Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Opening Night Jitters


Tonight is opening night.  I can already imagine it:  the theatre is full.  From the wings I can hear muted pre-show conversations, the rustle of programs, laughter.  The house lights go down, and the tension in my stomach tightens; my intestines feel like knots.  I start to sweat, and hope my shaking is not visible.  As the opening music begins, I walk onto the stage.

 The Cast of Another Elfing Musical. Photo by Jon Snow

I’m appearing this week in an amateur musical theatre production.  Six sold-out shows in a small theatre.  I get to sing, dance, act and play the flute.  And though my body shows its instinctive stage-fright responses, I know I will be fine.  I’ve been through this before.

Performance Anxiety
Stagefright, known to scientists and doctors as “performance anxiety” results from an overactivation of a part of the brain called the amygdala.  This walnut-sized collection of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain is responsible for emotion, and the emotion is does best is fear.  Fear, after all, is what stagefright is all about.  We’re afraid we’re going to play wrong notes, be out of tune, forget what to play altogether, and most of all we’re afraid of looking like a fool.  Afraid of being judged and coming up lacking. 

Role of the Amygdala
The amygdala is closely connected to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system, itself responsible for keeping our bodily systems on an even keel.  When we experience fear, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the well-known “fight or flight response”.  Our heart-rate increases, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, we perspire.  Blood is directed away from our extremities, gut and skin, and towards the large muscles of our arms and legs, so we’re ready to run or fight if necessary.  The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which act to mobilize glucose into the blood so we have an easily accessible source of energy.


The fight or flight response may be useful if our fear is the result of an encounter with a grizzly bear, but in the case of stagefright, it’s hard to see how it can help us.  Altered breathing just makes more problems for singers and wind instrumentalists.  Lack of blood to the fingers hampers skilled movements of pianists, violinists and other musicians.  And shaking doesn’t help anybody perform.  From this point of view, fear is a maladaptive response to performance.

Fear alters your brain chemistry
However, fear has an effect not just on our body, but on our brain too.  As well as activating the sympathetic nervous system, fear increases the levels of noradrenaline and glucocorticoids in the brain.  These chemicals can have both positive and negative effects.  Many musicians feel that a little bit of “performance jitters” gives them a heightened awareness, an extra edge that helps them perform better.  Studies have shown that the combination of noradrenaline and corticosterone improves memory and attention.  Moderate levels of stress have been shown to lead to extra vigilance and alertness, and increased cognitive processing speed. 

Fear and stress can certainly have negative effects on our brain, too.  Many of these maladaptive fear responses are mediated by the prefrontal cortex.  Fear inhibits our working memory and decreases our behavioural flexibility.  We’ve probably all experienced that feeling of panic when fear makes us completely forget everything we’re supposed to be doing.

Panicking and Choking
When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to post about stagefright, she handed me a book off of her shelf.  It was What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, and she recommended a particular chapter that talks about the difference between panicking and choking.  These are two different responses cause people to fail in stressful situations. 

When people choke, they start to think too much.  For musicians and athletes, this is a recipe for disaster.  As I discussed in a previous post, much of what we learn during our music practice goes into implicit memory, meaning we’re not consciously aware of the sequence of movements we’re making.  But sometimes under stressful conditions, we over-think, and start trying to use our explicit memory of how to play, which isn’t very good.  Our performance falls apart; we choke.

Panicking, on the other hand, is when the mind goes blank.  Instead of thinking too much, we are unable to think enough.  Obviously, this can also be a huge problem during music performance.  If my mind goes blank tonight right at the beginning of my solo, I’m in big trouble.

Combating Stagefright
Stagefright falls into the anxiety family of mental disorders.  For many, it can’t really be called a disorder – a few butterflies in the stomach before performing is normal.  But for some, stagefright is a serious problem, impairing their musical performance and perhaps discouraging them from becoming serious musicians.  Several studies have looked at the prevalence of stagefright and found that it is a widespread problem, but not much discussed.  Many professional musicians are prescribed beta-blockers, which act to block the effects of adrenaline.  Others option include the of use yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mental imagery to counteract stagefright.

The studies that I read about the prevalence of stagefright all basically boiled down to the same thing:  it would be good for teachers to talk to their students about stagefright and ways to combat it.  When I was a teenager, I had an excellent flute teacher who taught me some simple meditation exercises as a way to relax before performing.  My students have a recital coming up at the end of January, so I’ll be thinking about what I can do to help them mentally prepare (and you’ll likely see another post on this topic around that time).

As a performer, I find that what helps me the most is, quite simply, being prepared.  If I feel that I know my music inside out and upside down, I’m less likely to stress about performing.  And on that note, I think I’ll go do a little practicing for tonight’s show.  And this evening at the start of the show, I’ll close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just go do it.


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