February 2019

Spring is in the air in the UK, and it has been so welcome to have sunny days, hear birdsong and see spring flowers, especially in such confusing, political times.

I have been keeping my head down, teaching, coaching, giving an occasional talk-masterclass at a university, and writing anecdotes/case studies down for another book that I might end up writing one day. Some lovely bits of work are starting to come my way, but I will write about those when I have definite dates in the diary. In the meantime, here are my thoughts about how to manage highly stressful performance situations such as auditions.

The ultimate in stressful performances: auditions

Musicians I’ve talked to have said that auditions are one of the most stressful types of performance they can do. Why? Because you feel you’re not just performing, you are performing to get something. It might be an orchestral position, a place at a conservatoire, an operatic role; it doesn’t matter what it is. And not only do you want to get something, you want to impress the panel, you are competing with everyone else who wants the same as you and you feel judged. Add these all together and you will feel under an immense amount of pressure as well.

So, wanting to get something, wanting to impress, competition and feeling judged: each has an emotional component that can very easily whip up nerves because each is the opposite of what is needed for a successful performance.

What is a successful performance? To my mind, this is one in which you play or sing to the best of your ability, you feel physically, emotionally and mentally free and you are in a positive emotional state that enables the music to be played or sung ‘through’ you. Adrenalin then enhances your performance rather than cripples it. It enables you to feel free enough to be creative in the moment. You feel emotionally safe, you love the whole experience and whoever is listening has the opportunity to be lifted or moved.

It’s much easier to do this in a small concert in front of a friendly audience, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t transport that to a significantly more stressful performance, such as an audition. The key to moving from un-stressful to very stressful is to go slowly in a series of steps. You need to get acclimatised to each stage so that you feel comfortable and then stretch a little to the next slightly more stressful step. If you move in incremental steps towards your desired goal, you are much more likely to arrive there feeling comfortable.

On the other hand, if you jump from a relatively easy performing situation such as playing in front of friends to the most stressful, pressurising performance you can imagine giving without these steps, you will almost certainly shoot out into panic mode. This is when all the fight-flight symptoms kick in – too much adrenalin, a pounding heartbeat, the shakes and so on. You feel as if you’re dealing with a life or death situation, even if it’s ‘only’ emotional, and you’re then not in a fit state to play at your best. But working out your own personal series of steps from easy to stressful and practising them, gives you a very good chance of feeling good and being able to perform at your best – even if in an audition!

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