As I’m backstage about to head out to sing Brahms Requiem here in Prague, I’m not nervous.
I never get nervous for a performance. Maybe for an important rehearsal, but never an actual performance. Getting nervous seems so weird to me, and I recognize that this is not the norm.
I’m often asked how my mind deals with performing, and how I am able to overcome nerves so easily, so I decided to write it all down.
Be Prepared and Be Confident
Preparation is the secret to my confidence.
When I know that the quality of the work I put out there is at a high level, so much comes together for me. And I can only do this through preparation: it gives me power.
Each element of my performance will in turn feed off of that confidence. Confidence is the first step to achieve a great performance: it is impossible if you don’t believe in yourself.
Cheesy, but oh so true.
What To Do When You Make A Mistake
There are times when confidence and preparation isn’t enough. Nerves kick in and you make a mistake.
You take a shallow breath, start shaking, or speed up your words. It’s a dangerous path to go down: this is where things can really start to go wrong.
The wheels start to fall off and it all goes downhill from there.
Before you get to the point of no return, don’t let your emotions dominate your critical thinking.
When this happens during a performance, jot a quick mental note of it and move on. Make time after the performance to address what went wrong and come up with a game plan for the next time.
In this way, every performance is a learning opportunity. So even when you do make a mistake, the night is not over.
When you come across a tricky passage, realize that when it’s over, you’ll have the opportunity to re-engage yourself with your usual badass technique and get back on track.
The biggest mistake is letting the mistake affect you after it’s happened.
I deal with mistakes by letting them go as soon as they happen. Sometimes I admit I get frustrated with mistakes, but it’s usually only with staging technicalities. All is never lost!
Say Hello, Then Goodbye
The moment I begin to feel nervous, I let the feeling come: I recognize what it is.
Then I tell myself, “You’re making this a bigger deal than it actually is.” And I watch the emotion go away.
“What if this crashes and burns?” Wave goodbye to it.
“Do I look silly?” Ciao!
“I’ll never be good enough.” Bye, Felicia!
When performing, use your analytical brain, not your emotional one. Take a break and tell yourself, “I’ve already practiced this correctly 1,000 times. Just do that.”
Don’t be a victim to your habit: have the intellectual capacity to recognize the nerves, and then quiet them immediately.
If I ever have a negative thought spring up in my mind, (which happens to everyone) it can be damaging to my performance.
This is when preparation really comes into play. If you know you have a problem, like trouble sustaining long phrases, admit it. Then think: what can I do about it?
Accept that you have this issue, just don’t let it get to you. Recognize that it might happen, prepare for it, and then move on with your life.
The way I deal with a negative thought is by literally pushing it down and brushing it away. An insecure thought appears and I quickly get rid of it by thinking objectively. I know that I will address the problem later, so I don’t worry about it in the moment.
For instance, a negative thought might be: “you’re talking too fast and this speech is going by too quickly.” My game plan is already in place so I rationally correct it in the moment. In this case, my game plan would be to take my time speaking, or take a pause and a deep breath which in turn will help the audience focus, too.
For opera, one of my main tricks is to always be in character: it’s the ultimate multitasking. When you make a mistake, you can still make a mental note of what happened, while continuing to be in character the whole time.
Because I remain in character, I don’t allow the snowball of emotions to take hold over the problem. If I were to let my emotions get past a certain point, I would lose control.
So stop the emotional thinking before it owns you.
Most importantly, you have to be an active participant in what you are doing. You can’t just lose yourself in the moment.
Another important point when dealing with nerves is strengthening your sense of realization. Let me explain.
People who finish an audition knowing they did well go further than people who think they suck because they didn’t land the gig.
They possess a realism about their performance and don’t let their self-consciousness interfere.
This directly affects one’s confidence when performing, and thus the nerves take on a lesser role. Get to the point of self-analysis to know when you do really well. “That was really good for me” will eventually turn into “that was really good for anyone.”
With consistent practice, you will always make personal progress, regardless of whether or not you ever set foot on a professional stage. But first, you have to be the best version of yourself that you can be.
Text and Technique
I focus really hard when I’m performing. On what, you may ask?
Not so much on my sound or technique, but on the meaning of the words. When I sing a high note, I do think technically, but after that I quickly return to the text and the dynamics.
When I was really young, I had to spend more of my mental energy on technique, but now I just focus on expressing the character. The singers who can’t stop thinking about their technique throughout the duration of their performance probably don’t have a solid technique, and need more time to marinate. Technique is a tool for you to express the emotion of the piece, and with enough practice, it becomes second nature.
Let’s go back to that sweet memory of Little Lucas with no technique. When it felt like the wheels might fall off every time I sang, there was no way I could fix it in the moment. Since I had to focus on other strengths until my technique was solid, I would focus on the meaning of the words.
Notably, even with my bad technique, I was never untrue to the character. I would go to great lengths to truly embody the character, and I still do this. For example, if I’ve got a cold, Don Giovanni has a cold. If I crack, it’s Figaro cracking for a reason, not Lucas Meachem.
In my opinion, Bob Dylan is the worst singer in the world, but he has so much intention behind everything he sings, and it’s incredibly moving. What good does it do if when you make one mistake, you decide to ruin an entire performance because of it?
Be smarter. You can’t hinder your entire performance from messing up once, or even twice.
When I Can’t Relax
As a singer, I’m very in touch with my breath throughout the day, and when I get stressed out the first thing I notice is the shallowness of my breath. To control this, I take several deep breaths. I fill up entirely, then I breathe those emotions in through my nose and out through my mouth. My heartbeat goes down and my breath control is better—and its directly correlated with vocal technique!
If I feel like I’m singing and my throat is getting tired and my larynx raises, I eat a banana. It’s mushy and when I swallow it, I feel it going down the entire length of my throat. Weirdly enough, this calms my throat down! Anything that is mushy will help relax your throat. It’s a tool for me.
If I’m performing and I find my breath is high due to nerves, I find moments throughout the piece when I can realign myself with my breath. Whether that moment is two bars of rests or a single breath in between two short phrases, it’s imperative to find those opportunities. Before you head out, go through the piece page by page and remind yourself where your breath gets high and give yourself a reset button somewhere in there.
Ground yourself and reset your breath.
Fighting Those Demons
To those out there who make up negative sh*t about yourself while you’re performing, why not make it positive? Instead of:
“What if they don’t like my high note?”
Think: “You’ll love my high note” or “This high note is really good.”
You’re probably inventing an unfair assumption of your singing anyway, so why not invent an extremely positive one?
This is a good lesson for social situations too, and giving yourself the confidence to have an amazing conversation with a new person. Instead of “I’m so lame” think: “I am just SO interesting!”
The best case scenario would be for you to overcome creating inaccurate depictions of yourself, positive or negative. Be realistic about what you’re putting out there, and stop second-guessing yourself.
Comparing oneself with others during a performance is a dark road to go down and it’s one I choose not to take.
How do I avoid it? It goes back to the character.
I think, “No one can be better than my Don Giovanni because right now in this moment I AM Don Giovanni. There IS no other Don Giovanni.” Just like when I’m not acting, there is no other Lucas Meachem in the world and no one can out Lucas-Meachem me.
Embody the character and you won’t run into those thoughts.
Shake It Off
When you begin to tremble or get nervous physical ticks, that is extra energy your body is trying to expend, and you need to save that energy for your singing.
Take a few steps in character or move both arms in a suitable gesture to get rid of that. If your leg is shaking, literally shake it and watch how quickly it stops!
Also, analyze the jitters right as they’re happening. That’s when you can learn the most about yourself. The problem can be fixed. Being nervous itself is simply a bad habit. It’s not just a part of you.
After your performance, ask yourself where in your music you began to get nervous and find that exact spot. Be a doctor, and diagnose the condition: why did this spot give me nerves? And correct it. Nerves are like any emotion: they can spin out of control if you don’t talk yourself out of it.
Bottom line is, go out there and just do what you do everyday. You won’t magically change in the middle of a performance or overnight, because nerves are a habit you must break.
However, it is possible to create a new habit of not letting those nerves get to you.
What do you think? Did you find this article interesting, entertaining, or helpful? Feel free to chime in your thoughts on this subject with a comment below.