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Stage Fright ~ Self-knowledge, self-care & feeling better

Updated: Sep 10, 2020


"Stage Fright ~ Building the Tools to Move Through Performance Anxiety"

Recordings can be accessed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

When Maria Elena Altany says she knows how to tackle stage-fright, she means business. We sat down with this vibrant, versatile, and fearless soprano to discuss her approach to performance anxiety and her upcoming webinar on June 2nd with M Institute on the subject...

Maria Elena with band Jungle Fire at the Hammer Museum (LA).

Photo credit: Sarah M. Golonka

What is the underlying cause of stage-fright?

"Stage fright is negative memories and our negative thoughts and projections about ourselves distracting us from the task at hand: performing!"

Did you ever have stage-fright?

"Yes! Actually my biggest performance anxiety moments have come during auditions. My knees would shake uncontrollably, I'd feel sick and jittery, and my singing was completely different from what I could do in rehearsal and on stage. In the waiting room, I'd feel really hateful towards the other singers, and feel like it was pointless for me to even be there. The worst part was the day or days before audition I would have this dread in the pit of my stomach, and to avoid thinking about it I would procrastinate my preparations, which of course made the day-of or night before even worse. So many instances of last-minute headshot and resume printouts on the way to an audition, sometimes in unfamiliar cities, so I'd arrive already stressed, sweaty and flustered. It was awful!"

Wow! 😨 How did you overcome it? How long did it take?

"Through reading materials recommended by my acting teacher and other musicians, I realized that if I developed a day-of and week-of routine, I'd feel much more in control, and therefore more relaxed and comfortable. I also made a goal of a certain number of auditions per month, so the results of the auditions were less important than hitting my goal. Those changes made a HUGE difference to me. After about 3 months, I actually started looking forward to auditions - something I NEVER thought would happen!"

Maria Elena Altany as Lucha in “Hopscotch,” the mobile opera by The Industry

What do you feel now when you go onstage?

"It can vary widely, and that's OK! Some performances are more stressful than others. My first performance after having a baby felt terrifying at first - it was Ragnar Kjartansson's 12 HOUR continuous performance called BLISS, under the auspices of the LA Phil! Talk about nerves. What matters is what I did with those feelings. I accepted them as natural and reasonable. I expressed them to one of my closest colleagues (shout-out to bass-baritone Cedric Berry!) who I knew would reassure me and who always has my back. I had a plan for how to get through it, and I stuck to that plan. It all worked, and I actually surprised myself at how well I performed, and how much I enjoyed it!"

Why do some people have stage fright and others not?

"In my experience there are very few people who never experience performance anxiety. If they love being on stage, they hate auditions or teaching one-on-one. If they don't mind public speaking, they hate important phone calls or interviews. When it comes to performance situations, usually people are more comfortable one-on-one or in front of large groups, but not both."

What is the single best and biggest advice you can give to those dealing with stage fright?

"The best advice I can give is: make a plan in which you're as kind to yourself as possible. The worst thing you can do is do nothing to try and feel better, and then beat yourself up when you don't perform perfectly."

How do you feel COVID and the new online world we live in with live-streams and Zoom concerts has or could impact stage fright? Does a virtual audience feel different than an in-person audience? Does it provide any new tools?

"I think with every new avenue for performance comes new discomforts for some, and new relief for others. People like myself, who thrive on audience feedback, are going to have live without it for a while, which means mental adjustments. Those of us who feel pressure to use the freedom of multiple takes to create perfect recordings are going to have to confront those unrealistic expectations. 

I think webinars are a new tool that is getting better all the time! We have new access to artists and audiences that we hadn't reached before. It felt like an enormous luxury to take Kathleen Kelly's diction webinar with M Institute the other week, and have her answer my questions directly! 

Performance is ultimately about connection, so we are developing new ways to connect with each other. There's never been a time when we needed it more." 

"Stage Fright ~ Building the Tools to Move Through Performance Anxiety"

Three-Part Series, Tuesdays @ 7pm EST: 6/2, 6/9, 6/16 via Zoom

Recordings can be accessed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

In this 3-part webinar Ms. Altany will break down the different ways performance anxiety manifests itself and can impact the personal and professional lives of musicians — and how to strategically combat it, both mentally and physically. Through a nuanced combination of performance experience and sports psychology, Ms. Altany will provide participants with a tool box to continue making music through and beyond what can often be a paralyzing experience for artists.

Musicians and performance artists of all levels are welcome and encouraged — as well as anyone struggling with public speaking or performance-related anxiety issues.

The paralyzing nature of performance anxiety is not limited to those who take center stage at the biggest concert halls — it can show up in seemingly innocuous places like high pressure phone calls or presentations at work. There can be a huge variety of physical and mental manifestations that come along and get in the way of your success when the spotlight is on you — and this class will endeavor to help you identify those very personal manifestations, so that you can then build the tools to move through them.

This course will involve a curated, personalized approach — participants should be ready to dive deep into their own manifestations of performance anxiety, and then with Maria Elena’s help, access the tools they can utilize to feel better  — because it’s different for everyone. There’s no magic fix — but there are a lot of tools out there that can help us all feel better and perform our best. And that’s really what it’s all about. You have to feel better, in order to perform better.

Please join us beginning this Tuesday, June 2nd, 2020, for a compassionate and informative class on how to conquer those nerves and begin to feel grounded in your body when you are on stage — no matter the challenges that stage presents.

How did you come up with the idea for this class?

"This class is just a combination of what I do myself, what I teach and encourage my students to practice, and the information and teachings Ive read and received over the years. As I started to make an outline of everything I think is important to addressing performance anxiety, I realized there are three main components, and that's how I've organized the three sessions."

What will make your class unique?

"I think my focus on self-care and feeling better makes my approach unique. I think a lot of stage-fright recommendations focus on improving performance outcomes. I focus on self-knowledge, self-care and feeling better as a way to keep going. We can't succeed in anything if we feel so bad we start to hate some aspects of that endeavor, and hate ourselves for how we're struggling. 

I'm not the first to say this by any means. I just hope to re-frame difficult tasks for my students in a way that keeps them focused on their dreams and enjoying their chosen fields."

Is this class just for singers or can anyone join? What about non-musicians who have to do public speaking?

"I would love for non-singers to join us! I actually talk a bit about beta-blockers, which are a much bigger topic of conversation among classical instrumentalists than with singers. I actually started my commitment to addressing performance anxiety in-depth with my students because of a non-musician! I knew a really smart, really outgoing and friendly person who literally did not finish his college degree because he was required to take a public speaking class. He couldn't even admit his fear, but it caused him to waste all the other hard work he'd put into years of college - not to mention tuition! I resolved that would never be one of my students if I could possibly help it. No one should let that happen to them!"

Will attendees be expected to perform?

"Definitely not. This course is about developing a targeted plan and routine."

What will attendees walk away with after your class?

"They'll have some tools to identify their own stumbling blocks and symptoms. They'll have some practices to try to alleviate their symptoms, and a detailed plan for performance days to keep them focused and feeling good."

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.


About Maria Elena Altany:

Maria Elena Altany is a soprano based in Los Angeles, where she has done everything under the sun performance-wise — from her extensive work in contemporary opera, to studio sessions and back up vocals for hip hop bands. She was even once in a conceptual opera that moved across the entire city of LA — requiring her to sing her role in the back of a limousine to audience members sitting mere feet from her over the course of an entire day. There is no performance challenge that Maria Elena is afraid of, in part because she has done extensive work building the tools to keep performance anxiety at bay.

Specializing in contemporary classical music, she is a Resident Artist with avant garde opera company The Industry, under the artistic direction of Yuval Sharon. Upon her debut with LA Opera as Susana in Figaro! 90210, Opera News called her "delightfully smart and quicksilver," and LA Weekly wrote, "The cast all have great comic timing, especially a wide-eyed, flexibly limbed Altany."

Recent performances include repeat engagements with the LA Philharmonic in John Cage’s opera Europeras in collaboration with The Industry, and in Ragnar Kjartansson’s BLISS in collaborate with wild Up. In addition to Figaro! (90210), her engagements with LA Opera include a tour as Sinopa in The Marriage of Figueroa with LA Opera's Outreach program, and numerous community outreach recitals. Other highlights include a concert tribute to Yma Sumac as part of the Hammer Museum's Radical Women series, debuting the role of Cosimo in the world premiere of Galileo with The Industry, debuting the role of Jessie in Hail, Poetry! with Opera a la Carte, the Najade in Ariadne auf Naxos with Pacific Opera Project, and soloist in Rand Steiger's NIMBUS at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the LA Philharmonic's Green Umbrella Series. Upcoming performances include the role of Drum in the world premier Sweet Land, the next major production from The Industry.

The American Chronicle declared that Altany's “lovely operatic voice captivates the audience” as Rose Maybud in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore with the Sierra Madre Playhouse. praised her “silvery soprano” for her featured role in the celebrated premiere of Crescent City – the inaugural production of the ground-breaking company The Industry, LA, directed by Yuval Sharon and composed by Anne LeBaron. Since then, she has performed in every one of The Industry’s productions, including as a soloist for a record-breaking rendition of Terry Riley’s “In C,” the sold-out LA run of Christopher Cerrone’s Pulitzer-finalist, Invisible Cities, an opera for headphones and as Lucha in Hopscotch: an opera for 24 cars, for which she was featured in The New Yorker.  She made her professional debut in 2011 as Kate in Opera San Luis Obispo’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard. The International Review of Music has called her "as adorable as any soubrette has a right to be."

Maria Elena Altany has been heard as Rapunzel in Sondheim's Into The Woods, Baby Doe in The Ballad of Baby Doe, Gasparina in Haydn’s La Canterina, and Mrs. Hildebrand in Kurt Weil’s Street Scene, Adina in The Elixir of Love and Cupidon in Orpheus in the Underworld. She made her company debut with Long Beach Opera in 2014 in John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer.

Concert appearances include John Luther Adams' Sila:Breath of the World with the Ojai Music Festival in Ojai, California and at UC Berkeley, a concert with LA Opera at the Getty Museum following a lecture by maestro James Conlon, the title role in Ellen Reid’s Winter’s Child and Sophia in Alex Vassos’ The House is Open as part of First Take, a concert workshop of new operas at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum. Other concert work has included singing the soprano solos in Dubois’ Seven Last Words of Christ, Mozart’s Requiem, Fauré’s Requiem and Rutter’s Gloria.

In 2010 Maria Elena was the subject of Mandi Gosling’s mixed-media short documentary, Colors of a Soprano. She is featured in KCET’s ArtBound documentary Invisible Cities, as well as on the live recording of Crescent City by Innova Records, and on the commercial recording of Invisible Cities, released in November of 2014, by The Industry Records. A student of flamenco dance for over 10 years, she has performed with the acclaimed flamenco company Yaelisa y Caminos Flamencos.

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