Breathing Out Stage Fright
Useful Tools For Moments Of Stress
You're stepping onto the stage
amidst pre-show flurry and excitement and last
minute set list changes. In the audience is the
booking agent for the hottest club in town and
the reviewer everyone listens to. The blood
pumps in your ears, your heart is racing, and
your throat is so dry you can't possibly speak
your lines. Every muscle is tense and you want
It's called the "fight or flight" response.
It's also called stage fright. Stage fright
comes in many different forms. For some, it's a
nervous energy that disappears as soon as they
begin performing or a familiar sensation
that's always under the surface but feels
manageable most of the time. For others, it's
so debilitating that they can't get through an
audition to even be part of a performance.
Stage fright has huge repercussions to the
health and well-being of the performer.
Dr. Louise Montello of Musicians Wellness, Inc.
has worked with injured, blocked and anxious
performers for many years, and has developed a
rich set of tools that we can use in moments of
stress and anxiety.
One of her most powerful techniques, from the
Yoga tradition, is breath. Breath is a key link
between the mind and the body. Our body's
autonomic nervous system is made up of the
parasympathetic nervous system (related to
relaxation, creativity and awareness) and the
sympathetic nervous system (related to
analytical thinking and action). When we're in
"fight or flight" mode, our sympathetic
nervous systems are in charge, and our bodies,
minds and emotions are locked into battle with
an imaginary enemy (while our creative
expression gets caught in the crossfire).
Deep breathing and the specific techniques that
will be described in this article can reawaken
your parasympathetic nervous system.
Note: In yogic breathing exercises, it's
important to always breathe in and out through
the nose. If you watch a baby sleep, you'll
notice that their bellies rise and fall with
each breath. That's diaphragmatic breathing. It
allows you to move more air into your body and
also to send more stale air out on the
Practice this type of breathing while holding
your hands on your belly, to feel it expand as
you inhale, and contract as you exhale. Your
back and sides should expand and contract as
Since exhalation is associated with the
parasympathetic nervous system, long exhalations
also help to induce relaxation. This exercise is
helpful in times of great stress (i.e.
auditions). Breathe in for a certain number of
counts, and then breathe out for twice as many
counts (count evenly in your own time), pushing
the breath out from the belly.
Another option is alternate nostril breathing.
By alternately breathing through our right
nostril (connected to our sympathetic nervous
system) and our left nostril (connected to our
parasympathetic nervous system), we can balance
our entire autonomic nervous system.
To prepare for this exercise, clear your
nostrils by breathing in and out quickly
several times in a row (another technique called
"cleansing breath"). Now, fold the index
finger and middle finger of the right hand into
the palm, and use the thumb to close your right
nostril and your ring finger to close your left
nostril. Breathe in through one nostril and out
through the other. Take nine breaths this way,
and then repeat that cycle two times.
You'll be amazed at the difference these simple
breathing exercises can make, with a few short
minutes of practice every day. Then, at times of
stress, you'll have a valuable tool to support
your performance, and all your creative dreams.
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