Updated: Nov 8, 2019
‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’
Sir Edmund Hilary remarking on his ascent of Mount Everest in 1953
Last Friday I came home from work knowing that I had absolutely nothing to do that
But about five minutes after walking through the front door, my housemate (who’s also a
singer) sent me two messages in quick succession telling me about two church services that
needed an alto. The first was the following morning, the second one on the Sunday
morning. They were with professional church choirs – and they were paid gigs. I excitedly
agreed and went to bed early.
I woke up at about 4:30 on the Saturday morning in a cold sweat, my heart beating like
crazy. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. I knew exactly what this was: anxiety.
Anxiety about the prospect of getting up in front of people, singing…and failing. This was a
feeling I’d become very familiar with over the years of singing professionally and it was one
of the reasons I’d decided to change directions in my professional life – the constant anxiety
associated with failure.
I was lying in bed and despite the excitement I’d felt only a few hours earlier about the
prospect of getting back out there on the court and doing something I love (and getting paid
for it), I was already coming up with excuses to get out of it. I was very much in fight/flight
In my brain the sequence was something like this: - I have to sing something I have never sung before from sight - Oh god, I haven’t had to do that for a long time - Everyone else I’ll be doing it with does this for a living - I’m going to perform badly - I’m a fraud - They’ll know I’m a fraud - They’ll laugh at me behind me back - I’ll never be asked back - What’s the point of even trying?
I’m sure so many performers have been through something very similar to this. Your mind
just does its own thing and you can’t seem to get control over it.
I didn’t know anything about how to overcome these kinds of thoughts when I was
performing professionally and there wasn’t a huge amount of support out there. The advice
I got was: “Just take a deep breath and you’ll be fine”. But in those moments when I thought
I’d be sick from fear, taking a deep breath really didn’t cut it for me.
I needed tools to get me through those hard times – tools which I didn’t have at the time.
It’s only through stepping away, learning about the psychology of performance, and coming
up with strategies for how to deal with those kinds of situations that I was able to get past
that fear and just go out and perform. So in that moment of paralysed fear, I took myself through the steps of self-efficacy.
“Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our ability to do specific tasks. And is distinct from desire (motivation) and confidence (which is generalised).” – Bandura, 1984
1. Mastery: experience mastering a task or controlling an environment.
I knew it’d been a while since I’d felt mastery in singing, simply because I hadn’t done much
of it in recent years. So I went back to a time when I felt I’d really nailed a performance, and
immersed myself in the emotional state I’d experienced at that time.
In order to feel self-efficacy, you need to experience mastering a task or controlling an
environment. I knew in that moment, I wasn’t going to experience that by sitting there
under my covers, pretending to have suddenly come down with a cold. I needed to fight
that ‘flight’ response to the fear of failure.
2. Vicarious experience: observing those around us, particularly those we see as role models, succeed through their sustained efforts.
Two people immediately came to mind for me. Both were women that I’d studied with and
who were now experiencing great success as professional singers: Alex Flood, and Siobhan
I’d seen first-hand the hard work they’d put in to achieve their goals. I went online and watched some of their clips. Not only did I feel proud of their achievements, but knowing the challenges they’d faced and overcome made me think, “Hey, I can do this!”
3. Verbal persuasion: influential people persuading us that we have what it takes to succeed.
I’d never been particularly good at asking for help, but I knew in this moment that a little
encouragement was in order. I messaged my own coach and told him what I was going
through. He told me I knew what I was doing and that I could do this. I had huge respect for
this guy and if he thought I could do this, then I figured I must have been able to.
4. Managing emotional states: managing emotions to maintain a balanced view of capability.
Research tells us that if you’re experiencing negative emotions, you’ll feel less able – your self-efficacy is negatively impacted (and vice-versa for positive feelings).
So, how could I change what I was feeling? I thought about what made me feel good. Listening to trashy 90’s pop songs from my youth (oh, nostalgia). At uni, we’d sing Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls and TLC at parties and I’d always felt amazing in those moments. So I got out my phone and turned on some ‘No Scrubs’. It took me back to some really positive times in my life and I felt my mood lifting.
5. Imaginal experiences: envisioning oneself succeeding.
Now that my mood was improved, and the desire to run away and hide under a rock somewhere had subsided, I imagined what success tomorrow at the service would look like. It looked like this:
Sing to the best of my abilities
Make some beautiful music
And you know what, I did that.
There were a couple of shaky moments where I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t get bogged down in them. I kept going and at the end, no one was laughing at me, no one said I was terrible, no one was even looking in my direction when I made some mistakes: probably because they were concentrating on themselves and not me!