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Adrenaline and Vocal Performance

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manicA discussion over on Choralnet from a couple of weeks back has prompted to me write about a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about for a while. The main subject is about the role of the conductor in performance, and its relationship to the rehearsal process – itself an interesting subject, but not my focus today. Rather it was the passing comments about managing individual voices and balance issues in performance that caught my attention.

What struck me was how the participants in the discussion took it for granted that this would be needed, even in the context of discussions about carefully-prepared performances. And this resonated with conversations I’ve had recently in which people have expressed disappointment at hearing voices popping out in performances by ensembles they thought had a better grasp of choral craft than that.

I have been thinking for some time about the effects of the sympathetic nervous system on singers as they head into performance, and am starting to be able to identify a number of performance issues that can, I think, be directly attributed to excess adrenaline and other stress hormones in the system. And they often result balance or other ensemble issues in one way or another. These symptoms include:

  • Tunnel hearing. You often hear singers complaining about unfamiliar performance acoustics, saying they felt like they were singing alone because they couldn’t hear the rest of the ensemble. In fact, this narrowing of perception is a classic stress response. It also exacerbates all the other effects of adrenaline on the system, as it reduces the individual’s awareness of others and thus removes them from the mutual feedback loop with which members of ensembles usually keep each other in check. All the things you have practised anchoring to in rehearsal seem to fade away.
  • Time distortion. Our sense of tempo is at least partly hooked into our biorhythms. So it is a reasonably common experience to find a choir rushing ahead in performance at a tempo noticeably faster than that at which they have rehearsed. Sometimes the whole ensemble dashes off together; sometimes just a few individuals lose their rhythmic grounding leading to problems with synchronisation.
  • Vocal expansion. Some people (including me, as it happens), find that a small dose of adrenaline gives them access to a much larger and more resonant voice than they typically have in rehearsal. It’s actually very pleasurable, and you feel like you rule the world. However, if not everybody in the ensemble experiences this, here come your balance problems, especially if you are also off in your own world of diminished perception cause by tunnel hearing.
  • Vocal fragmentation. This is a subset of the previous issue. It is where the increase in resonance in the voice produces noticeably different vocal qualities in different registers, typically amplifying ‘hooty’ qualities in the head voice. Again, this disrupts the rehearsed balance, and also affects blend.

Now, the thing about the responses from the sympathetic nervous system is that, while they can be very disruptive, they can also be quite helpful. The extra freedom and resonance it can bring to the voices can be really inspiring; even the extra edge to fast tempi can be exciting so long as it doesn’t take things out of control. So you don’t want to lose these effects and the sense of occasion they can provide. But neither do you want to let them over-balance things.

In my next post, I’ll walk through some practical strategies for keeping the adrenaline working for you rather than against you. But for now, I have one more observation about performance format: the shorter the performance, the bigger the challenge to manage this.

I think there are two dimensions to this. The first is psychological. Short performances are often the higher-pressure ones. It’s either a competitive context (10 minutes or a two-song set are typical), or it’s a signal that your performing group is of a relatively lower artistic status than others at the event (the performers with star billing get the longer spots). Either way, the singers are going to feel a greater pressure to make a good impression, both because there’s so little time in which to make it, and because they care more about not disgracing themselves. So you get a bigger slurp of adrenaline into the blood-stream to begin with.

The second is physiological. One of the ways I identified these phenomena was in listening to short sets, and hearing the various distortions of the ensemble sound sort themselves out during the second half of the second piece. You can hear that it’s not that they don’t know how to balance and/or it’s not that some singers can’t control the tonal consistency across registers, it’s just that for 5 or so minutes they had temporarily got detached from their rehearsed technique. You can almost hear the adrenaline rush getting metabolised as they go, and you can tell that at the point they finish, they’re in a really good place to give a stonking performance.

It’s just one of those little ironies of life that 6-10 minute set is just long enough to get settled in and ready to go.

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