How to Achieve the Perfect Performance
Performing is one of the most difficult things the human body can do. It requires harnessing a raw talent, developing skill, allowing your success to be determined by others, producing on demand and oftentimes putting everything else second. This is the epitome of a stressful existence, and all of that takes a toll on your body, your mind and your life. Performing is a unique combination of biology and psychology. You are not only producing the performance, every neuroreceptor of your body is reacting to the very performance you are creating. So you are active and reactive at the same time. This involves every body sense and every body system. That means that performance is more than posture, more than breath, more than skill, more than practice. It is chemistry at a molecular level and the ability to move quickly and effectively from one end of your body to the other. And you control this chemistry more than you think. All of the chemistry that dictates our ability to function, to move, to think and to feel is made from what we eat, what we breathe and how well our bodies can eliminate what is unnecessary or even damaging. These chemicals move through the body in one of two ways, by blood or by lymph. Blood is the pathway for hormones, oxygen and nutrition. But the lymph is where our immunity and our ability to remove unnecessary elements flows. Both fluid pathways depend on the flexibility of our tissues, particularly the muscles and the connective tissue. So even a problem such as low thyroid function leading to low energy, hair loss, and even body temperature issues, can be the result of tense muscles or twisted connective tissue.
In performance, you are using the same muscles not only multiple times, but often keeping them in a contracted position for lengthy periods of time. Dancers, singers, musicians and even actors have to position their bodies in certain postures and stances in order to achieve their optimal performance. The difficulty is that over time, your muscles, joints and connective tissue will mimic what you are doing. This causes restriction to occur so that if you attempt to use those muscles in other ways, it will create pain, stiffness, even distortion. So your body may become perfect for your art, but your daily life will cause damage simply because you are using your body in different ways.
The truth is that your connective tissue binds every muscle, joint, organ, nerve and blood vessel in your body into place and dictates its relationship to other structures. In performing, these connections are often injured causing scar tissue to form which both solidifies the connection and limits its flexibility. Connective tissue has a wonderful quality called thixotropy which means it becomes very fluidic when exposed to heat and more solid when cooled. This also means that the warmer the body is, the more movement and flexibility you will have. This is often difficult in large drafty theaters with low budgets, especially when only the performers are practicing and there is no audience to bother turning up the heat for. When your connective tissue connections are too cool, it is much easier to strain them, causing inflammation and injury. Often performers will ice delicate areas thinking it will reduce inflammation and discomfort, but not realizing that it potentially creates a more likelihood for serious and disabling injury.
Another issue is the understanding of how muscles are programmed for use. As tension is created within a muscle, there are receptors that will anticipate muscle strain and use. They will base this on past habits to predict future needs. So if you are using your muscles for bowing, then your muscle receptors will anticipate bowing as the needed use and when you try to do another type of activity, your muscles will not only resist you, but will then be open to injury because you are pulling in one direction and they are pulling in another. This is especially true when many different muscles can share the same connective tissue package, making strain not only a problem in your forearm, but all the way to your neck. There are connections between structures that extend from your hands to your head, from your feet to your pelvis, from the rib cage to the diaphragmatic floor. So even breathing for singers can be affected by problems with the feet. In fact, all movement should be done with ease. If there are any symptoms with any movement, then further flexibility training is necessary, or more variation with movement is needed.
But don’t get the idea that this is all about your structure. Even the performance of dancers is much more than movement. Inside your body the chemistry of life provides the skill, the power, the emotion, the drive that masters your performance. Let’s start with energy. In order to create energy for muscle movement and endurance, your body requires fat (more fat if you require endurance such as dancers), carbohydrates and oxygen. Carbohydrates provide quicker more combustible energy which is good for short bursts of muscle use, whereas fat is much better for endurance energy such as singing. When oxygen is present, your body can take 1 molecule of fuel and create 36 molecules of energy. When oxygen is not present, that same molecule of fuel will only create 4 molecules of energy. Quite a difference, and all based on breathing and circulation. Oxygen isn’t just about intake of air, but also the ability of your circulation to carry oxygen to cells and tissues easily without restriction. The tighter your muscles and connective tissue, the less cells will receive oxygen, forcing them into a much less efficient way of producing energy. Also, if you are consistently producing less efficient energy, you are also creating byproducts that are not present in the more efficient oxygen system. One of these byproducts is lactic acid, and when levels reach a certain point in your blood you will develop spontaneous anxiety, a deadly problem for performers. This is identical to hyperventilating. So breathing and relaxing is essential for energy to really be efficient.
Now let’s move on to another chemical issue, your memory. Memorization and repetition are essential for a performer. For an experience to become part of memory, it must produce persistent functional changes in the brain that represent that experience. Memory occurs in three stages over a period of time. Sensory Memory is essentially the gathering of sensory impressions, which is constant. These are intended to be short-term unless the experience is longer in duration or strong in emotion as well. Short-Term or Working Memory is electrical in nature and is designed for brief processing or the temporary holding of small pieces of information such as words, objects or ideas common in our daily activities. These memories will fade if not repeated or practiced. Long-Term Memory is created from chemicals used by the nerves of the brain that not only leave the brain and interact with tissues throughout the body, even muscle tissue, but will create deep impressions and strong experiences. This is the type of memory essential for performing.
Long-Term Memory receives elements from short-term memory due to importance, emotional impact and repetition [a process known as memory consolidation]. If often repeated, they become what are known as sensory engrams. In other words, the first step of a particular familiar sensory experience or part of an experience will elicit a response based on the "assumed" experience to come. Such as Pavlov’s experiment with the salivation of dogs at the ringing of a bell. M emory therefore seems to rely on electrical and chemical changes and the activity of a section of the brain called the hippocampus which is a main consolidating center for long-term memory. The hippocampus relies on estrogen, glutamate and acetylcholine to be able to provide for recall. This is interesting because it means that in women, any disturbance in estrogen levels such as during PMS or menopause, and finding the right words becomes practically impossible, the sequence of steps become fuzzy and performance suffers.
So how do we enhance our learning ability and our memory. Begin by paying attention to your adrenal glands. Hormones of stress such as cortisol and adrenaline are responsible for storing information and strengthening memory. So strong emotions or stressful situations can actually bring about stronger memory. But once the adrenals are fatigued, and our cortisol level drops, memory and recall can be very difficult. Periods of consolidation such as you will get in spades with meditation has been shown to allow the brain time to convert short-term memory into long-term memory.
Herbs can be very helpful such as Bacopa and Ginkgo. Many people take Ginkgo thinking it will help with studying and learning when in fact Ginkgo Biloba is an anti-oxidant which helps maintain the health of small nerves. So it is perfect for short-term memory, the initial experience. But for learning, long-term memory is the key. Bacopa is the right herb for this. It not only can improve motor skills, essential for instrument performance, but when combined with adrenal herbs, it can enhance concentration for studying and learning and increase long-term memory consolidation. Also, if you notice that your muscles seem slow to react in sequence for performance, then try taking choline which is an essential element of acetylcholine, mentioned earlier for memory consolidation.
But for optimal performance, the most important thing is to modulate your levels of stress. Any type of performance including practicing, auditioning, promoting and performing, creates stress. We have become so immune to the concept of stress, that we forget how much it dictates our ability and is the core issue behind so many of our symptoms. We also don’t realize that although we may not be able to change the level of stress, we can control how our body reacts under stress. And if you don’t think that stress affects your performance and your health, then please turn your attention to the center of the stage. You will notice that the person stepping into the spotlight is Matt Damon. That’s right Matt Damon, the gorgeous actor who gained notariety not for any scandalous reason, but instead for his experience of severe adrenal fatigue during grueling dieting and training while preparing for a film. And that is because stress pounds the adrenal glands, and supporting your adrenal glands are not only the key to handling stress, but the key to reducing and preventing inflammation, keeping your lean body lines, eliminating anxiety and performance panic and being able to sleep.
In fact, the adrenals are the reason that stress is not a psychological phenomenon. Instead it is a cascade of chemicals within the brain and body which changes not just the way your body functions, but the priority of use for energy reserves and blood flow. Stress is intended to be a temporary situation lasting minutes to sustain us until the stress is removed. This of course goes back to quite a basic animal instinct known as the "fight or flight" response. But in our modern day, we demand so much from our bodies, not just in performance, but in our lives, that we have made anxiety, sweating, insomnia, depression, butterflies in the stomach, weight gain, chronic injury, chronic fatigue, tendonitis, acid reflux, migraines, arthritis and blood pressure all part of our daily existence. And the thing all of these symptoms have in common is your adrenal glands.
Supporting the adrenal glands can even help us handle unwanted emotions and fear. This is because e motions physically embed themselves in the body tissues as chemicals released during the emotional experience. These chemicals can then emerge to produce emotional responses unrelated to the moment. Panic attacks are oftentimes a fear of suffocation literally by the amount of acids built up in the body tissues from weeks of poor energy efficiency as I mentioned earlier. Even depression is the result of months of adrenal fatigue that has depleted all of our reserves and the delicate chemicals necessary for stabilizing mood.
One of the core chemicals the adrenals control is cortisol, which is the body’s natural anti-inflammative. During muscle activity in performance, cortisol is what allows the muscles to work at an optimal level without pain or restriction for lengthy periods of time. When the adrenals are depleted, there is little or no cortisol available and not only will you experience pain shortly into your performance, but you will also increase the likelihood of injury as a result. It also means that your recovery and healing time will be lengthened exponentially. The loss of cortisol will also mean that inflammation will become more chronic in tendons, ligaments and muscles. This can elevate histamine in the blood and allergies, sinus problems, post-nasal drip and even inflamed vocal chords will result.
Adrenal fatigue will produce surges of adrenalin which will not only create stress and anxiety, but will induce the body to dump large quantities of stored sugars into the blood and away from muscle tissue. This will then elevate insulin levels causing mental fogginess and sugar cravings.
So in the end, performing is a living feng shui experience. You are a part of the instrument, the environment, the listener and the moment. You cannot be perfect in this moment of performing, but you can identify your weaknesses and support them to achieve peak performance each and every time. Every second of your life you have a chance to improve, because every new cell that is born within your body to replace a weakened, damaged, depleted cell is brand new. But it is also a product of its environment. It is born in a particular medium from a particular set of adapted elements to function using available resources. So if you want better cells, you have to eat better, breathe more and support your body. Balance is the key, and once you have identified where you are out of balance, you will know exactly what you need to do to have that perfect performance.