Trauma and singing – how to beat anxiety

Performance specialist Betsy Polatin has helped many singers overcome anxiety and the feeling that, regardless of how hard they try, they can never quite nail a performance. She is teaming up with psychologist Dr Peter Levine for Trauma and the Performing Artist, a two day workshop to be held in London.

Early in her career Betsy Polatin was confounded by the students at the top institutions where she was teaching. Many were blessed with amazing voices but were unable to fully express themselves.

“I noticed some odd patterns that no one could explain,” says Polatin, a movement and performance specialist who has taught at Berklee College of Music, Boston University and the Opera Institute of Boston.

“Wondering where they came from, I explored many modalities. When I read Dr Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger I found a possible answer.”

Through his work with NASA astronauts and war veterans Levine came to the conclusion that trauma has a significant impact on the nervous system. As a result, it can cause chronic tension and present as a range of physical and mental symptoms. Polatin, an Alexander technique specialist, explored his studies and surmised that the performance “blocks” she kept seeing with her students were the result of trauma; an incident, or series of incidents, from the performer’s past that prevented them from fully “letting go” or reaching their potential.

When she talks about “trauma” she is keen to stress: “This is not trauma in the way we often think about it, such as an earthquake or violent abuse, but to this singer, this lingering moment of holding back was traumatic.”

Since this discovery 35 years ago Polatin has forged close working links with Levine and through her own teaching helped hundreds of performers to navigate performance issues, students such as Thomas, a singer at the Opera Institute who was struggling with anxiety, especially when singing high notes.

She says: “When he spoke about this anxiety, we noticed that his hands push something away in front of him, as he talked about the anxiety that he felt.

“I had him explore this pushing away motion. I had him feel the push and do more with it. We touched it, felt it, played the edge, and moved the energy back-and-forth, thinking maybe it was some kind of incomplete defensive response. Moving it back and forth can sometimes complete the action of a defensive response. After we worked with the pushing, he sang again and his voice was so much freer and more beautiful. We both noticed the change, but something told me there was more.

“I asked him when he started singing. It was in the third grade when he was given a choice – gym class or music class. He chose music class, auditioned and was told he was a boy soprano.

“He was fine with this but when he told his mother she said: ‘A boy soprano, don’t tell anyone you’re a soprano!’. As she told him, in that moment, she pushed her hands away. Just like he pushed his hands away at the beginning of the session. Same direction, same speed, same force.

“He was still today, hiding his boy soprano nature, those high notes. When we went back to the passage there was so much less anxiety. His body understood something and of course, his mind and emotions certainly understood something. Inside he knew he could sing those high notes, but something was in the way and in our work together, we found some of what was in the way.”

Polatin says of the two-day workshop she will run with Levine in August: “It’s ideal for those who feel they could achieve more potency as a performer or are frustrated by certain blocks that they seem to have no control over. These issues are frequently the result of trauma, of events that were once perceived to be overwhelming or immobilising. Trauma, when accessed at the level of body sensations, can open us up to an incredible, yet subtle, array of feelings, fostering a deeper connection to ourselves and with the audience.”

Students will learn: how to safely and actively utilise their unique emotional and trauma history; enhanced body awareness; and breathing techniques to improve performance. They will have the opportunity to perform in front of Polatin and Levine and discuss any relevant issues.

The event will be held at City of London School for Girls, London. There is an early bird discount of £50 for those who book before 1 July. CLICK HERE to book.

Tribe members get an extension on that £50 discount after July 1st. Login to The tribe and go to the Goodies COrner to access details.


Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.