"How do I get over my nerves, Mrs. Olson? Some people say I should just imagine the audience in their underwear."
It is one of my great honors to be asked to sing for various life events- weddings, funerals, retirement ceremonies, etc. Funerals are certainly the hardest. From a practical standpoint, there is generally only a very short time to practice. From an emotional standpoint, you, as the singer, must be the one to hold it together. Of the many funerals I have been privileged to sing for, 2 stand out as the most difficult. The first was for a young woman at my church who, at 28, succumbed after a very difficult battle with cancer. The second was for a dear friend's infant son. After each of those funerals people asked me how I managed. Quite simply, God is gracious and He supplies strength to us when we are weak. It is also in moments like those that a singer must realize that your ability, your gift, is not for you. Your gift is for other people. In moments like those, your gift can provide comfort, it can even provide joy. You, the giver, must be selfless and so you learn how to control your emotions because it isn't about you.
Music is a gift. Research has repeatedly supported the cognitive importance of music on the brain. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who could honestly say that music didn't also elicit an emotional response. Armies have known this for eons. Mothers have known this from the dawn of motherhood. Brides know this. Advertising execs definitely know this. But sometimes singers can forget this when we are busy thinking about breathing, diction, notes, phrasing, placement, posture, lyrics and shaping. In the throws of concentrating on the mechanics, it is easy to forget that we are charged with giving something to our listeners. (This is also why practice and preparation are so imperative. Would you give a person a half-finished gift?) It seems that when we shift our thinking to giving to our listeners, the performance becomes an offering, it becomes something that is gracious rather than something that is self-indulgent.
I once saw an interview with the great American soprano, Renee Fleming. In the course of the interview, she addressed the issue of nerves. She was asked to tell of the point in her career that she stopped becoming nervous. Her response was laughter followed by the statement, 'I've never stopped getting nervous. The moment you stop getting nervous is the moment you stop caring.' (paraphrase) And so I say to my students, no, do not imagine them in their underwear. Offer them a gift. Offer them a well prepared, well cared for, and well crafted gift. Offer a moment of reprieve from the cares of today. Offer your very best. Know that it is okay to be nervous, because that means you care.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God as long as I have being.