Practicing being nervous

Before a performance my classes try their hardest to convince me that they shouldn’t perform, and we end up talking about nervousness. It’s the monster in the room, the stuff of nightmares. But, performing is like defeating any big boss in a video game,  you have to defeat lots of little bosses first. More to the point, you have to practice being nervous.

My mum often signed me up to perform at events or competitions from a young age, usually in front of an audience of no more than 100 people, and every time I was justifiably nervous. My determination to ‘just get it over and done with’ allowed me to handle the situation, and the praise from the little old ladies in the audience, who were invariably there, helped me to keep doing it.

The real test came when I was in grade 11.

I went to a state school in Queensland, Australia, and every week we had an assembly in the school gym, which looked something like this,

(Photo by hdescopeland )

with about this many people sitting on the floor (chairs for the teachers only)…

(Photo by Butte Public Library )

For whatever reason, we had to have the Australian National Anthem performed at each assembly. The concert band had done it once upon a time, but they were unable to, so my friend Ray was asked to sing it A Capella. Being jealous of Ray’s amazing singing talent, I asked if I could do it too.

(In Australia, it’s hard not to know the words to the anthem with so much sport on TV, but Ray had spent his childhood in Western Samoa, and I’d spent mine in Papua New Guinea, so as singers we both compared notes on how many anthems we could sing… it was nice to have some competition! Oh and for you Kiwi people reading my blog, you’ll be pleased to know I can sing your anthem in both English and Maori and that I support the All Blacks — I have a Kiwi husband.)

The first time I performed in front of 1000+ bored teenagers was terrifying, but with each passing week it became easier. In fact, it got to a point where it was just a job, like collecting the newspaper in the morning. Most of all it helped me to think about the role of the audience and about how much is going on in the mind of a performer when they take the stage — breath, smile, posture, eye-contact, speed, pitch control. You don’t realize these things until you do it.

The act of singing in front of this many people has prepared me for so many situations – public speaking, teaching a class, volunteering to go first in any situation, writing my blog, you name it. I still get nervous, but I know what it feels like to be nervous and how to manage it. I suppose my message is, next time you have a mild case of stage fright, think of it as practice for every subsequent performance. To wrangle this monster you have to practice.

About Alison Armstrong

Alison Armstrong BMus./BEd. (Queensland University of Technology), Dip. ABRSM (Performance- Singing) I have trained to teach Music (Elementary, Middle and High School) and Drama (Middle and High School). This is my 7th year as a teacher.
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