Why does singing in front of people often feel so much different than singing alone?
We all know the feeling. Adding even one audience member to our art-making can make us suddenly sound, act, and feel so much differently than when we’d practiced in solitude, which is a frustrating finale to our hard work.
When we engage in the vulnerable act of singing for others, our internal systems try to protect us.
Though our systems are actually trying to save us from harm, the changes that occur in our brains, visions, voices, and bodies when we add an audience can often do us more harm than good in creating a moving performance.
However, the great news is this:
The more we can understand these potentially self-sabotaging effects, the better we can work with them for our most truthful performances yet.
First, let’s look at what changes occur.
Our Brains when we sing in front of people
Illustration by David Foldvari
Initially, they focus inward.
When we go into an unknown situation, our brains quickly try to gain control. This often manifests as acute self awareness and lack of attunement to the energy of the room as we try to gain control of ourselves and avoid letting anyone else in.
Then, our brains try to control.
We have what is known as Procedural Memory *Sakile could you link “procedural memory” to the other blog I wrote about procedural memory?, the part of our brains that knows a task so well that we “don’t think, just do.”
Studies have shown that when we do something technically difficult with ease like singing, the motor and reasoning areas of the brain have to communicate less.
However, when we’re nervous, our prefrontal cortex has a tendency to get over-involved, over-thinking and self-sabotaging.
Our Vision when we sing in front of people
When we feel performance anxiety, our vision can become:
Vulnerable situations often give us a surge of adrenaline. With this, our pupils dilate to better help us with our fight or flight responses. However, this can result in making our eyesight blurry due to increased light intake.
Acute focus on something like singing can make us have what’s known as Inattentional Blindness. We become so focused on the difficult task at hand that we miss other things that are blatantly in front of us.
When we’re nervous, we may experience sensory overload.
Our brains are unable to make sense of all five senses at once so vision can be the first to feel like it’s overloading and can’t take any more unexpected stimuli.
Our Voices when we sing in front of people
If there’s one thing that singing requires, it’s breath. When we breathe, we can either engage in:
Diaphragmatic (abdominal) breathing - low, deep breaths that utilize the abdominal muscles and fill the lungs
Thoracic (chest) breathing - faster, more shallow breaths from the chest
When we feel the pressure of singing in front of others, we tend to unconsciously lean towards thoracic breathing. This causes an imbalance in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in our bodies, resulting in an increased heart rate, dizziness, and… vocal tension.
Thoracic breathing and subsequent pushing of the voice is a common stress response that builds upon itself the more that our anxiety rises.
Our Bodies when we sing in front of people
Singing for others versus ourselves ignites our tension/arousal spectrum, which involves our autonomic nervous system.
The pressures of singing put our systems into overload, increasing our heart rates, making us have to use the restroom frequently, and putting us on keen alert.
Our bodies naturally position us to be prepared for danger, which is great if there’s actually danger but debilitating if we need to give a vulnerable, open performance.
So how do we work with these responses?
Below, we’ve outlined the following simple ways to work with these natural changes when going from singing alone to singing in front of people.
So, what’s the main thing we need to do when we go from singing in a controlled environment to a vulnerable one?
Focus outside of ourselves and slow down.
Your body has your back. Your voice knows what to do. As the great acting teacher Meisner tells us,
“Actors must live, not plan.”
By focusing outward and trusting that how you feel is not a threat, you can experience the physiological changes that often come with that singing in front of others and still give a truthful performance filled with trust in yourself and presence in the moment.