to redirect focus off the parts of the stress that cannot be controlled (i.e., thinking about how it is going to go) and focus on the components of the stress that can be controlled (i.e., recovery, rest, seeking medical attention). If one is performing while having an ailment, the focus continues to be "perform to the best of my abilities," recognizing some abilities may be hindered by medical reasons. If a performer can remain focused on the "controllables" and perform to the best of one's current abilities, chances of success are significantly improved. (15)

Professor Walker: Teach students to visualize success in a particular task through external and internal imagery. (16) Different minds work in different ways. For this specific exercise, some singers have better luck with external imagery (e.g., seeing the performance as if it were displayed on a television), but most have better luck with internal imagery (seeing it through your own eyes). Ask students to experience all five senses while imagining their performance. What does it smell like in the room? What do they see? What can they hear? Are they touching something? Is something touching them? What can they taste/smell? Next, and most importantly, students must learn to visualize a great audition from the moment they walk into the room until the moment they leave. Visualize every specific minute detail. Students need to imagine this performance in their heads at normal speed and should not imagine the possibility of failure. In time, they will learn to relive the visualization in the audition room or in performance. The more thorough one is in pursuing this exercise, the greater the chance that it may become a powerful strategy for success. (17)

Scenario 5. Self-sabotage is one of the ways that anxiety displays itself in performers. It can be difficult to detect and may take many forms.

Dr. Commander: Performers' motivation to work diligently and improve frequently can fluctuate. Despite the teacher's efforts to provide guidance to overcome this obstacle, many students continue to experience minimal motivation for change. A strategy that yields the highest success rate is having students identify their values. This can be done using a variety of worksheets or by conversation. Students are asked to name reasons why they want to be successful (e.g., "I love what I do"; "I want parents to be proud"). (18) After being able to identify their values, they can begin to understand that their behaviors are incongruent with their underlying beliefs and values. For students who have difficult motivation problems, value-based goals are most efficacious.

Professor Walker: Singers must learn to recognize and dissipate patterns of self-sabotage. Regardless of the cause, committing to small achievable goals is one way to address problem areas. Students can then make specific micro-goals and take action. A micro-goal is something over which performers have all control; by contrast, a macro-goal contains elements a performer cannot control. (19) For example, sometimes self-sabotage is a symptom of feeling overwhelmed by how difficult it is to succeed in the performing arts. A macro-goal might be that a student wants to become a better singer. A more attainable micro-goal might be that the student commits to practicing more intelligently and more frequently. Another macro-goal might be that the student wants to be a star on Broadway or at the Metropolitan Opera. A more productive micro-goal might be that the student commits to going to three auditions this week. The student cannot control the casting of a particular event, but how many times she submit herself for consideration is within her control. Because the student has control over micro-goals, she can develop a habit of success. Ideally, achieving micro-goals will lead students to achieve their macro-goals.

The next step is clearly and specifically to map out how the student intends to attain her micro-goals. For example, if the micro-goal is to practice more intelligently and more frequently, the student could make a list of practice times and practice strategies. Singers must learn what time of day their voice works best and when they are most likely to have a productive practice session. Students may find it useful to break practice times into five-minute segments where they work on one specific practical technique for five minutes and then another specific practical technique in the next five minutes, etc., choosing only a few things to work on each week. It is important that students learn to practice habits that they would like to keep and to stop practicing habits they would like to replace. Students should make a list of the things they have discussed with their teachers and address them slowly, one at a time with patience, clarity, and purpose. (20) This will yield much more productive practice sessions and thereby help students achieve their micro-goals. Maintaining a list of micro-goals and doing something every day that helps the student move toward achieving those goals can help curb self-sabotage.

For help in goal setting, the SMART goals system is useful, a concept believed to have been first introduced by Peter Drucker in his 1954 The Practice of Management. (21) SMART is a mnemonic acronym for the five criteria that goals should meet. According to this concept, goals should be:

S--Specific, Stretching, Significant

M--Measurable, Motivational, Meaningful

A--Attainable, Agreed-Upon, Action-Oriented

R--Relevant, Rewarding, Reasonable

T--Time-Based, Tangible, Trackable

Finally, students should periodically assess whether they have achieved their micro-goals and reset them as necessary.

In conclusion, the difference between success and failure in the arts is often determined by the artist having the tools to remain emotionally healthy while pursuing a rather stressful career path. Implementing these tools to reduce stress and increase emotional well-being may be beneficial to teaching and performance outcomes.


(1.) Paula Thomson and Victoria S. Jaque, "Holding a Mirror Up to Nature: Psychological Vulnerability in Actors," Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts 6, no. 4 (November 2012): 361-369.

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) James K. Luiselli and Derek D. Reed, Behavioral Sport Psychology: Evidenced-Based Approaches to Performance Enhancement (New York: Springer, 2011).

(4.) Alina Tugend, Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), 41-58.

(5.) Marjorie Bernier, Emilie Thienot, Romain Codron, and Jean F. Fournier, "Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance," Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology 4, no. 4 (December 2009): 320-333.

(6.) Frank L. Gardner and Zella E. Moore, "A mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations," Behavior Therapy 35, no. 4 (Autumn 2004): 707-723.

(7.) Richard Brennan, The Alexander Technique: Natural Poise for Health (Rockport, MA: Element, Inc, 1991), 20.

(8.) Dr. Samuel S. Reiser, D.D.S., Sixth International Montreux Congress on Stress (1994), 1.

(9.) Jane Ruby Heirich, Voice and the Alexander Technique (Berkeley: Autumn Press, 2005), 62.

(10.) F. M. Alexander called the atlas of the spine the "top joint."

(11.) Imke Buchholz, "Breathing, Voice and Movement Therapy: Applications to Breathing Disorders," Biofeedback and Self Regulation 19, no. 2 (June 1994): 141-153.

(12.) Frank Pierce Jones, "Method for Changing Stereotyped Response Patterns by the Inhibition of Certain Postural Sets," Psychological Review 72 (1965): 196-214.

(13.) Nancy L. Murdock, Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Case Approach (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Pearson, 2009).

(14.) Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas, Power Performance for Singers: Transcending the Barriers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104.

(15.) John Heil, Psychology of Sport Injury (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1993).

(16.) Lew Hardy and Nichola Callow, "Efficacy of External and Internal Visual Imagery Perspectives for the Enhancement of Performance on Tasks Where Form is Important," Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 21, no. 2 (June 1999): 95-112.

(17.) For more information, Emmons and Thomas contains a helpful chapter about using imagery in preparation for performance.

(18.) James K. Luiselli and Derek D. Reed, Behavioral Sport Psychology: Evidenced-Based Approaches to Performance Enhancement (New York: Springer, 2011).

(19.) Saleem Bidaoui, Anatomy of Success: The Science of Inheriting Your Brain's Wealth and Power While You Are Still Alive! (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2009), 146-150.

(20.) Robert A. Duke, Amy L. Simmons, and Carla Davis Cash, "It's Not How Much; It's How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills," Journal of Research in Music Education 56, no. 4 (January 2009): 310-332.

(21.) Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management (New York: HarperBusiness, 2006).

Dr. Cody Commander received his doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He spent his last year completing his predoctoral internship at Ball State University Counseling Center, working with students and student-athletes. He is the owner of Commanding Performance: Sport & Psychological Services, and is also a Clinical & Sport Psychologist for the University of Oklahoma Athletics Department. Dr. Commander has been working with elite performers and athletes since 2001, including professional and Olympic sport organizations. He has worked in the clinical setting since 2003, working with people with various mental health disorders.

Gwendolyn Walker is an Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre, Voice at the Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre at the University of Oklahoma, and was formally the Coordinator of the Private Voice Department at Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. She is an equity actress who has performed in national tours, major regional houses, and off-Broadway. Professor Walker recently began her third year of study to become an Alexander Technique teacher at the Alexander Alliance Southwest. She is also a former rock vocalist and radio jock. Professor Walker has her masters degree in vocal performance from Temple University in Philadelphia.
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Author:Walker, Gwendolyn; Commander, Cody
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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