If you’ve ever studied Sport Psych, you may have heard of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. If you are like me, though the knowledge stuck with you, you can never remember those guys’ names. 

Anyway, the law describes ‘optimal level of arousal’ and states that: ‘increased levels of arousal will improve performance, but only up until the optimum arousal level is reached’. 

When arousal levels are very high or very low, performance tends to be worse. There is an optimal level for focus, memory, and coordination. Let’s look at how the law applies not only to athletes, but also to singers.

Have you experienced this yourself on stage or in studio? Feeling overstimulated to the point where it was hard to focus on the lyrics or the music? Or feeling lethargic, sick, or just flat, not sure you’ll have the stamina for those high notes ahead? 

Think about a time when you were most ‘in the zone’. How did it feel? In addition to feeling amazing, I’m willing to bet it also had the greatest impact. How did the audience respond?

In general, overly high levels of stimulation affect performance using two main channels. 

First, they increase muscle tension and negatively impact co-ordination. Secondly, arousal affects attention levels. Excessive arousal can lead to anxiety, and feeling too nervous to concentrate. Both can be detrimental to one’s singing performance.

Drawing comparisons between the preparation for sports events and for musical performances allowed me to develop similar and effective tools for both. I didn’t want to ‘reinvent the wheel’ each time I prepared for something potentially stressful or challenging (usually in front of a whole lot of people). 

When my vocal coach in University used sports references (like ‘keep your stick on the ice’ to represent ‘singing on the breath’), it seemed funny at the time as he knew I was a Kin Major and hockey fan, but it encouraged a more playful and creative approach to my visualizations, which have become an essential part of my stage preparations. 

Do you feel like you have strategies that you can sometimes use to success, and otherwise forget about? Do you feel as though you could be more consistent with your physical and mental preparation for your vocal performances? You’re not alone. I want to share some strategies and tools that work for singers physically and mentally, summoning us to a focused, alert, relaxed and energized state. 

Doesn’t that sound appealing? To feel and look amazing on stage, and to bring out your best voice? Life is busy and we don’t always make time to feel our best and set our intentions firmly. But if you’re reading this, it looks like you are ready to make a habit of it.

So how do we find the ever-elusive optimal level?

The basic assumption of the Arousal Theory is that environmental factorsinfluence the brain’s level of arousal. We engage in actions to attain an optimal level of arousal by either decreasing or increasing the amount and type of stimulationreceived from the environment. Makes sense. The great thing is, we don’t have to let our environment be decided for us. We can choose environments that support our ultimate goals.

  • Using a combination of physical exercise tools, including either an energizing or a relaxing series, you can balance energy to your advantage. 
  • Examining your food plan can be beneficial to ensure that you have balance in other ways such as blood sugar, and hormonal balance. 
  • Your nervous system and immune system may also need support to promote your best top-level performance. 
  • Finally, body awareness, and most importantly listening to your body’s cues, is essential for joy and confidence, and inevitably, impact on stage.

An optimal level is important for singers in particular as there are many moving parts to a vocal performance. While some nerves (or excitement as we like to call it) can be energizing, we need to have direct access to attention and focus in order to summon the lyrics and interpretation of the material, to be present and connect emotionally with the audience or other performers, and maybe even nail some choreography…!