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Performing in front of an audition committee, a classroom full of peers, or an expectant audience can be quite a stressful and nerve-wracking experience at times.
But you know what can often be even more crazy-making? All the waiting we have to do before we finally walk on stage.
Sitting in a warmup room…feeling warmed up and ready to go…but having to wait some more…getting cold and bored…and warming up some more…and starting to get antsy…and still more waiting with no idea how much longer it will be.
And even when all that waiting is over, there’s still the waiting we have to do backstage. Where the nerves really start to kick in, our hands get cold, and our heart begins to beat faster.
My tendency was just to stand there, tense and uncomfortable, a bit like a toddler who has lost his parents at Costco – but also has to pee. Which obviously isn’t a great way to carry oneself backstage, but what else is one to do? Meditate? Visualize? Give yourself a pep talk?
What can we do to keep ourselves in a good mental and physical state during all of this stress-waiting?
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy gave a compelling TED talk in 2012 about “power posing.” Or more specifically, about how our body language doesn’t just affect the way others see us, but has an impact on how we feel about ourselves. Which in turn can affect our performance and the way we interact with others.
It was one of TED’s most popular talks, gaining over 45 million views. And the idea of power posing was not only fun and kind of quirky, but seemed like a simple, practical tool we could all use in our lives.
Of course, the original 2010 paper has become pretty controversial in the years since, and elements of the study were not replicated in subsequent studies (for more on the controversy, and a closer look at some of the bullying-like behavior that can happen in academic circles, I highly recommend this NY Times piece, and this interview with Cuddy which shares more of her perspective).
Regardless, all of this came to mind the other day when a student shared a recent audition experience in which they found it helpful to do some simple yoga poses in the warmup room.
That may not be the most conventional way to utilize one’s warm-up time, but it certainly seems like a more useful way to keep oneself occupied backstage, compared to skulking around in the dark, or standing awkwardly in the corner.
Might there really be some value in backstage yoga?
Yoga vs. power posing
Most of the existing research on yoga’s effect on psychological well-being focuses on yoga’s meditative or breathing elements, not the poses themselves.
So a trio of European researchers, conducted a study comparing several yoga poses with several of the power poses used in previous research.
82 British college students were recruited and told they would be participating in a study about fatigue and social perception (to keep them from guessing the true purpose of the research).
They were randomly assigned to one of four groups, and then asked to assume two different poses while listening to audio instructions on the correct posture, and while responding to a slideshow that was part of the faked purpose of the study.
One group assumed two classic high-power poses (high power pose group).
Another group held body postures that were more constrictive and considered to be low-power poses (low power pose group).
A third group performed open, expansive yoga positions that emphasized standing upright with the spine lengthened and chest opened up – tadasana and urdhva hastasana (open yoga pose group).
And the final group performed yoga poses that were more closed, with arms in front of the body – garudasana – that were thought to be more similar to the low-power poses from the second group (closed yoga pose group).
After holding these poses for 1 minute each, they completed a self-esteem assessment and another assessment designed to measure their sense of energy and control (e.g. “I feel in control,” “I feel powerful,” “I feel energetic,” “I feel empowered,” where 1=not at all, and 5=extremely).
As it turns out, there wasn’t much of a difference between the high-power and low-power poses. Participants’ energy and self-esteem scores were pretty much the same for both.
However, the participants who performed the yoga poses did report higher ratings of energy and self-esteem than those who did the power poses. A small difference, but statistically significant nonetheless.
The researchers suggest that this is an indication that the benefit of “power posing” may have nothing to do with whether the pose communicates power, or any sort of social or physical dominance. But instead, it could be the open, expansive posture itself, which helps to boost one’s feeling of energy or sense of control.
It’s an idea that is supported by some other studies, which have found, for instance, that having people sit upright with chest open (rather than slumped and slouchy) results in improved mood and confidence.
I wish there had been a baseline assessment of perceived energy given, so that we’d have a clearer sense of how much of a change the yoga poses may have contributed to from before to after.
And for our purposes, it would have been nice if there was some sort of stress-inducing performance task they had to do after posing, to see if posing might have any effect on their confidence going into the performance, or on the quality of the performance itself.
But while it may not be clear from this study alone how much of a difference warm-up room or backstage yoga might make for you, it seems like something worth trying.
Because if nothing else, this would be something very specific and active to do backstage, especially if combined with the breathing or meditative aspects that are often associated with yoga.
A nice way to keep your mind quiet, present, and focused on what you want to do when you go on stage. Instead of letting your mind get sucked into the vortex of worries and doubts, and crazy thoughts that crank your stress up to 11 – like the one where you end up living in a van down by the river …
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.