British Columbia·Audio

Singer Dawn Pemberton shares her secrets on conquering nerves

Clenched muscles and shaky breath can ruin a performance. But singer and performance coach Dawn Pemberton shares her secrets of overcoming nerves.

Breathe, practice, focus. And don't forget about that dinosaur tail

Singer Dawn Pemberton also coaches performers and directs the Roots 'N' Wings Women's Choir in Vancouver. (Wendy D Photography)

When Vancouver singer Dawn Pemberton helps her students find their best sound, it is a whole body endeavour.

Feet shoulder-width apart. Knees buoyant. And don't forget your ... tail?

"I always think, I have a really long dinosaur tail, that's really long and really heavy, and that helps me stay weighted."

When she delivers this instruction, a singer may chuckle, but also transform —  suddenly grounded from the hips down and swaying that tail, releasing muscles they hadn't intended to clench.

Tension in the body can get in the way of a beautiful tone, and so can our other natural responses to nerves: a racing heart, feeling shaky, and losing control of the breath.

"For singing, the most important thing is your breath," said Pemberton.

"Once that goes away, it's hard to keep all the other balls in the air."

'Why do you feel called?' 

Besides grounding the body, Pemberton tells students to focus the mind.

If you are feeling ramped up and nervous before a performance, Pemberton says take a moment to recognize how you feel, and remember why you're doing it.

"Why do you feel called to perform?" she asks. "That will help you remember, oh, I actually like this thing."

Nerves and excitement are the same physical reaction, she tells students.

"Whenever I'm feeling nervous I just say, 'I'm so excited! I'm really excited!" and that just helps me change the way I think about it."

Dawn Pemberton singing at the release of her solo album Say Somethin' in 2014. (Marc Bjorknas)

Practice and connect

Her other key piece of advice is practice — not to make perfect, but to know the piece so intimately you can be nimble if something goes wrong like a forgotten word or missed entrance.

Then, try to connect in the moment.

"When you're feeing nervous our tendency is to just barrel through," she said.

"Just take a moment and listen to the people that you're playing with, or connect with the people in the audience."

Read more in our special series, Keep Calm, exploring the science and business of handling stress: