The Singing Brain

The Singing Brain.

Yesterday I took part in a Zoom chat with three amazing, open and honest ladies (Louise Alder who organised everything, Jamie Barton and Golda Schultz) about our experiences with the Mental side of performing. 

I wanted to formalise some of my thoughts following the chat so people can read at leisure and take as much or as little from them as they choose. This is based on the knowledge and experience I’ve managed to accumulate over the years, and the work I have done on myself to deal with my issues regarding not just the mental side of performance and a career in Opera but also in general life too.

A little background:

I’m from a middle class white English country town background with all that that entails. State schooled and a degree in Music.  I then worked as a business man for 15 years becoming Marketing Director in Financial Services before I gave it all up to pursue my dream of a singing career at the age of 36.  I started at the bottom again, but the experience of life from my business career helped me to manage people, personalities and stressful situations.  I didn’t go to a Music college and it really felt at times that I was in was entering an alien world that I didn’t know or belong to. However, I believed in myself and my ability and knew I could learn and work hard.  It was difficult for me to make progress, especially in the UK, and after a few years I got the opportunity to go on fest in Germany and that is where I really learnt the art of performing. It was my finishing school for 6 years.  I have now been freelance for 10 years and work 99% of the time in the European houses particularly in Germany.  I have had to do plenty of work on my Singing Brain over the years and I’m still learning, still practicing and still growing.

The World of Fear.

All of us suffer from some form of anxiety.  It is a normal human emotion and part of life.  How much anxiety we have, what triggers our anxiety, how we cope with it in our daily lives and career are more individual issues and important to understand.

As humans, who we are is shaped by 2 things.  Our DNA and our conditioning up to this point.  By conditioning, I mean everything that has happened to us, that we have learnt or assimilated, and our Beliefs and Values developed over the years of our life.  Although most of the fundamentals of our personalities are learnt in childhood,  trauma and other major emotional events can also have a huge impact on who we are, how we see the world and how we see ourselves.

One thing is certain. We cannot change the past. Who we are today is who we are. The exciting and empowering thing is we can change our future if we choose too.

Anxiety, particularly performance anxiety, perfectionism, imposter syndrome are all Fear based.  They are major issues for lots of us and Fear is all around us.  Perhaps at no other time in the history of mankind has Fear played such a huge part in our collective lives.  Just open a newspaper, go online or watch the news – the words and pictures used are predominately Fear based.  Pandemic, Climate crisis, Illegal Migrants, Law and Order, Job losses, etc.  This constant drip of negativity effects all of us to some degree.  It takes Love and Trust out of the world and replaces it with anxiety, suspicion, jealousy and judgement and closes us rather than opening us.

However, there is so much we individually can do to break the habits of the past if we want to.  We do have control over our thoughts, actions and reactions. And if we want to change and grow in a way that reduces our stress, releases our spirit and sends Love out to the world we do have the Power to do that.  But it takes practice, perhaps even life long practice and it takes the desire to change our current behaviour patterns. If you are reading this then perhaps you want to change these behaviour patterns. This Awareness of how you currently deal with things is so important. Having that ability to look and observe your thoughts is going to be your greatest tool to help you change and grow. Eckhard Tolle uses a great image for this Awareness. He asks us to imagine ourselves as the Sky and our thoughts as clouds that we can watch moving by – separate to us.

Why do you want to be a Singer?

Sounds a straightforward enough question but it is worth really stopping and thinking about it and writing the answers down.

I believe that whatever reasons you come up with, the most important thing is that you are doing it for you, not to please others (particularly family), and that it makes you happy, excited and passionate which in turn creates the energy in you to work and improve.

It’s really important to remember the answers to this question at times of performance anxiety for example, shortly before an audition or recital.  I use a little mantra/affirmation that goes along these lines:

“This is the job I have chosen to do.  This is the job I have worked hard and trained for.  I am Happy and thankful and I send out Love to everyone”

Within that short Mantra there are some key psychological concepts at work:

  1. Ownership.  It is the job I choose to do.
  2. Responsibility.  As it is my choice of job, I am the CEO of my life and I am responsible for my performance.
  3. Trust in my ability and the work I have put it: I acknowledge to myself that I am ready and I have done the preparation required.  
  4.  Living the Success Dream: my dream of success is always a wonderful happy performance place and its important to remember what that looks like and remind oneself of why we sing and be grateful for this opportunity.
  5. Openness and Love.  Sing and perform with Love.  Love for yourself, love for all your colleagues and Love for the audience.  Work on the idea of togetherness, of shared energetic experience, of openness.
  6. Positive Thoughts / Positive Words: there is no fear in my mantra, there is no desire for perfectionism, there is no negativity. Words matter, thoughts matter.

Thought Process:

We have an estimated 50,000 thoughts a day.  Some thoughts are fleeting, some thoughts remain in the memory vivid and strong for decades and some thoughts really have the power to make our lives hell.

Over the years I’ve given a name/character to these thoughts – Mr T – based on the old TV show “the A Team”, Mr T was a man of few words but his most used line was “Fool!”

When the critical, judgemental, negative voice starts in my head, that’s Mr T; and over the years he has been quite vocal and treated me very badly.  He speaks to me like no friend ever would, runs me down, limits me, scares me and stops me progressing.  If I make a mistake or get a bad review he’s the first one on the scene to rub it in.

We all have this voice but guess what – it is just a thought; it is not REAL.  Even so we listen to this voice and our body listens and produces hormones to counter some of these thoughts.  It’s like when you dream there is a tiger under the bed and wake up sweating and scared; the sub conscious does not distinguish between the real or imagined tiger and triggers a physical response.  So it is with the Mr T voice.

In the past I have been to auditions where this voice has been so much in control that I had lost any chance of the job before I even walked on stage.  Mr T would tell me the other singers were better than me, their languages were better, they were younger, better trained, that I didn’t belong there, I was an imposter, that I hadn’t warmed up enough, the pianist didn’t like me, that I was hopeless at auditioning.  It became the case that I would have anxiety about having anxiety before and audition.  What it also became was a HABIT.

But habits can be broken, thoughts can be changed.  And this is where there is a huge hole in the training of young Singers.  We spend hours learning technique, coaching languages and styles, learning notes and text but spend little time training our Brains to also come to party.  My strongest advice is to spend time on this.  Learn and practice.  It will take time to change your habits and thought patterns and it will not be easy – but it’s your head, no one else can do it for you. 

Take responsibility, take charge, build your Self Awareness, get help and support, become as much an expert on this as you are on other aspects of your career…..or don’t…it is totally your choice.

Personally, I look to Sports Psychology and the behaviours of top leaders of organisations to see what they do to aid peak performance.  Every sports person or team these days has with them a Sports Psychologist to help with the Mental side. Here are some of the techniques they use that I have found valuable, and how you could use them if you wish:

Taking Responsibility:

Be accountable for everything you are and everything you do.  Be responsible for your own growth and development.  Be an ordinary person doing extraordinary things with energy and purpose.  Keep your power.  If you are given advice or judgement, you decide whether to take it or not, don’t give others the power over your life.  You have choice, sometimes not always great choices, but own the choices you make nevertheless.

Goal Setting / Picture of Success

Have goals and have a clear picture of success.  What does achieving those goals look and feel like.  You want to be a successful singer? What does that really mean? What does it feel like?  Entering an audition, what are your expectations, what is your goal? 

Every Sports person goes through the goal setting process especially within their areas of control.   We hear the athlete talking about wanting to do a Personal Best, to be at their peak for a particular event.  Their goal setting is clear and focusses on the areas they can influence.  In a race you can only focus on your performance, if you run a PB but are still beaten by a faster athlete then so be it, it was outside your control; but you can go back home and train, improve and come back stronger.

So in a Singing Competition or Audition go in with the goal of performing to the best of your ability of doing you own Personal Best. – that’s all you can do at that moment of time.
Whether you win/get the job or not depends on so many other factors outside your control.  
Set goals however big that do not rely on the judgement or approval of others.  Set goals that can be achieved and give yourself a pat on the back when you do.  Experiment – set goals that sometimes seem counter intuitive…for example in an aria set your goal on the quality of the breaths you take, not on nailing the big high note and see what happens.

Positive Visualisation:

An F1 Racing Driver will drive the circuit of a race 100’s of times in his head before the actual race.  He will make every turn correctly, every gear change at the right moment all inside his head.  The Tennis Player will visualise serving to win Wimbledon,.  The soccer player will plan which way he will hit the penalty and visualise every aspect of the situation. 

When a golfer has a shot to hit to a green surrounded by water, they visualise the shot with the ball landing on the green near the flag.  They do not see the water in their mind’s eye, their visualisation is on the positive result.

This forward planning in the brain means that when the situation becomes real the plan is already there, it’s not new because it is already familiar for the brain.

The key to this is it is a Positive Visualisation.  They visualise the “perfect’ race, shot  or game, they visualise overcoming any problems with ease.  They do not visualise stress, nerves, forgetting words, making mistakes, the water.

Take time in the days before a performance / audition to go through your own positive visualisation of how you want that event to go.  See yourself doing it successfully, feel the emotion of you doing it successfully and how it feels after you have done so.

Flick Back/Flick Up.  How to add Emotion to the Visualisation

This is a great technique to practice.  Go back in your life and think of one of your greatest happiest moments, try to remember the feeling, the emotion of that.  That’s the Flick back.  Now do the visualisation of your future event with that emotion in mind (Flick Up)

Repeat this 50-100 times

Stay in the moment / In the Zone:

You hear this a lot from top sports people and it is one of the most vital things for performers.

The “moment” or the present is all we really have actually.  The past has gone and the future does not exist.  The moment/present is all we have.  Therefore, putting your thoughts into the past or into the future takes you out of the moment and breaks concentration which can allow doubt and stress in.

Let’s take a golfer who has had a bad hole. If they take the emotion and thoughts about what went wrong into the next hole they are in trouble.  They have to let it go. It is in the past and they have to focus on the next shot.  They also mustn’t start thinking about the difficult hole coming up after next…again they have to stay with the shot they are playing.

In performance, if you make a mistake (we all make mistakes) you have to move on and not let it take you off focus, off plan.  It happens but you have to learn to be able to let it go and get back into the moment, into character asap.

Practice:

Top sports people do not wing it.  They work unbelievably hard.  They work on the physical side, they work on mental strength, they work on their belief systems, they work on their technique.  Talent is not enough and it will only get you so far for so long. 

A famous golfer once wrote: “the more I practice the luckier I get”.  

Affirmations:

I love these.

Affirmations are short phrases in the present tense that can be repeated each day as a Mantra to re-programme the sub conscious mind.   This is a great way to give a positive voice in your head to balance and eventually quieten Mr T. 

Make a list of the negative behaviours and thoughts you want to change.  For each behaviour write out the positive thought/outcome.  Put it into a positive phrase in the present tense. Use positive words and emotional words.  Avoid words that affirm perfection. Carry these Affirmations with you. Say and repeat them aloud morning and night.  Use them to slowly change your long held Mr T type thoughts. Trust me it works.

Here are just a few examples:

  • I enjoy the whole process of auditioning
  • I have an excellent free flowing memory
  • I am personally responsible for everything I am and do.
  • I control my self talk so it is always positive and uplifting
  • I live my life on a “choose to, want to, love to” basis
  • I enjoy saying my affirmations every day.

Self Talk and Self Esteem:

How we talk about ourselves and how we feel about ourselves is hugely important.  

I have already spoken about the negative Mr T.  That is an example of negative Self Talk and the knock-on effect is of lowering your Self Esteem.  It can become a downward spiral of negative self talk resulting in the negative performance which results in low self esteem.  It doesn’t have to be so.

It is now time to quieten the negative Mr T and build your positive self talk.  Again, this is a tool used by elite sports people all the time.  They create a self image of positivity, of high achievement.  They are careful with the words they use.  When they fail, as we all will do from time to time, they regard as the exception not the normal.  The failure goes against their picture of success, against their picture of themselves and it creates the energy to go and work harder and to grow and be more successful.

Think about your self talk.  Think about your Goals and your Picture of Success and how that fits with your Self Esteem – how you can change it?

Create a Positive Character in your head that really is your best friend, that loves and believes in you unconditionally.  Make that voice the dominant voice in your head…remember you have the power to do that – it’s your head and you are the boss.  
Be aware of the Self Talk of others and how words become beliefs. When someone judges you, think about the fact that you have the power to decide how that judgement affects you. Be aware of the words you use with others, particularly close friends or family. Are the words you use empowering, positive and full of hope and love or are restricting, limiting and based on your own fears?

Expanding Your Comfort Zones

We all have Comfort Zones. Areas where we feel comfortable. That could be a particular practice room, our home, a certain set of beliefs, a faith, a job or a relationship. They help regulate our self image, the sub conscious picture of who we see ourselves to be. Step outside that Comfort Zone and we disturb that image and Anxiety and Stress appear. Feelings like difficulty breathing, tightening of the voice, sweating, stiff muscles, butterflies in the stomach are all physical reactions to being outside our Comfort Zone. Our sub conscious yearns for us to go back somewhere safe, back to the familiar where we “belong”. Comfort Zones can be positive and negative, uplifting or destructive.

Successful sports people work on their positive Comfort Zones. They work on expanding the areas in which they feel Comfortable and “at home”. They use Visualisation and Goal Setting to continually expand what is “comfortable for them”. You see that often in soccer: A bottom team goes 2 goals ahead of the League Leaders in the first half of a game. What happens at half time? The League Leaders are out of their comfort zone, they are not use to being behind. It is not where they belong and you can bet they will come out in the second half determined to get back to where they “belong”. For the bottom team it is all about Comfort Zones. Do they have a belief that they a less worthy because they are at the bottom and therefore capitulate in the second half; or are they able to expand their Comfort Zone, visualise winning the game and the emotion of that.

Turning that idea towards improving Performance and reducing anxiety, I use a mixture of feeding the familiar as well as trying to grow my Comfort Zones. For example:

  • Like many colleagues I travel with small, important things from home to help make a sterile apartment or hotel more familiar.
  • I always download the local travel Apps and tourist apps on the place I’m staying. I explore and make the area familiar. Before the morning of the first rehearsal I know how I’m going to get to the theatre.
  • I have a routine on the day of a performance including what I eat, when I get up, favourite pants! etc
  • Before I start a new production or go to an audition I google the theatre and the auditorium and visualise myself performing on it. I also make sure I know who is who in the theatre.
  • I practice in lots of different spaces so I get use to my voice sounding different in each one. This helps me learn what my voice feels like rather than sounds like and this stops me freaking out if I’m suddenly in a totally dead or strange acoustic.
  • I purposely bottle all my experiences for future use and when I feel anxiety or stress build I go to those experiences to help me.
  • I also deliberately do things outside my Comfort Zone to stop me getting stuck and to keep me feeling that I’m always expanding, learning and growing . From little things like taking new routes to rehearsal, buying a jumper in a colour that’s not blue or black, or visiting a local coffeehouse rather than a Starbucks; to big things like taking on a role in a new Opera rather than singing a revival of a role I’ve done 5 times before, or learning to do something completely outside of opera – bricklaying or carpentry for example, or letting someone else drive!

Some final thoughts:

You can do your own research, become your own expert and mentor; there are plenty of books and videos that will go into lots of details with exercises to develop all of the points I have mentioned. There is not a one rule fits all answer.

There are a few extra items though that I’d like to add particularly from a performance / career point of view.

The first is that a successful career isn’t necessarily the same thing as a successful life. Balance is extremely important.  You have to take time for the soul, time for family, time for nature, time to be still.  The pursuit of a career can become all consuming. And for some that works and they are very happy with that, but for me, I have discovered that I am a better, calmer, happier person and performer if I give space for those other things.  
I use meditation, Kum Nye (Tibetan type of yoga/mindfulness), long walks in the countryside, gardening, sport and cooking to keep me from obsessing about a role and give my sub conscious time to process all the information I’m feeding it during a rehearsal or coaching.

Make the decision to enjoy the performance and then get out of the way!

Whatever has happened before you walk on stage, when you become another character you have to work on 2 things.  Firstly, you have to make the conscious decision to enjoy it – (see my pre performance Mantra earlier).  Our job is supposed to be fun, it is supposed to make us happy and believe me it is a lot less stressful than not enjoying it and it not being fun…so take responsibility and choose to allow it to make you happy. 

Secondly, you have work on leaving your ego in the wings.  Get yourself into character and stay in character. Easy to say but it takes lots of practice.  But the more you can stay in character the less stressful things will be; you will be able to stay focussed, and you will have more energy and flow.

Finally, surround yourself with positive voices.  We have chosen a job where everyone has an opinion and where levels of criticism are high.  There are enough people who will put you down or criticise in this world but you don’t need to keep them close or give them your power.   Analyse your relationships…are they helping you or hindering you? Be kind to yourself and be kind to your colleagues.

AND REMEMBER THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL: BREATHE.

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