A dry mouth, shallow breathing, a rapid heartbeat, a tight throat, upset stomach, shaky hands, and knees. Are you facing a life-threatening situation? For many people, speaking in public brings up such terrors. Speaking in public is the most prevalent fear in America, ranking ahead of even the fear of death.
As a practitioner and college voice professor, I have used the Feldenkrais Method® to help young singers learn to cope with performance anxiety and to use its energy to produce beautiful sound. You can use some of these techniques to help with your preparation for any kind of spoken presentation. The first thing to understand is that the nervous system is designed to maintain balance throughout the body-mind. The sympathetic nervous system prepares for action while the parasympathetic nervous system maintains us in a state of rest and safety. Whenever there is a change, such as getting up in front of an audience, the sympathetic system is checking to see if the situation is dangerous. At the same time, the body prepares for action with the uncomfortable physical sensations that make us feel terrible, and our voices feel out of control.
The important thing to remember is that the sympathetic system requires action in order to dissipate these symptoms. Movement, breathing and making sounds can help to calm your system and create a sense of safety and confidence. When these activities are done using the strategies of Awareness Through Movement® lessons, the change can happen fairly quickly. These strategies can be used in rehearsing a speech or just before the speech, to calm yourself. You may choose to do this short lesson lying on the floor or sitting in a chair.
Begin by speaking the opening paragraph of your speech, or something else you’d like to read out loud. Observe the state of your body-mind. Are there parts of the body that are uncomfortable? Observe the sensations in your neck, shoulders, elbows, hands, back, chest, abdomen, and legs. Notice the different sensations of discomfort.
Are they all the same or are they different? Observe your breathing without attempting to change anything about it right now. Do you breathe high into the chest? Do the ribs move when you breathe? Is there any movement in the back when you breathe? Is there movement in the lower abdomen? Can you focus your attention on the breath as it is without needing to change it?
Continue to observe your breath in this manner for a minute or two. Now begin to follow the path of the breath from the nostrils through the breathing passages and throat and into the lungs as you inhale and exhale. What is the shape of that path? Where are the bottoms of the lungs located? Can you imagine the shape and movement of the diaphragm, the large, dome-shaped muscle that divides the organs of the chest from those of the abdomen? The diaphragm goes down toward the feet on inhalation and relaxes up toward the head on exhalation. Can you imagine that movement as you pay attention to the breath? Rest briefly.
Make a soft, gentle humming sound and notice how the breathing changes. Do you begin to feel anxious when you make sound? Continue to hum and move your jaw slowly right and left, keeping your lips closed. Allow your tongue to move freely as you do this. Can you reduce effort in your neck as you hum? Be aware of your feet, knees, and hip joints as you continue humming. Rest.
Repeat the opening paragraph of your speech, noticing how resonant your voice sounds to you. Now place the tip of your tongue on the bottom teeth on the left side of your mouth and leave it there as you begin to speak the text of your speech again. Can you shape the vowels and consonants while bending the tongue to the left? What parts of your tongue, jaw, and mouth begin to move when you make language in this way? Repeat the experiment taking the tongue to the right. Is this easier or harder to do with the tongue in this position? Rest.
Read the speech once more with the tongue moving normally and notice any changes in resonance, clarity of diction, or feelings of calm or anxiety in the body.
Carol specializes in working with performing artists and educators. She is also a Professor of Voice at Ithaca College where she teaches Awareness Through Movement classes for music majors in addition to her work as a singing teacher.