The Singing Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body and it also enervates the larynx. As it is the nerve that is responsible for prosody in the voice, we could very well call it “the singing nerve”. Prosody is the ability to vary in pitch, tone, volume, and rhythm. It makes our voice expressive, communicating emotions and attitudes.
Depending on our vagal activation, the nervous system either promotes prosody or impedes it. A recognizable example is the “lump in the throat” when we are highly aroused, or overwhelmed by emotion. But also more subtle stressors may cause changes in the vocal function. The degree to which we feel we are in control of our voices, and even whether or not we experience freedom and joy in performing, are initiated in the nervous system. To put it short, the condition of our nervous system matters for optimal vocal performance and artist wellbeing.
Secret of Powerful Performance
Besides enervating the larynx, the vagus nerve plays a key role in experiences of flow, creativity, joy, connection and presence. It offers us new insights into how authenticity in performance and stage presence can be trained in a concrete and tangible way.
Much like with muscle tone, the stronger our “vagal tone”, the better our physical and mental capacity to stay present and connect to our audience while facing the challenges and intensity of performing. The vagus does this by tempering our physiological responses. This has a profound effect on our feelings, thoughts and behaviours.
Example: Without influence from the vagus, sympathetic arousal (stress) activates a survival response in the nervous system. We may experience performance anxiety and decreased – even loss of – vocal ability. Avoiding sympathetic activation however, is not the solution. Without it, a performance may lack energy, and we maybe unable to hold our audience’s attention.
With influence from the vagus, the same sympathetic energy is directed towards connection. Specific to vocal performance, it also supports optimal vocal function and expressiveness. It may very well be this dual excitation that is the secret of a powerful performance.
To conclude, a strong vagal tone helps to tolerate the intensity of performing, holding together the experience of excitement and inner calm. Training the nervous system gives us resiliency, not only to meet the demands, but also to foster our well-being, love, and joy of performing.