Close up of a man in a suit holding a microphone.

Picture this.

It was 1981. My singing teacher asked me a question. It changed my life.

We were crammed into a musty, soundproof rehearsal studio at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. Me, my teacher, and a piano. I had a concert coming up that was part of my path to fame as an opera singer.

Rehearsals were over, but just before the end of the lesson, she asked this simple question:

“Are you nervous?”

“Of course!”, I replied, thinking, what else would I be? Silly question. Words of reassurance were what I expected. Instead, she just said,

“Good.”

“Good?”, I exclaimed. “How can it be good? I’m a nervous wreck!”

“I am glad you are nervous”, she went on. “The fact you are nervous means you understand the significance of what you are about to do. If you were not nervous, it would mean you were complacent.”

Nerves are a sign
you understand
the significance
of what you
are about to do.

“So what do I do with these nerves?”, I asked. “They’re killing me.”

“Use them”, she replied. “Let them sharpen your performance. See them as your friends, not your enemies. Instead of fighting them, use them as a catalyst.”

I never became an opera singer (famous or otherwise), but I did go on to a prolific life of public performance. Speaking, teaching, YouTube, and podcasts by the bucket load.

I have learned many valuable performance lessons over the 40 years since that singing lesson, but none have been as valuable as the one I learned that day in 1981.

This article is not about how to improve performance, but about how coaching can improve performance. However, it is worth summarising the lesson I learned from my teacher:

 “Nerves, interpreted as excitement, experienced in an endeavour of significance, can lead to greatly improved performance and impact.”

This is a coaching approach.

My teacher was not a trained coach, and she was not using mainstream coaching techniques. But she did employ two essential coaching tools.

Question. Challenge.

Firstly, the Question.

Her question, “Are you nervous”, was leading. A more classic coaching question would be, “How are you feeling?” A little better because it demonstrates trust from the coach to the client that he or she will be honest.

We can forgive her for using a leading question, at least in part because she had taught me for a year, and was well able to spot the tell-tale signs of a nervous performer.

In any case, the question did its job. It revealed the truth, which I was neither vocalizing nor confronting. In consequence, I was stuck. She knew it. I knew it. But it was hidden until it was revealed.

Coaching helps performers because it reveals the thinking, feelings, and assumptions that prevent the release of their full potential. Can we ask ourselves those questions? Yes, but we rarely do. Sometimes we do not even know the right question to ask. Sometimes we are afraid to ask questions for fear of what they might reveal. Hence the significance of my teacher’s second tool.

Secondly, the Challenge.

I did not want to be nervous. My teacher knew I needed to be nervous. She was not afraid to challenge my assumptions. She was not afraid to challenge my hopes. Or, if she was, she did not allow that to stop her.

She was aware her response of “Good” was one I was not going to like but needed to hear. It is a classic coaching response because it is powerful but not loaded. Her response was not one of judgment. I was not being berated; I was simply informed.

Performers need coaches who will tell the truth as they see it. Comfortable or not.

Still Nervous

I am still nervous to this day. Every time I stand to speak, I pick up the microphone or turn on the camera. Every. Single. Time. Sometimes I wish it were not so. But then I remember my teacher’s wise words that “…nerves are a sign you understand the significance of what you are about to do.” The day I have no nerves is the day I must stop speaking.

Could you use some coaching for your next performance? If you would like to connect with someone who has thousands of (nervous) performances under his belt, you can get hold of me by pressing the big blue button below.

Yours, nervously, 

Malcolm


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