Many of us have to use our voices in public, whether that’s performing as professional or amateur actors or musicians, making presentations at work or speaking at a local council or charity meeting. It can be terrifying – I’ve watched capable women go bright red, stutter or lose their voice completely. But targeted and often simple techniques can help you through your fear.
Watching opera singer and director Anna Gregory singing Wagner in a West End theatre recently, it seemed incredible that this calm, confident performer had suffered appalling stage fright from childhood. ‘It got worse through music college and my early career. I would be engulfed by panic, feel sick and break out in a sweat.’
When Anna returned to the stage after having children, it happened again, plus she developed vertigo. Despite completing a stage training course, nervousness still overwhelmed her, so she decided to join a colleague on a week’s course in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). ‘I’d heard from other singers that NLP was a really good method for helping stage fright,’ she says.
The course started by tackling issues such as prevarication and personal relationships, then built up to confronting phobias. ‘The basis of NLP, which was formulated in the 1970s, is to study where the individual’s brain is taking them to cause that physical or mental reaction; for instance, by asking questions about what they are thinking. Building up a picture of the fear is key, so that you can then change your attitude to it.’
Anna was asked how she pictured herself on stage. ‘Did I see myself in colour or black and white? Was I in my body or looking at myself from outside? Could I hear my own voice? Once you develop a clear picture of yourself, you can work on changing it.’ Anna likens the technique to Harry Potter and his friends learning to defend themselves against Boggarts (shapeshifters that take the form of the victim’s worst fear). ‘You change the thing you are most afraid of into something you find funny,’ she says.
A breakthrough came when Anna admitted that she had never believed in herself as a singer. ‘Despite being trained and getting good jobs, I had always felt like a fraud. I saw myself as a frightened little mouse on stage.’ A therapist helped her to believe that she could instead ‘go on with the heart of a vulnerable but feisty tiger cub’.
At the end of her NLP training, Anna sang to an audience of more than 800 and, for the first time since she left college, she didn’t need beta-blockers to quell anxiety. ‘NLP has been challenged by critics, but I’ve found it a useful tool for performing. Its philosophy has given me a way of dealing with other fears, too, such as driving again after I had a car accident,’ she says.
How to deal with performance fear
- To calm your brain, feel your feet. Whenever you’re anxious, put your weight evenly on both feet and feel the ground.
- Think of self-doubt and happiness as colours. Relax your tummy below your waistband, breathe in the colour of happiness and breathe out self-doubt.
- Go slow. We tend to speed up when we are nervous, so breathe in and out gently and speak slowly.
- Connect with your listeners. Look around, make eye contact and feel warm towards them.
For more information on where Anna trained, visit nlplifetraining.com
Feature by Sarah Stacey