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Pre-performance jitters? Here's a bespoke technique for you..

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

Today I had an audition at one of the biggest cathedral choirs in London.

I sang the best I remember singing for a long time, if not ever. It just felt so easy - I went into a flow state.

I speak about flow more thoroughly in another piece, but it’s essentially a mental state in which someone is completely absorbed and focused on what they are doing: a state of pure enjoyment.

It made me realise how infrequently I had actually felt that over the course of my career. Under normal circumstances I would have been absolutely terrified, but this time something was different – my state of mind.

Over, the past few years, I’ve been practising something called cognitive interference theory.

Cognitive interference theory.

I first came into contact with this idea when I was at the 2013 Lisa Gasteen Opera School in Brisbane and a sport psychologist gave a talk on how to prepare for performance. We all had to fill in questionnaires before we came to the school; during the session we went through our profiles, and what they meant for how we should prepare for performances.

When we got to mine, the professional holding the session said something along the lines of: “You’re obviously an anxious person who thinks too much. You need to distract yourself right up until you go on stage…do NOT sit alone and try to calm yourself, you’ll just make yourself more nervous”.

This interaction piqued my interest in the field of performance psychology – it’s a big part of the reason why I am where I am today.

Throughout university, no one ever really spoke about what to do about performance anxiety. I knew everyone was suffering from it, but the extent of the advice I ever got was, “Take a few deep breaths; you’ll be fine.” I wasn’t fine. I would go into a state of panic, and that panic would only subside about three-quarters of the way through a performance, by which point I hadn’t sung anywhere near my best. I would leave the stage feeling like I’d let myself down.

Cognitive interference theory proposes that cognitive anxiety, in the form of worry, is resource intensive; in other words, it’s mentally exhausting.

It diverts your attention from task-relevant cues, distracting you from the task you’re trying to focus on. This diversion of your mind’s resources changes it from a single task performance to a dual task situation where controlling the worrisome thoughts takes away from the cognitive resources (brain power) you would otherwise be using to perform well. This obviously results in a less than ideal performance outcome.

So how do you tackle it?

This theory, a theory that I myself have found particularly useful in combating performance anxiety, essentially says – distract yourself up until the point of performance. Call a friend, do a math puzzle, do something cognitively stimulating enough to remove yourself mentally from the stressful situation.

If you are anything like most of the performers I know, you’ll know your part inside out. Convincing yourself that you need to rehearse it one more time before you go on stage is completely counterproductive: if you don’t know it by now, an extra 15 minutes of practise won’t help. What you DO need is a clear mind as you walk out onto stage. You know what to do, you just need to get your brain out of the way. That guy can be your worst enemy in times of stress.

So what did I do to put this theory into practice?

I’ve tried a few different things. For an audition a few weeks ago I took a book of Sudoku with me. That was okay, but I don’t normally do Sudoku, so my brain kind of knew that I was trying to trick it. For the next one I specifically organised a call with an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while, which worked really well – except I almost missed my audition because I was so engrossed in conversation! Today, I sat down, and did something that I know always brings me joy; I watched an excerpt of a Disney film :P You’ll have to ask me if you want to know which one!

I didn’t get the audition.

But d’you know what? I didn’t even care.

I left that audition feeling the best I’ve ever felt about an audition. I got some amazing feedback and I was so proud of myself for truly singing my best. The entire experience was incredibly valuable: it made me realise that I AM capable of performing to my true potential.

In other words, it really improved my self-efficacy – read my blog on improving self-efficacy for more techniques to reach your performing potential.

Next time I do an audition I’ll visualise this day (more on visualising success here) and remember that the potential for success lies firmly within my reach.

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