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.

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.”


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