You: The Perfect Vehicle

The Next Level: You, A Perfect Vehicle for the song, the poem, the story.

 Self-consciousness, self-doubt, hesitation, and fear of rejection are common feelings for beginning performers. Many experienced professionals are members-in-good-standing of this highly inclusive club. Often, pros are not anxious but bored doing what they have done a thousand times before. Both situations look the same to an audience: a performer who is emotionally absent and going through the motions. This is called “phoning it in.”

If we wish to connect with the audience at a deeper level, we cannot let our anxiety or our boredom show. It’s best to get rid of them, but if you can’t, then learn to pretend. Fake it till you make it as they say in some circles.

First, you need great material. This is a non-negotiable requirement and the genesis of connection. When you write you are mining for gold. No performer succeeds without the bullion of great material, either theirs or someone else’s.

Then you commit everything you have to that great material. Your commitment gives it life: the song needs the singer, the words need the speaker.

Your goal is to be transparent to the material and connect with the people via that material in spite of your concerns that you might not, or that you are sick of being on the road. You can do this by playing a trick on that part of your mind that harbors all doubts. The trick is to come to believe that:

I am not the song (the words), and the song is not me. The song is bigger than I, but it must come through me to live. I will be still to not distract attention from the song as it emerges.

 The “I” that is being still is the part of your mind that wants to critique how you are doing as you do it. Or critique how the audience is receiving. It is the voice that says you just sang a bad note, or you are sweating too much, or you should not have worn these tight red pants, or you should have picked something else to perform. Your inner “I” wants you to pay attention to the group talking in the back of the room, to the noisy A/C that just came on, to how you can get your parking stub validated, to any random thought.

You, the vehicle, must focus and commit to the material.

If you come to believe that it is not you but the material that is being put out there, and you have faith in the material, then you will be at your best. It is the same power given to all who engage in selfless acts: heroic men in war or mothers protecting their children. To men and woman who feel they are serving something greater than themselves is given the power to overcome obstacles they thought they could not deal with in common hours.

You will have the power to ignore the internal voice that distracts you from your purpose: To be a perfect vehicle for the material.

Ideally, as you perform, you are surrounded by the material. The emotion and meaning of the words you speak or sing fill every part of your mind and body and come out of you like you mean it. All great performers do this. It is why we go to see them. It is what you can do, and must do if you want people to come see you.

How do you achieve this mind set? Practice thinking it and doing it. You could meditate on the “I am not the song…” mantra for a few minutes each day. You could try serving others in uncommon ways, thus avoiding constant thinking about yourself. Maxwell Maltz’s famous book Psychocybernetics puts forth the idea that whatever you think about regularly will manifest itself in your life. There is some modern empirical evidence to support this. And there are centuries of philosophy and religious tenets that have no doubt this is the case.

Just as your instrument and your voice need physical practice, your mind needs to practice what it will and will not do. You are not evicting your internal critic, just getting him to take a nap so you can do your show in peace. He may return after your encore, but too late to sabotage another show.

How to practice? Try focus: Pick your best song, speech or poem and polish your performance until you have never done it better. Make it your show opener. Then focus on your next best piece and make it your show closer. With a great beginning and a great ending the middle will take care of itself.

I practice the same material until it is automatic. I use performance checkpoints and prepare for them as they approach, visualizing where my fingers will be and how my throat and body will feel at those key points. My mind is occupied with the material and little else. My body takes pleasure in executing that which it has done many times before. Since my mind is minimally involved with the mechanics of execution, I am able to let my emotions be led along by the words and sounds. I practice having those feelings so that when it is time to deliver and be a perfect vehicle, I am at my best.

Whether it is great or not is for the audience to decide. But at least I have had a happier time performing than if I was listening to my internal critic yammering on.

That’s how I do it. And written out like that it does seem like a ponderous way to do a simple thing. It’s like describing how we breathe: so many words for a natural process. As we work on our act we sometimes forget how to breathe and in the forgetting need to re-learn at length until, at last, we say, “Oh, is that all?”

This is advanced work. I am not talking about beginner’s stage fright, or simple anxiety from lack of practice. If you have been on a plateau for a while even with good material, good audiences, and a polished presentation, then the next level for you is focus and emotional commitment.

In your quest to be a perfect vehicle for the material, remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. ____________________________________________________

Steve Rapson is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer:  A Field Guide to Stage and Podium

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Stage Fright — Q&A by Steve Rapson

Dear Steve,

My name is Kristen and I have severe stage fright. I can sing alone just fine, anything actually. But when I’m in front of people, I freeze and turn bright red. Also, no one has ever told me I have an “incredible voice” or anything like that. I do believe that I have a really good voice and I eventually want to go into the music biz. I can’t even sing in front of my best friend of 8 years. I’m afraid she’ll laugh at me or snigger and say that I suck or something. If you could give me some advice, or help me in some way that would be great.

Thanks again, Kristen.

Dear Kristen:

Stage fright is the same as stage excitement. It is that feeling of being “up” and ready to do your best. It is a good thing. Many performers become flushed when they perform at their peak. They may sweat profusely and turn beet red. This happens when blood vessels dilate. It is the brain preparing you to do your best. All this is caused by the release of adrenaline. It is the “fight or flight” response. You want this to happen and then take action. Debilitating stage fright occurs when you neither fight nor flee. You grind in place taking no action while the engine races in high gear. Cars don’t like this; your mind/body doesn’t either.

Experienced performers have learned that this elevated feeling is natural and something good to be used in their act. They have learned to control and use it. Beginners call it stage fright. It often gets out of control and prevents them from doing what they have prepared to do.

So what needs to change is not your physical responses when you are about to perform, but your thoughts about them. Just as your body can be trained to go through certain motions automatically through repetition of the same action–called practice–you can train your mind to think the right things when these changes happen.

The cure for stage fright is practice. Mozart said, “Slow practice makes for fast playing.” Slow practice is meditation for the body. To help your mind you might try meditation.

Here are some thoughts to meditate on. Meditation is to the mind what physical practice is to the body.

1. If you are afraid of what people might think of you, be assured they are not thinking of you. They are thinking of themselves.

2. If you are afraid you will make a mistake, be assured no one will notice you made a mistake unless you tell them or show them through body language that says you are not happy with your performance. They won’t notice because they are too busy thinking their own thoughts which are about themselves.

3. If you are afraid of the criticism of others, be assured that when you are criticized–rarely will this happen–the information you receive is about the speaker and not about you. As the saying goes, “What people say about others reveals more of themselves than about others.” This goes for critics as well.

4. If you receive praise from others, be assured that it is as meaningless as criticism. It is not good to let either enter that quiet place in your mind where you know the truth of all things.

5. All greatness is built upon humility. A humble soul is the foundation for great acts. So when you are filled with self doubt, when you think your best is not good enough, when you do everything right and it stills looks wrong, you are being given humility. True humility is hard to come by. The proper response for such a great gift is gratitude.

6. All performing is about and for the audience. Even an audience of one. Although our performance seems to say, “See me, hear me, touch me,” all great performers turn this around and send the message, “I see you, I hear you, I touch you.” This is the irony and the catch-22 of show business. The humble soul can do it. The fearful soul cannot. Fear is about you. Love and acceptance is about them. Fear wants to push away. Love and acceptance wants to take in. The love is for them; the acceptance is for yourself.

As you meditate on these things, breathe deeply and slowly. Do this for a half hour every day. Fifteen minutes in the morning and another fifteen at night.

If you are a singer, take lessons and do the exercises that will strengthen your singing muscles.

If you do all these things you will be surprised–and humbled we hope–at the results. But you may not notice your success because you will be thinking of others.

I recommend my book, The Art of the SoloPerformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium

Good luck, Kristen.

Steve

PS: To answer your question… You will never really know for sure if you are good enough. After many years of singing you could look back and say, “Well, I guess I was good enough.” But that’s another story.

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Steve Rapson is an author, songwriter and solo guitarist with one book published and several CD’s released.  All available at www.soloperformer.com

 

Guitar Performance Anxiety

Hi Steve,

I am an amateur classical guitarist that can’t perform in public. My hands and arms get so tense that I can’t even play easy tunes. I’ve suffered with this for 30 years, and have avoided public performance because of it. Hours of intense practice has not helped.
I played a recital yesterday with disastrous results. I have another recital in about a month. Any special help would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Dennis

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Dear Dennis:

Thanks for ordering my book.  I, too, was a classical guitar player for many years. Because of the highly technical nature of this style of playing, it is prone to the vagaries of performance anxiety, more so than other styles and acts: comedy for example, or the hum & strum school of guitar.

A few of my guitar playing customers are doctors. Some have suggested a class of heart drugs called beta-blockers. These may be useful to those whose physiological response to performance anxiety is not manageable with practice and mental preparation.  Perhaps you have heard of this therapy which is quite popular among the orchestral players.

I recommend that you buy Kenny Barron’s book, Effortless Mastery.  His approach to developing a relaxed playing style may be just what you are looking for.  But reading about performance is not the same as performing.

My experience is that it takes about six to twelve months of regularly public performance to effect a permanent change in your response to a crowd facing you and awaiting your brilliant act. What this means is that you must–for that time period–endure at least twice a week stage disappointment and unfulfilled expectations for your performance.  Preparation is required, but also execution. Get out there often in spite of the problems.  The Army calls this live fire drills.

Also, try to choose your guitar pieces with an eye to playing what is easy for you.  They may not sound easy to your audience. This was the revelation that allowed me to be happy with my guitar playing: Do what is easy for you. Occasionally add a piece that is a bit more challenging. But just a little. Your goal is to succeed within your capacity rather than over-reaching and being unhappy about your playing. As much as we want to reach the next level, we cannot force it or will ourselves there.  We work ourselves there bit by bit.  Be like Bob in the movie What About Bob… take baby steps.

Good Luck,

Steve Rapson

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Steve is the author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide to Stage & Podium. www.soloperformer.com He has several solo guitar CD’s in release.