It’s a while since I posted; covid times, life moving on relentlessly, as it does, all combined to make writing this blog something I’d start and not finish. Meanwhile I finished my MA, got a new job and have just finished my first year of doctorate studies, but more of that another time.
I’ve written before about my struggles with performance anxiety and in particular the shaking (literally) fear of singing in front of others. I could so easily have given in to this fear and stayed in the background. I could have stuck to the back of a choir, a voice in the blend.
But then the fear would have won.
Over lockdown I had singing lessons over Zoom. I became more used to the sound of my own voice, what it could and couldn’t do. In a break between lockdowns I sang a couple of songs in a showcase organised by my singing teacher and streamed online. I shook so hard you could see it on the playback. But I did it.
This New Year I made myself a promise. To sing, to perform in front of people every opportunity I got. To stop accepting the fear and to fight back. I told my singing teacher and everyone I could what I was doing, so I couldn’t chicken out. I sang in front of the community choir one Friday night, and the Salford choir the next Saturday. I was shaking less. I was breathing more. My voice was stronger.
I started singing in the car with my friends on the journey back from choirs. I stopped caring I was getting the words wrong.
And then…this week it happened. I conquered, I looked the fear in the eyes and told it I was done with it. I stood up and didn’t just sing, I performed. It felt a little like an out of body experience, to be fair, as I allowed myself to become the character of the song, not Helen. There were no nerves once I began, just the power of finding my voice at last. I left those watching speechless, and apparently (although I was too stunned to notice) on their feet applauding for a while.
This year I am fifty, so when I made a New Year’s resolution to look after my body and mind more in 2020 I took it more seriously than usual, and decided to practice yoga everyday. I was helped by my husband telling me about the world’s most popular You Tube yoga teacher Adrienne. She has helpfully made available more free home yoga classes than it is possible to complete in a year. It’s now March, and aside from a couple of days I have been unable to practice due to ill health or needing to get up at ‘stupid o’clock’ for work, I have stuck to my resolution. This is a first.
I have practiced yoga for around twenty years, off and on, but never quite as regularly as this year. I began to notice the benefits after the first couple of weeks. Now, three months in, I feel more connected to my body than I have for in years. I almost feel calm. Almost. And there has been an unexpected positive side effect when I sing. I can sing louder,and longer, and mostly, more in tune. My voice feels supported and strong.
I shouldn’t be surprised, both yoga and singing combine the body and the breath. In both posture and support are key. And both produce endorphins and other feel good hormones. It’s a great combination.
I’m not the first person to notice the benefits of yoga for singing, there are numerous posts, sites and a few books, written on the improvements yoga might bring to someone who sings. So I did some research into which parts of yoga might be having this positive effect on my voice.
Yoga is divided into physical movement or positions, the asanas or postures, and breathing practices or pranayama. I’ve selected a few key ones that came up most frequently in my reading and research into yoga for singing. These are generally safe ‘beginner’ practices but you know your own bodies, so be careful.
Tadasana or Mountain pose: This is the foundation for all yoga standing poses, and supports correct posture. When singing, standing tall and opening up your chest helps the flow of the breath. Try breathing down to the soles of your feet. I know it sounds mad, but try it!
Neck releases: There are lots of variations of neck releases but they are really important. If your shoulders and neck are tense any sound you make will be reduced on every level.
Cat-cow pose: Great for spine flexibility and posture, again. As you breathe out squeezing all the air out also works the core gently, and builds support for the breath.
Alternate Nostril breathing: This helps to relax the facial muscles and focus the breath. It’s also great for reducing panic and anxiety (great for that performance anxiety I suffer from). It’s such a focused breathing technique that it feels like meditation.
Lions breath or Simhasana:Technically both a posture and a breath practice, it looses the tongue, relaxes the jaw and strengthens the vocal cords. It also looks gloriously silly!
Breath of fire: It takes a bit of practice to get your rhythm right but it’s worth it. It works the diaphragm so builds up support and strength for the voice.
Once you are familiar with the poses and are becoming more aware of your breath, try replacing the exhale with a sound. It could be a vowel or a ‘mmm’, play around with it. The sounds will focus your awareness on the breath, so you will make that exhale longer, and gently work the vocal chords (just like a warm up before you sing).
If you haven’t tried yoga before, and sing at any level, join a beginners class or find an online teacher who works for you and practice in your living room. Or just move with your breath. It doesn’t need to be complex. Smile. Stretch. Relax and breathe. Sing loud and proud!
Otherwise known as “The Unexpected Cat Ambush”, for reasons that will become clear.
Last week I presented at the H818 – The Networked Practitioner Online Conference. Those of you who have read earlier blog post will know that I suffer from performance anxiety especially when presenting or singing (see Feeling the Fear). I was very nervous, but I’d followed my own advice and prepared as much as I could. I’d followed my tutors’ advice and reduced distractions. I had a script to follow, I knew my stuff, it would be fine. At least that’s what I told myself.
I was about an hour in, so I listened to the others as my nerves started to kick in. I feel I should apologise to Jo Jones who was presenting before me, I have no idea what she said. I was lost in my head!
Once my time came I was actually okay. The nerves went and it flowed well. There was however something I hadn’t prepared for. In the advice given by the tutors they hadn’t mentioned anything about cats. How I should have made sure before I started that the door to the office should be shut. And midway through the presentation I found myself with a large white cat on my lap partially obscuring my notes (see above picture). It at least sorted the last of my nerves! There is evidence that cats increase oxytocin levels in humans and can reduce anxiety.
If you are interested you can listen to the presentation here.
During the presentation attendees could ask questions in the chat window. Some of them were answered on the day, but I’ll give some fuller answers to the questions and comments below.
– Love the brains! Yes so do I! They are however a temporary image. They are part of an organ donation campaign by Ahmad Nady. A friend who is a graphic designer will create a more permanent, but still in the same spirit, image.
– good strategy – being an example of good PLN practice is likely to be more convincing to help them consider adopting similar approaches. – Modelling good practice is so effective. This taps into the theories of modelling and social learning, like those of Bandura, familiar to NCT educators. My aim is to build the self-efficay of colleagues through example. I would invite them to have a go, and see what happens, much as I have done.
– By risk – do you means threats to confidentiality for your clients? No, as I explained during my presentation, this was about risk to NCT Tutors ‘putting themselves out there’. I mentioned that some of this was a fear of online abuse, but in reflection (and after being gently reminded by a colleague) it’s also about moving out of our safe NCT space. NCT works hard at being a safe space for parents and practitioners. We use Roger’s Core conditions and Mortiboys Emotional Intelligence as the foundations for our practice. Intrinsically we know that within NCT we can trust each other, our shared philosophy of practice and common values (Kelly, 2020), enable this trust. Increasing our digital presence feels more scary and unsafe as a result. One of the themes in my project (and beyond) is mitigating this feeling of risk.
– an open publishing space is this within the blog or a different tool? This is on the same website. Some of the site is this blog, but there will also be a website for articles on education. I wanted everything in the same place for ease of access. It’s still very much a work in progress.
– is there a difference in online multimedia workshops in gaining trust, in comparison to face to face workshops (which may not be practical for distance reasons? This is something that has been debated at length. The notion that trust and support are better in face to face settings. In my MA studies all of the learning is online. I haven’t met any of the other students I am studying with but there is still interaction and support between peers and tutors.
– pre-workshops and quick zoom calls really help build confidence/trust! If this were a new group that I was working with I would use pre-workshop activities and some video calls, to break the ice and gain confidence. With the multi-media workshop I am proposing for my colleagues, as we all know each other and it’s a small organisation so I have the luxury of somewhat of a pre-formed group!
– you could use webinars for online workshops and forums to build a community? Building a strong community of profession and practice is very important to me. I’d like to be the pioneer in a growing community of NCT Academics that regularly publishes and discusses our practice openly. By integrating a webinar into the workshop format (Phase 3), I’ll be able explore more potential challenges and continue to build confidence.
– what about the using VR in workshop? I had not even considered this as I know very little about VR and how it would work with the kind of multi-media workshop I am developing or what the cost complications could be. I will do some research. Thank-you.
– You’re a good example and leader, Helen! Thank-you!
If you have any other questions about my presentation or project, please ask them in the comments box below.
Often, when I am trying to write an assignment, as I should be doing now, I find myself floundering and not entirely sure what I should be doing. I feel I need more guidance. My own students are submitting drafts of an assignment and they are also asking for more guidance. Some have even openly voiced what I feel like saying to my own tutors, “JUST TELL ME WHAT TO WRITE!” (Sorry for shouting but that’s what it sounds like in my head.)
As a tutor I know there is a fine line between guidance and coaching. If you coach a student, tell them what to write or say, then you’ll never find out what they have actually learnt, and that’s before you get into Academic Integrity issues. So you try and gently guide them in the right direction. It’s a fine line between not enough guidance and too much. One module I worked on used to have twice as much written guidance on the assignment than the actual word count of the essay. It was done with the best of intentions but the result was some very confused students!
It’s interesting being a tutor and a student at the same time, as my first blog ‘That Student!’ illustrated. It’s providing me with some insights into my own behaviour and the behaviour of my own students. So, with that in mind, here’s some advice I’d give my own students if they were feeling like I am and wanted some more guidance.
Read the logbook/assignment guide. And then read it again. Every time you come to a ‘block’ or feel you don’t understand what you are being asked, go check.
Underline or highlight the key words in the assignment title. The key words are the ones that will relate to Blooms Taxonomy and the intended learning outcomes of the module or course. The image below gives some helpful explanation about what these words actually mean.
If there is a marking scheme or a grid read it carefully. It would be a shame if you wrote 1000 words on topic ‘A’ when only 5/50 marks of the 2500 word essay were for topic ‘A’, and 45/50 marks for topics ‘B’.
If you are still confused, talk to your peers. One of the advantages of working openly in my current OU module is that I can see what others are doing. The advantage of this is if I am really stuck there is normally someone ahead of me, I can look at to see how they have approached a question. We have the advantage of all working on different topics, so little chance of accidentally plagiarising. The downside of this is that we could ALL be doing the wrong thing, but it’s unlikely. If you aren’t working openly with other students then ask on a student forum for the broad approaches to an assignment or phone a friend. Talk it through. It helps.
If you still need guidance, ask your tutor, preferably in an open forum as you’re probably aren’t the only one confused, you’re just the first one to ask. From a tutor perspective this also means you will, probably, only have to answer that particular question once.
If you can, submit a draft. Your tutor will hopefully provide some feedback that will guide the direction of the final assignment.
So with that in mind, back to writing my assignment taking my own advice.
And yes, I have a post all about procrastinating in my head, but I’ll save it till I have something ‘really’ important to write!
Last week I was sitting alone in a white-washed room trying not to panic and failing. My hands were shaking, my vision was tunneling and any confidence I had was quickly draining away. You can see the fear on my face in the picture above. I was about to take my Grade 1 singing exam and had acute stage fright. In the exam itself I couldn’t breathe properly and forgot the words to a song I’ve known for 20 years. It took every ounce of will to not burst into tears and run out of the room and keep running.
The previous week I was talking at a work conference at double speed while shaking and hyperventilating. I wanted to be sick. I forgot my key points. I felt like an idiot.
Stage fright, or performance anxiety, has been a constant of my adult life. Whether it’s presenting at a conference or singing on my own, once I am aware that the focus of a room will be on me, I begin to shake violently and panic about worst case scenarios. I’m fine if I’m not alone, in a chorus or choir I can sing loudly and confidently. If I have a co-speaker I am fine. It’s the spotlight just on me that terrifies. I’m not sure when it began but I remember a child conflicting emotions of wanting everyone to watch me, and yet dreading letting anyone down. Gradually the fear overcame the confidence.
It’s irrational, but then anxiety is. When faced with stressful situations our cave-person brains assume the worst, we get flooded with stress hormones, and our rational brain shuts down. No amount of logical arguments at this point will work until we can persuade our ancient brain chemistry that the danger has passed.
I’m not alone. Many people suffer from stage fright, including, I was reassured to find out, some very talented people. John Lennon was sick before every concert performance and Stephen Fry, in a move I can deeply empathise with, left the country rather than go on stage.
So what helps? In the week after the disastrous singing exam I’ve been doing some research into what might help. Whilst a certain amount of nerves can enhance performance it’s generally accepted that too much anxiety becomes debilitating. Good quality research into methods of dealing with performance anxiety seems to be lacking but there are plenty of articles, Ted-talks and You-tube videos on the subject. Here are a few of the tips that resonated with me.
Practice: The more you know something the more confident you’ll feel with your material. I’d add to this by saying that it’s even better if you can practice in your performance or presentation space. One of my big fears is the unexpected and the more I can remove the unknown the safer I feel.
Breathe: If you focus on long, slow breaths, right down to your belly it physically reduces blood pressure, heart rate, and calms. I should know this. I spend a lot of my working life practicing breathing with women as birth preparation; applying it to myself is trickier.
Visualise: Rather than imagining what will go wrong, focus on a best case scenario and break the downward spiral. If you do start catastrophisng then make that a more realistic, and therefore lesser, version of the disaster. For example, in my singing exam the worst that would happen was I would fail the exam and have to do it again, not that the world would end.
Smile: Smiling, or even laughing if you can, releases happier hormones and reduces anxiety. In a presentation or exam it can also help you connect with your audience, to humanise them. If you can convince yourself that you are among friends anxiety should reduce.
Tonight I’m singing in a concert, but with 150 other people. I know that it will be amazing and I will come away buzzing and full of joy. One day I’d like to feel like that after a solo performance of singing or presenting. Until then I’ll keep my focus on not running out the room screaming.
I’m often asked what I do. And my answer is often vague. I’ll mention that I work with parents to explore birth and early parenting, then I might say I also teach yoga for pregnant women, and also for postnatal women with their babies. I will mention I work for NCT, and then have to explain that it used to be called National Childbirth Trust. It is the UK’s largest parenting charity, and makes a difference to thousands of parents every year. It’s campaigned over the years on issues such as Dads’ being allowed in labour rooms to support their partners , women being able to feed their babies in public and, most recently, perinatal mental health with the Hidden Half campaign.
Hold on! I hear you say. I thought you worked for a university, how does that fit in with Birth and Parenting education?
Ah yes, I’m an Associate Lecturer with University of Worcester. I work with an amazing group of women to train NCT Practitioners to work with parents before and after they have their babies. It’s a foundation degree course and taught across the UK. In order to become a NCT tutor I had to study adult education in some depth over several years, as well as being an experienced NCT practitioner in my own right. It led to a second degree (see graduation photo above) and a Postgraduate Degree in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.
I’m not surprised if you haven’t heard about how NCT trains it’s practitioners. We are, as an educational organisation, not great at telling the world what we do. Perhaps NCT Education suffers a little from impostorism at an organisational level. NCT tutors are educators and academics. We have decades of experience in adult learning, group theory and facilitation theory. We are reflective practitioners at every level, grounded in evidence led educational practice. But we don’t share this with the world. A few of my colleagues have published articles and papers about our work, but they are the exception. When we look for evidence about adult learning we look outside our own organisation. Yet we know how adults learn. We see it in our own practice all the time. We underrate our experiences and knowledge.
This weekend I was at our annual Education and Practice Weekend and I had the opportunity to speak to my colleagues about my current studies. I had been inspired by thinking around open pedagogy and digital scholarship. I mapped Bronwen Hegarty’s attributes of Open Pedagogy (2015) against NCT educational practice and showed my colleagues the many parallels to how we work. I then asked them to consider how they could work more openly? What might be the benefits and risks? How they could share their knowledge and experience with a wider academic audience? To my surprise they were enthusiastic and open to the ideas I proposed and I look forward to reading and sharing their contributions to adult learning and education theory.
In future, I hope that when I’m asked what I do, no one is surprised by NCT’s academic side. That we become known, not just by our contributions to birth and parenting but for our depth and breadth of knowledge about how adults learn.