Grounding for performance nerves

Grounding: What it is and why singers should care?

Managing performance nerves and building up your peak performance.

Imagine you're a tree

“Imagine you're a tree. Feel your feet sink like roots into the ground”.

I thought my instructor was Ludacris. I was at a vocal masterclass feeling dead nervous about singing before the class. I had a lump in the throat and my heart was racing and she wanted me to imagine I was a tree. Like that would help.

If I’d known then what I know now, I would have understood what she was aiming for. She was trying to get me grounded. And looking back I definitely could have used some to help me contain my performance nerves and actually perform well in the masterclass (fact-flash: it's not necessary to eliminate nerves to do even extraordinarily well). But I was too ignorant and the instructions just too abstract.

Like me, if you have not been a) explained how and why grounding works, and b) guided in tracking our awareness of our bodily and mental states, it's might be that you might have not gotten the benefits from practicing it.  And maybe you've dismissed it altogether as a bit of a "woe woe".

Forget about trees. I am here to tell you how grounding can be a very concrete practice, how it is backed up by our physiology, and why it's such an essential practice for us singers and performers.

Watch the below video to get the practical 'take-aways' from this blog.

What is grounding and why should singers care?

Grounding is a somatic (body-based) practice to orient the body in space and time. We do this by feeling into the physical sensations the body has of itself in the environment through touch, movement, and breath. We do this with the intention to establish a sense of safety at the nervous system level. What this means and why this is so essential, I will explain further into my blog, but first, whether you are a performer who wants to have a strong-stage presence or an aspiring singer who finds singing in front of others nerve-wracking, grounding is a cornerstone in:

  • Enabling learning
  • Regulating your arousal states
  • Building your peak performance
  • Containing intensity while embodying emotion
  • Prerequisite for enjoying singing and performing

If any of the above catches your interest, and you would like to know more and how to work with these elements, the read further...

The singing nerve

To understand why and how grounding works, we need to understand something about the autonomous nervous system, ANS for short.  If you ever got a lump in the throat just from being emotional or stressed, then you have experienced how the state of our ANS has a profound effect on our voice (and by the way: your hearing too!).

As you might know, the ANS has two branches: the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch. No matter how seasoned you are as a singer, getting on the wrong branch of your ANS can make you perform less well or even lose control over the voice. Also, even if you are the cool type that feels pretty zen on any stage, you might not want to dismiss educating yourself about the ANS as you might miss the secrets of getting from good to great performances.

The sympathetic branch is best known for regulating our stress responses like the "fight" and "flight". The parasympathetic branch divides yet into two branches*, one being the immobility response, which is often referred to as the "rest and digest" mode. The second branch is our 'social engagement mode'. A place where we find calmness, connection, playfulness, and at it's best peak experiences such as the sought-after state of "flow". This is also where peak performance happens.

Needless to say, we singers want to hang-out at the social engagement-branch of our ANS. This is even more so because of the vagus nerve - the primary nerve in charge of the parasympathetic branch - is the nerve controlling the larynx. We may as well call it the "singing nerve". With not enough vagal or parasympathetic activation going on, our control of the voice becomes inconsistent. For singers and performers then, it becomes relevant that we gain awareness of, and learn to regulate our internal states. That's where grounding comes in as an elementary exercise.

Read further for telltale signs your vagal-tone could use a boost, and an exercise sequence to start improving!

Not thinking but sensing

Envision a classic image of an opera singer, graciously placing her hand on top of the grand piano and gently leaning in as she starts her aria. Whether or not this is a conscious mise-en-scene, she is helping herself get grounded. If you are one of those singers who feel like you sing better with something in your hand, a microphone, a hairbrush, any prop available..., chances are this just might be for the same reason. Why does this help?

Fundamental for the parasympathetic activation is our internal, bodily experience of safety. Research shows us that the more stressed or 'unsafe' we feel, the more our higher "thinking" brain is disconnected from the lower parts of our brain. Conscious thoughts live in this "higher" brain. So if you are trying to calm yourself down or get yourself to concentrate, this is why mantra's and positive thinking might not do the trick for you: your body has been hijacked by the lower brain parts. We can however reel our bodies back in and communicate safety to the lower brain by sensing and feeling. Literally connecting to the environment by touching objects, like a tabletop,  is a simple way to do that. 

Telltale signs you could benefit from grounding:

  • You get excited and so much into your performance that it affects your voice.
  • You get carried away with your acting or become emotional
  • Uncontrollable breaking of the voice, dry mouth, a lump in the throat, etc.,..
  • Your feet or hands cannot stay put, or you feel unstable standing still
  • Difficulty concentrating, frantic thinking
  • You are not performing as well as you know you could in class, auditions or on stage
  • Instead of the performance-arousal having its's peak in intensity and then ebbing to more tolerable levels, you remain nervous all the way through the performance.
  • Tips and tricks, and mantras are just not doing it for you
  • Afterward, you are left feeling down or disappointed
  • You stopped enjoying singing and performing. It just feels like work.

Does the above sound familiar to you? Wouldn't you wish you could have changed that experience?  And maybe you tried, actually, I'm sure you did your best. The thing is, that when we get aroused our brain automatically orients us outwards scanning the surroundings. We are desperately trying to manage and fix ourselves and the situation. Paradoxically we cannot change our inner experience of what is happening by fixing and reacting to what's around us. We need to direct our attention inwards instead.

Baseline exercise for practicing grounding

Here is a 4-step exercise sequence to help you direct your attention to your senses and get started with grounding. You can do the exercises sitting or standing. Note that with grounding exercises, we first place the attention to the peripherals of the body, meaning your hands, feet, arms, and legs. Focusing on the viscera and sensations in the upper body without grounding, may feel intense and even overwhelming. Also, notice how easy or difficult the exercise is for you. Feeling into the body’s sensation requires a skill called interception. It’s the brain's ability to notice what’s going on in the body. This exercise sequence also helps to develop and train that skill

  • 1) Notice your breath. Do not try to change it, but just notice the pace and depth of your breathing.
  • 2) Cross your arms around your body. Feel the touch of your hand and how the arms contain the beginnings and endings of your upper body. If you feel like it, you can rock slowly from side to side as if moving to a slow peace of music.
  • 3) Bring your attention to your feet. If you are sitting down while doing the exercise, make sure you can place both feet flat on the ground. Notice how your feet feel against the surface beneath. You can shuffle your feet in a slow and smooth movement against the ground, one foot at a time.
  • 4) Now, place your hands against your thighs and bring your attention to the touch. You can also place them on a table. Move them slowly against the surface and notice the touch and the structure of the surface.
  • Bonus step: Turn your head from left to right, up and down. Take a look around the room you are in, noticing furniture, colors, and people that are around.

Take a moment to notice if anything has changed: maybe the breath is different, maybe your vision got clearer, or your thinking is different. Overall you may feel calmer or - on the contrary - more activated or focused. This depends on where you are coming from in terms of the state your ANS before you did the exercise.

We often exhibit orienting movements such as described in the exercise naturally and unconsciously when we are well connected and attuned to our bodies, but it may also take us some practice. As we develop an ever-stronger sense of "groundedness", it's time to place the exercise in the context of singing.

Next level: practice for peak performance

If you want the full benefits of grounding, it is best to start practice off-stage when you are calm and comfortable. A simple exercise you can practice in day-to-day-context is to start off with a grounding exercise, and then when you go about your doings,  whether that is writing a blog, singing, or having a conversation with someone, keep aware of the sensation your body has of the environment. This can be feeling the feet touching the ground, or feeling your sit bones against the chair.

Being grounded means being connected to the body’s experience of its self in its environment and maintaining that connection while we are engaged in action.

Being grounded means being connected to the body’s experience of its self in its environment and maintaining that connection while we are engaged in action. In the context of vocal performance, this means listening and communicating with fellow musicians, interacting with the audience, maintaining technique, your storytelling, etc.,.. all the while remaining connected to your bodily sensation. This connection is also a prerequisite for the authentic embodiment and presence.

The mind is the body

In addition to body-based practice, a mindful and compassionate mindset is key in achieving our fullest performance potential.  In my experience, these two go hand in hand: singers might not gain optimal (lasting) benefits from performance psychology and mental training if the regulation at the nervous system level is not in place, and vice versa.

We need the ability to stay with our bodily experiences in order to contain the intensity of performing, to be present performers, and express authentically. And we need the mental skills to navigate our thoughts and feelings and to prompt us towards meaningful action. We may be conditioned to separate body and mind (especially in the west), but singing and embodied performance is all about the system operating as one whole. There is no real division between body and mind, except the conceptual ways we have been thought to think of them

So back to the beginning and this instructor who prompted me about the tree. Turns out, she gave me exactly the exercise I needed but wasn’t ready for. Maybe it would have made a difference if she had given me a bit more context to have me buy into the exercise, but as everything happens for a reason, I'm am much happier having my own adventure figuring it out.

Notes/Disclaimer

  • *The parasympathetic branch divides into two branches: the dorsal vagal and ventral vagal.
  • For people wanting to know more of the theory, technical terms, and science behind my writings, I can warmly recommend learning about Steven Porges's Polyvagal Theory (Here is a YouTube explaining the theory). You are also heartily welcome to send me a message! Inspiration from this blog comes from many sources, from yoga to Feldenkrais, and especially the teachings of Peter Levine on somatic work.
  • Want to build-up your peak performance? Take a look at the ways we can work together.
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