Handling the Special Challenges of Performers
by Elena Greco
June 2, 2021
Typical reading time: 5 minutes
(You can also read this article on MEDIUM.)
There is nothing in the world like performing. People who have never performed can’t know the incredible exhilaration, expansion and gratification that it gives us. If you’re a performer, you live to perform.
But being a performer poses demands that no other professional has to face. With an instrument—you—that is both organic and sentient, there are unique challenges.
1) Performing requires that we make ourselves vulnerable in a very public way.
2) It’s a profession filled with rejection.
3) In modern times, it’s very much a business, and the people who decide our fate professionally—if we choose to let them—are interested only in what sells, sometimes with no eye or concern for authentic creative expression or genuine talent.
4) We have to pay bills and attend to a lot of mundane things at the same time that we serve our art, which demands a great deal of us.
5) We have to maintain ourselves as healthy vehicles for creativity—and for life—both physically and psychologically, which is often a great challenge due to the nature of the profession.
Being a healthy vehicle for creativity
There’s a lot of information readily available about being an entrepreneur—which every performer is now—and on advancing your career. There’s plenty out there about developing your team of support professionals and how to land auditions. But there’s not a lot out there for performers about developing yourself as a human being, or about maintaining your physical and mental health, or why you would care about those things if you’re a performer. There’s also not much practical help for some specific issues related to performing. So let’s take a look at those things.
Everything that we experience affects us
An opera singer had to withdraw in the middle of his debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera. For those who aren’t opera devotees, debuting at the Met is the pinnacle of an opera singer’s dream. Withdrawing in the middle of that performance is something you would not ever want to do. This tenor was in the throws of a divorce, and the resultant emotion and turmoil caused his throat muscles to tighten so much that he suddenly couldn’t sing, standing on the stage of the Met with thousands of eyes on him! Performers who appear at the top level of the opera world have trained themselves for years to perform in the face of obstacles. Yet this singer could not force his body not to respond to the emotion caused by this distressing situation in his life.
In order to bring your whole being freely, authentically and creatively to your performing, so that you can create inspiring performances, you need to be healthy in mind and body. And you need to know how to bring yourself into balance when life is chaotic.
To have a fulfilling life as a performer, your performing should have meaning for you, should have a purpose. Why do you perform? If you can frame that as an intention for your life, staying in touch with that purpose will nurture you and keep you going even when things get tough.
And they will get tough.
You need tools to keep you healthy in mind, body and spirit.
The importance of intention: Why we perform
Having a purpose or intention for your performing will change things for you. What do I mean by “intention”? Simply put, it’s a goal fueled by our desire, but with the strength of our will and commitment behind it. An intention is a focused, specific goal to which we commit ourselves.
Remember: language is powerful. The words we speak, not only to others, but to ourselves, shape and ultimately create our life experiences. Be sure to word your intention about your performing so that it isn’t too specific and can include things you can’t foresee. That way, while carrying that intention alive within you, you’re allowing the wonderful unpredictability of the world to assist you in your intention.
Examples might be: “My intention is to bring inspiration to people through my performing,” or “My intention is to be a vehicle for bringing the works of musical theater alive,” or “My intention is to bring the works of female Renaissance composers to the public,” or “My intention is to use the power of my humor to give people comfort and relief.”
The healthier we are in body and mind, and the more abilities we develop, the more we have to offer, and the more freedom of expression we have, and the more complete and compelling we are as creative artists. Performing might be what you live for, but please don’t neglect to develop and experience other areas of your life as fully as you can, because in those other areas, you just might find the gold that makes you a great artist.
If you study the lives of many of the great artists, quite a few of them had very difficult or unusual lives. The fire of adversity made them the great artists they were. I’m not suggesting that suffering is a good thing, but simply that the life of a performer needs to contain all the elements of life, not just rehearsing and auditioning and performing. The fuller your life, the more you have to draw from in your creative work.
Do learn as much as you can about keeping yourself healthy and well, physically and mentally. (I have other resources available on that topic if you’re interested.)
I recommend that you create your own unique Health Plan, one which promotes vitality, resilience and longevity.
You are the instrument. Your body and mind are the vehicle through which creativity flows, and through which the energy flows that reaches the audience.
If you’re a performer, you know what an insufficient amount of sleep does to your ability to perform. And if you use your voice in your performing, the deleterious effect of not sleeping is even more severe; it can leave you with no voice. If you tend to have trouble sleeping, you might also have a fear of not sleeping the night before a performance—an anxiety which also makes it harder to go to sleep.
I recommend creating a Sleep Kit that contains items that you’ve found to be helpful in sleeping—perhaps certain remedies, an essential oil, or a favorite book—and maybe even a list that reminds you what to do when you can’t sleep. Having that Sleep Kit will help alleviate some of the fear of not sleeping, and it will also help you get to sleep!
Singers, actors, and comedians have an even greater burden in remaining physically healthy than their fellow performers in other genres, because the voice, their primary instrument, without which they can’t do their job, is biological.
In order both to alleviate the fear of what might go wrong and to keep the voice healthy, I recommend creating a Voice Kit, which might include remedies and supplements that you use to recover quickly from throat issues, along with your favorite throat sprays and lozenges, and even a short list of what to do in case of vocal health issues, in case you forget when you’re a bit anxious. Having a Voice Kit means you don’t have to worry so much about your voice. Being prepared is like having insurance; you have it so you don’t have to worry about what might happen in the future.
ISSUES RELATED TO PERFORMING
Rejection: Recuperating from a bad audition, performance or review
Part of your Mental Health Plan should include what you’re going to do to rebound when you don’t get a gig, or you have a bad audition, or a performance goes badly, or a critic pans your performance. Those unfortunate things are a part of the performing life, and they can throw us for a loop if we’re not prepared.
Your Plan might include calling a certain person for support, walking in nature, going to your favorite restaurant for a night out, or reminding yourself of your intention for performing.
Everyone’s unique, and you need to find your unique method of regaining your equilibrium when you have these experiences. If it’s part of your Plan, one you can easily access, you won’t have to remember, at a time when you’re upset, what to do.
No one likes to cancel a performance. We worry that if we do, no one will ever hire us again. We’re convinced that this particular performance will make or break our reputation. Most of all, this is the thing we love, the thing that makes us feel alive, and we really, really don’t want to cancel it.
But there are times when we really should cancel. If there’s a possibility that singing with your bad throat could damage your voice, you absolutely have to cancel. If you’re really sick and you’re likely to turn in a poor performance that could damage your reputation, you have to cancel. If you’re too sick to get out of bed, you have to cancel.
You might want to wait until the last possible moment to make that decision in the hope that something miraculous will happen and you’ll be able to perform after all. What if you really do get better tomorrow? You’ll have given up an opportunity! You want to wait.
Don’t do it! The sooner you can let the producer or director know that you won’t be able to perform, the less stress they’ll have to bear, and the easier time they’ll have of getting a replacement for you. The later you wait, the more they will resent you, and the less chance they’ll hire you again.
So make that decision as soon as you can, and handle it with grace and professionalism.
Not feeling up to performing
There are times when the day of the performance comes, and we just don’t want to do it. We’re tired, we’re sad, we just don’t feel up to it. But we have a performance to do!
At times like those, we need to remember our intention for performing that I talked about earlier. It’s a good idea to have that sentence or statement of your intention for performing printed out and kept in a place where you can easily see it.
Also, there’s an exercise in my article, Solve Performance Anxiety, Finally, that helps with performance anxiety that also helps with getting the energy up if that’s what you need to do.
This is a complex, multi-pronged issue. To learn a truly effective way to resolve the debilitating effects of performance anxiety, look in depth at five ways of neutralizing the effects of performance anxiety in this article: Solve Performance Anxiety, Finally.
The world needs you
Whether it’s through your words, through the sound of your voice, through your movement, through your humor—you have the creative power to change and uplift hearts and minds, and to inspire people. The world needs you.
I hope this was useful to you and your work. And if you’d like to send me a question, or learn more about what I do, or explore the possibility of working with me, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.