Is Adrenaline perfect for performance?

Is Adrenaline perfect for performance?

I had an interesting conversation the other day about Performance and the role of adrenaline with my vocal Physio. She had asked about my recent performance at my Artist in Residence Exhibition opening: “Don’t you need to be on adrenaline to perform?” when i said I wanted to transition calmly from life into “performance”.

I had just heard on the radio that Jonas Kaufmann, the current tenor du jour, reports that he has “no fear” when he is on stage and this filled me with delight, and it also filled me with envy that he could move onto the stage in a state of love so grand that he would be present and attentive and vocally open and transformed. I am imagining no fear would also mean no adrenaline. I am wondering if this is indeed the case.

The role of Adrenaline has fascinated me for a long time. After years of noticing that in rehearsals I was able to sing well, it changed when it came to the performance: my heart would race, I would forget the words in the fog in my head, my hands would shake, my legs would shake and it would be a panicked experience, and I would often leave my body. And yet I continued with singing and performing. On a deep level I knew that there must have been a different way, and I was constantly in search for it.

The work of Catherine Fitzmaurice was personally illuminating for me, and using her tremor work has assisted greatly. It is possible for me to have gotten the “shake” out prior to performance, which has a variety of positive effects for my nervous system. Made recently famous by the words of Taylor Swift, shaking it out is a basic animalistic need that helps us to transition between the Adrenaline system back to our Parasympathetic nervous system, our calm nervous system. It can become inhibited when we do not want anyone to see the extent of our physical reaction, or perhaps hide how deep the emotion was. Children can be taught this by even simple instructions “Don’t look so nervous!”

In the conversation I mentioned, I was speaking about my intention to transition to performance without the habitual anxiety and adrenaline fuelling aspects. I was wanting to be in the shibumi state of being calm and alert, not calm and not to vague out. It required me to have my ritual before the performance and to be noticing and observing myself strongly throughout the lead up to the experience, amongst other things

For me, the conversation raised a question about our beliefs about warm up and performing. Is it necessary to have an adrenaline filled journey pre show?  Is it possible to keep the stress hormone quelled and therefore able to reside on the parasympathetic nervous system which is the one we breathe, sleep, talk, eat and move easily on, rather than the tiger filled adrenaline of fight, flight, freeze and flee? Does ritual help? Does being in a performance routine assist or get in the way? I have worked with many newsreaders and barristers that do not want any alterations to their preparation. 

I am curious as to how many performers believe that adrenaline serves them well when they perform. Long term, how do we manage our nervous system and our energy levels? In Eastern philosophy they speak of kidney chi and how adrenaline reduces our kidney chi, which is essential for our life force. Does this lead to fatigue generally, and then perhaps vocal fatigue?

Do we need to question our beliefs about our transition to performance? Do we need to reimagine and revisualise those things that we have always done to find a new and more flowing way of coming into the performance arena? I think it can be helpful, although not done on the day of performing or auditioning!! 

I recently showed some of the Fitzmaurice techniques to my friend’s 7 year old that had been losing the joy of singing, She was clearly shaking when she was singing and tightening the throat leading to her pitch being different to what she wanted to pitch (and didn’t she know it). This is a crucial age where self-criticism can commence strongly, and self-consciousness starts. For any performer, the ideal is to be childlike when performing and at the same time have the adult intellect, concentration and awareness that combines beautifully to bring it all into balance to create magic in the performance.

As I whispered to her what we were going to do, she was eager to do it with me. She knew it hadn’t been feeling good and there was no lying to her about it.  Afterwards, I got her to do a little song and asked her how she felt. She said, “I feel so much better. I like how it feels in my body”.  On another level, there was less tension, more “abandon” and her pitch was now gorgeous. And therein lies the joy of song.

And is that not it. How it feels in our body when we make glorious sound. How sound can vibrate and invite every cell in our body to participate in the joy and positive feelings that we can experience.

As for me, I was able to transition on the night with much less adrenaline. I was able to stay in the room on every level and perform the improvisational song that was waiting to be sung. I had got out of my own way, and I was able to invite the magic of the song in. 

There is still so much to learn about this transitioning. I would be so keen to know of your thoughts around this process. Do you have no fear? Do you perform in spite of your nerves, a la Lawrence Olivier? How do you transition into your performance. Does a ritualistic warm up assist you? How much energy is expended prior to each performance?