Stage Fright and the Importance of Breathing

September 22, 2014, 8:39 AM · As part of my previous post, I talked a little about the nervous system, and how our body creates this "fight or flight" response in reaction to external stresses. The next question then, is how to keep homeostasis between our stress response and our relaxed cellular repair parasympathetic system? Let's revisit stage fright first, though. I love this Ted Ed video about stage fright, because it tells us things we already know (from performing) but goes in a bit more detail about the hypothalamus, which is a regulator in your autonomic nervous system and a player in "fight or flight."

One of the amazing things about watching the Indianapolis competition these past few weeks has been to see how much control these performers have over their sympathetic response, and how they can make music under intense pressure.

Many of us are not gifted with that extreme control, but it's definitely a skill that can be cultivated with awareness, time, and patience. How? First, by becoming aware of situations that induce fight or flight, whether performance, teaching, public speaking, or other situations, and then noticing the breath. (The video also pointed out some obvious things: preparation is essential, everyone's experience is unique, and your mental state affects your reaction. Mental state while performing and auditioning is a entirely separate conversation worth having.) Notice how the video ended? By focusing on the breath.

Bringing mindfulness (of the breath and body) into the music space is an amazing way to start to:

  1. Become more aware of your breath quality/duration/depth
  2. Become more aware of what situations induce stress response
  3. Start to gain a bit more control of the stress response.

Now breathing may sound simple, but your respiratory diaphragm is controlled by both somatic nerves and autonomic nerves, and the quality of your breath affects the entire nervous system. Full diaphragmatic breaths can affect your blood pressure, blood pH, and help you to focus, become more aware of the task at hand, and find physical grounding before performing.

just breathe

Yoga and meditation practices can be a great way of gaining this experience, but the simplest thing to do though is to start noticing how you breathe normally (short, shallow breaths? Deep diaphragmatic breaths? Belly Breaths?). Many spiritual traditions use the breath as a beginning point of awareness and down regulation , and as a musician who is often under stress daily, this can be helpful.

If you're in an orchestra and you're a soloist (or section leader or conductor), take a few seconds before rehearsal or during tuning to check into your breath and your contact with the chair. See if you can settle your energy downwards into your ischial tuberosities (sit bones) while feeling into your ribs and belly as you inhale. If you're preparing to speak (either to a class or committee) and you're nervous, do the same thing: begin with your quality of breath as a way of focusing your scattered mind and feel your feet rooted into the earth solidly. Shallow breath means that less oxygen is in your body, and therefore less oxygen to your brain (and a less focused brain too!). Another thing- to upregulate and energize, we lengthen our inhalation, if we want to calm the body, we lengthen the exhalation.

When students are first beginning performing, help them to become of the breath and how can it can help them to focus and calm down. Begin experimenting with your breath awareness in daily life, and notice how rarely you breathe fully, and how often you allow stress to take over!

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September 23, 2014 at 04:59 AM · Thank you for your very interesting article! I was wondering if you perhaps have any tips/exercises on getting more control on the breath while playing? I am sometimes aware I stop breathing at all or tend to breathe/make noises while playing the violin. I find it really hard to change this, but as you emphasize in your article the importance of good breathing, it's probably a key to play in a more relaxed way.

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