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October/November 2014

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Engaging Autopilot

by Caitlin Smith

Finding Your Voice: Engaging Autopilot

I learned a lot from being a Bond Girl. There I stood, in drop-dead gorgeous sequins, in front of a magnificent orchestra, belting out power ballads to an adoring audience… and yet, everything inside me wanted to run away and hide. In fact, I just wanted to curl up and die… Why? 

Without being aware of it, mine was a classic fear response – the body’s way of handling a perception of threat. Even though I’ve sung thousands of gigs, that night I was particularly apprehensive. Apparently, the audience was unaware of my inner-turmoil. Even so, I’m not keen on a repeat. So, what went wrong?

Essentially, our minds don’t know (or care about) the difference between real or imagined danger. The body responds instantaneously, releasing toxic stress hormones into the bloodstream. Whether it’s a sabre-tooth tiger about to eat us (historically), or forgetting lyrics and figuratively dying on stage, our bodies respond in exactly the same way.

We don’t function well in fight or flight mode. Yet, we frequently live there in self-sabotage – stressed out, tense, fearful and anxious.

Gigging in terrified Flight mode, instead of moving into a present state – engaging with the communication of the song – I’ll freak out, disengage, pull away from the microphone, freeze, shy from eye contact (even if I could make it), having an out-of-body, dis-associative experience. Though uncomfortable and destabilising, if we become aware of it, we learn.

When we perform, there are three options available to us – Fight, Flight or Presence. The latter – the good one – I’ll refer to as ‘Autopilot’. In contrast to the internally focused, self-conscious Flight response, there’s the opposite adrenaline-pumped Fight mode; feeling superhuman/indestructible, pushing, taking risks that weren’t practised, singing out of range, trying too hard, straining, not listening, forcing, being insensitive to the music, feeling unnecessarily angry, egoistic and arrogant.

The body’s fight or flight response is very primordial. During battle it served us well. However, a great amount of damage can result – hurting your throat by pushing in fight mode, or being under-energised, unsupported and tense in flight as I was.

Should performance be analogous with battle? Kill or be killed? As audience and performer, I sure hope not! Music shouldn’t be something we dread or use unnecessary aggression and force for. Sadly, the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol override our ability to read our senses, and our senses are what we need to read in order to operate.

The Gift of Fear, as described in Gavin de Becker’s book of that name, is essential to our survival. Fear tells us what to do and gives us the strength to act instantaneously in life threatening circumstances. However, musical performance isn’t a life-threatening circumstance – even though our sub-conscious may think it is. Anxiety and stress aren’t useful. Stress prevents the body from healing, sleeping, being happy or functioning properly. Real fear response assures our survival – fearfulness however, is counter-productive.

There is an alternative to stress response – presence. This is the professional’s use of Autopilot. Let’s think of ourselves as really good pilots. See yourself as a suave and serene jumbo jet pilot (the audience being First Class passengers). When we practice, we’re hang-glider pilots, with the music being the wind beneath our wings.

The next time you board an airplane ask yourself; Do I want the pilot to be a dare-devil, kamikaze, renegade, piss-head, adrenaline junkie? Probably not. With any luck; skill, safety checks and years of training have gone into preparation to get airborne – of the pilots, aircraft and crew.

Funnily enough, I know of performers who become dependent, even addicted to adrenaline. The myth that skills magically manifest during performance, is analogous to a pilot who’s just winging it in the cockpit. Whaaaat?! It’s all about confidence, right? Wrong.

This pilot/singer analogy really flies! Think of the crew as your band, each knowing their roles, the songs, and being in constant communication with each other. We don’t just have to be pilots, we must be engineers who make sure the plane is fit to fly (by keeping our minds and bodies fit and healthy). I guess ground control is like sound and lighting people? Hmm…

Once in the cockpit, pilots are constantly reading their instruments. This allows them to determine and respond accordingly to what’s happening internally and externally. They’re highly aware, reliant on, and sensitive to, the information received from various dials, indicators, computers and their own senses. The instruments we read, and respond to as singers, are our eight senses.

An immense amount of training goes into take-off and landing. In singing, this involves using good/smooth onsets, and then, shaping notes and phrases with vibrato and breath support respectively.

When we sing/fly, we need to do so comfortably and well whatever the circumstances. As a pilot, these might include; bad weather, getting to a new or distant destination, out-of-condition aircraft, engine loss, low visibility, faulty automated guidance systems, etc. For singers, destabilising factors might include new material, scat or improvisation, singing when sick, sound issues, lack of rehearsal, difficult charts… you name it!

Let’s check our instruments, so we can adjust accordingly as we sing: Firstly, Look – at your posture in the mirror or video footage, for signs of strain, facial expression, mouth shaping, the colour of sounds. Secondly Listen – for breathiness, the outcomes of using good technique, tone, pitch, to the band. Thirdly Feel – where you’re placing the sound, where the sound is resonating, where you hold tension. The fourth is Tasting the sound in your mouth. Fifthly, Smell as you use nasalized inhales (as if you were deciphering what that smell was).

The sixth sense is intuition. We must Intuit –  what technique is needed, what works in improvisation, reading an audience. Seventhly, Register what your body is doing kinesthetically as you listen to music, or sing. And finally, register what’s happening organically within your body – be as sensitive as a dancer is, to alignment, gesture and form.

Another name for autopilot is our ‘default setting’. Practising and gigging with good vocal technique makes it become second nature. Singing well and connecting with a song through repetition and familiarity makes it muscle memory. Let’s make our Autopilot (default setting) an effortless mastery, rather than fight or flight mode. Then, all we have to do is enjoy the flight by remaining present, aware, excited and completely in control, from the cockpit.

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Caitlin@caitlinsmith.com