December/January 2022

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Case For Creative High-performance Psychology

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: The Case For Creative High-performance Psychology

The case for creative high-performance psychology. In the merry Music Month of May 2021, Brave Caitlin Smith’s Imaginary Band toured Aotearoa to promote my new album ‘You Have Reached Your Destination’. Arts On Tour set-up a dream 22-date caravan-of-love. Despite there being an angel in every town, superb and supportive musicians, glowing reviews, and my abiding love of touring, for me, it turned into a five-week panic attack!

Suicidal ideation returned, Zopiclone knocked me out every night and each gig was crossed off the wall like remaining days of incarceration. I lost my voice twice after gigs and once during a gig in Tekapo. I thought and felt as if every note and every breath would be my last. During the tour’s last gig, my hands shook so uncontrollably, I could barely apply make-up… repeating “I can’t do this anymore”, not in reference to gigging. I meant living. My body, voice, heart, mind, and spirit had given up. Well-meaning friends in Poneke even suggested I find an ‘alternative revenue stream’.

As anyone in recovery or acute mental distress knows, the only way is up from rock bottom. Strange to say, when you’re down there, you’re hopeless. Once hope returns, it’s hard to recall or imagine how despairing you were. These states are mutually exclusive. This column documents my rebuild and our collective need for a strong singer/songwriter-based peer support network that recognises the mental distresses specific to our shared/lived experience.

Another column will cover ‘Menopause and Voice’. Suffice it to say, I was literally running on empty; no oestrogen or progesterone, biochemical imbalances, a dysfunctional thyroid, and deficiencies too numerous to mention. This manifested as: extreme tension, constricted breathing, teeth-grindingly constant anxiety, heart palpitations, sleeplessness, cold-sweats, hot-flushes, then chills and chronic fatigue. Thanks to my naturopath, healing began. However, physical health was but one component of recovery… ‘I am a woman of heart and mind’.

The only way to understand and work with our healing is holistically. My physical state was detrimentally affecting singing, and mental and emotional states. A magnificent documentary about Tina Turner reminded me just how physical singing is, and what an athletic singing/dancing powerhouse she was. I reminded myself that singers are athletes.

One thing that struck me most post-tour, were the contrasting and very public struggles of two high profile American gymnasts: Simone Biles and Katelyn Ohashi.

The former quit midway through the Olympics due to disabling ‘twisties’ (compromised spatial awareness mid-air). Feeling unprecedented pandemic pressure from the expectant nation she represented, Biles’ story is essential in understanding high-performance psychology. Still suffering PTSD from institutionalised sexual abuse, she was trained into a life focused exclusively on the goal of achieving gold medals, perfect scores, and points for torturous feats of technical difficulty. Too much pressure. “The more I try to shut off the voices in my head, the louder they scream,” she was quoted as saying.

Ohashi on the other hand has received perfect 10s for outrageously playful floor and beam routines that incorporate Beyonce-esque dance moves, and the kind of team and coach support that gave me “Eureka!” revelations.

Long story short, Ohashi transformed from being ‘broken’ (by fat-shaming online bullies and the arduous gymnastic life) to someone who exudes pure joy when she performs. Her coach made gymnastics fun. She established good protocols: relating to teammates as family, not talking about gymnastics outside the gym, celebrating uniqueness, viewing the coaching role as that of an unconditionally loving parent, and focusing on joy single-mindedly.

‘Where are the high-performance psychologists for singer/songwriters and touring musicians?’ I thought. We must be that and so much more for ourselves: nutritionists, personal trainers, yoga instructors, vocal coaches, musical directors, self-carers, support workers, physiotherapists, counsellors… and kick-ass performers!

Gigging singers need to use high-performance psychology much as athletes do. Deploying strategies include:

  • Thinking deliberately about joy, and things that feel good.
  • Not giving any thought to the worst-case scenario. Focusing exclusively on the best possible outcome and how it feels on sensory, psychological, and emotional levels.
  • Focusing on what worked well instead of critiquing performances immediately afterwards.
  • Ring-fencing the musical segments of the day (e.g., not thinking about performance until set-up and sound-check).
  • Enjoying other life interests/loves outside music.
  • Climbing the ladder of happiness rung by rung. Reaching for ‘better feeling thoughts’ rather than ‘happiness’.
  • Being present – acknowledging rather than resisting anxiety.
  • Not comparing yourself to any other previous gigs, tours, or artists.
  • Thinking of yourself as a trailblazer! You do it your way. I loved the documentary called Hysterical, about female comedians. There’s real inspiration in seeing ourselves realistically, on and off stage. Lindon Puffin’s documentary Figure 8000: A Road Movie is also a brilliantly ‘real’ depiction of touring.
  • Take the pressure off. Don’t scare yourself by thinking of the need to deliver perfectly. Rather, have fun! (Unfortunately, when our bodies are failing and we’re sober, depleted, dissociated, and depressed, we take things way too seriously. As musicians our work is play.)
  •  Replace worry and rumination with faith and trust.

Preparatory strategies:

  • Understand your own physiology and health so you’re in peak shape before you go. Find out and have access to your best stress-relievers.
  • Carry a stash of backup meds and supplements: Zopiclone, maca-cacao, vitamins, Prednisone, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories. Having them ‘on hand’ really increases peace of mind.
  • Be intentional and clear about what your needs are (i.e., don’t tour with critical, egoic or difficult people).
  • Don’t focus on the ‘plight’ of the musician/songwriter. Deepen your experience of the direct communication and communion that is performance. Let the revelation and purpose of songs deliverer their healing, truth and substance.

My dream is to set up an artist-led support network so we needn’t suffer unnecessarily. Anyone keen? Let’s kōrero.

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