Reversion Under Stress

The other day, my wife, the opera singer and professor of voice was lamenting an all too common student problem – the fact that when singers, particularly young or inexperienced singers, get stressed, they tend to revert to their old bad habits and ways of singing. Most every voice teacher has to deal with this problem at one time or another, but I realized, perhaps far later than I should have, that it’s not just a problem for singers.  It’s a problem for societies and civilization.

It’s no accident that most social and legal progress tends to happen in times of prosperity, and that in times of economic and cultural stress, societies and individuals tend to regress.  For example, in World War II, the land of the free, the good old USA, got so fearful that the vast majority of individuals of Japanese descent on the west coast of the United States were packed off to relocation camps, their lands and property seized, much of it never restored.  Fear and stress made a hash out of the Bill of Rights and due process.  Under the fear of communism, Joe McCarthy ruined the lives of thousands of law-abiding Americans who made the mistake of believing in free speech during the early cold war.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most Jews believed Germany was one of the most progressive countries and one that granted them the most freedom, but thirty years later, in the depths of the greatest depression, stress and fear gave rise to the Third Reich, and we all know where that led.

Under stress, most people revert to old habits we thought we’d left behind, and those habits usually aren’t the best, because the habits we’ve worked to leave behind are the ones we’re usually not too proud of… or the ones that have worked against us in school or in whatever occupation we’re involved in.  Unhappily, that also seems to be the case in societies as well.  Under stress, dictators and rulers who’ve been showing a softer side, revert to weapons and violence.  Under stress, Americans who’ve been talking about the need for better education collectively decide to cut billions from education, but not from farm and industry subsidies.  Under stress, political and religious discussions get uglier and less compromising and understanding.  Under stress…

I hope you get the idea.

The problem with all this is that the old bad habits of societies and individuals are even less productive and useful in poor political and economic times… and yet, time after time, generation after generation, this pattern repeats itself.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that my wife has trouble with students in this.  They can hear that they sing better with their new techniques.  They know it, and they can hear it… but when they get stressed, most of them subconsciously retreat to the “comfort” of their old poorer technique, and then they don’t do as well in recitals and competitions.  It’s only the very best who can surmount their fears and stresses.

So… which will we be?  The ones who surmount fear and stress and progress… or those who collapse under it and revert?

7 thoughts on “Reversion Under Stress”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    All right, I’ll bite … although this is not really to your point.

    In my youth, I was a serious violinist, played with many violinists and cellists, and took lessons from many different instructors. Nervousness and resulting inability to play to the fullest potential was a common theme. One instructor, a long-time member of the BSO, went through fad after fad to free himself, from hypnotism to obsessive practicing of each phrase, none succeeding. Another would play difficult Bach Violin Sonatas superbly in master class, but have agonizing difficulties with far more easy pieces in concert, while the sweat poured off him in streams. And in my concerts, my hands would cramp and once, when I was in a loft and fear of heights was added, I turned an entire movement of long notes into a mad cacophony of spiccato.

    When I revisited the violin 20 years later, I tried something which worked for me and, I think, is worth considering. I took it from hathayoga (something that Yehudi Menuhin, I think, also tried), in which you start in a posture of relaxation, consciously relax all your muscles, and then repeatedly tense a set of muscles and release the tension, with greater tension each time but with careful attention to relaxing all the way back to the original state.

    To do this, I first analyzed every part of my playing, to achieve the least tension. Music at head level while standing; bow arm swinging like a pivot from the elbow up from hanging vertically; bow held in a natural curl of the fingers, with no pressure; vibrato a relaxed pivot from the wrist.

    Then, each time before I started playing, I “warmed down.” Long bows while consciously relaxing the muscles of each hand and arm, then bows that alternately tensed and relaxed those muscles, increasing the tension each time. It typically took about 3-4 minutes, and by the end I had gone from hands tense from cold and nervousness to ability to play pretty much anything.

    I can’t say I tried this under conditions of highest stress. I can say that I recorded approximately 300 hours of the standard violin “warhorses”, from Beethoven to Brahms and the Bach Sonatas and Partitas to Ysaye, without rehearsal, without the need to stop because of mistakes, and often close to sightreading, one movement after another, two hours at a time, with little or no feeling that I wasn’t achieving what I really wanted to achieve. In the old days, I wouldn’t have lasted two minutes without tensing up, fouling up, or playing it so safe that I hated the sound.

    I think where I’m going with this is that one way around the problem of stress for performers, which may or may not work for others, is not to try to “surmount” stress but to practice relaxing back to a fully relaxed state, so that, too, becomes a habit. I always liked the Frank Herbert line in Dune: “Fear is the mind killer, the little death. I will face my fear (I will accept that I am tense), I will let it pass through me (I will let my muscles relax instead of forcing things), and where it has gone, there will be nothing. Only I (relaxed) will remain.”

  2. Richard Hamilton says:

    A question, and a point:

    How about those who can hold it together for some limited period while the pressure is on, but promptly fall apart the moment it’s safe to do so? I find that as an example, if I have a close call on the road, I’m fine ’til I park, and then I fall apart hard. Similarly, I hate tests, but it doesn’t have much effect on the results, only on the state of my digestion for the rest of the day. So also I might imagine that different people and groups might sustain different stresses for different periods of time, before the effects became apparent. Some effects might not emerge until the more obvious crisis was over. On an individual level, some might be able to perform but not to the point of participating in some post-performance gathering.

    The point: peace and prosperity may allow for social improvements, but they also may quickly be taken for granted. By contrast, much technological progress has been made under pressure of warfare, and in times of high unemployment, presumably many of those still employed work that much harder, both to keep their jobs and perhaps because there’s a certain minimum amount of work to be done to keep an establishment going that’s pretty much independent of the volume of transactions.

    So I suppose the ideal is to treat all sorts of circumstances as simply different kinds of opportunities to meet the needs of the times…

  3. Joe says:

    You make a convincing case. However the uprisings in the Middle East are in large part due to lack of food (a stressor if ever there were one). Yet so far it seems secular values (rather than fundamentalist ones) have prevailed. So perhaps stress causing regression is not as strong a rule as you posit.

    1. Griffin says:

      It remains to be seen, as the outcomes are not clear yet. I certain;y hope that Egypt remains a secular power, and that the radical supporters of terrorism do not make gains there or anywhere else that these revolutions are taking place.

      Still, I fear.

  4. hob says:

    You write that when under pressure, society loses it’s principles–but isn’t that also the time when principles are born? The birth of America occurs when the those who were due certain privileges from their King were refused.
    There are countless other such examples in history. In short–principles seem to be born from unmet expectations in those who are usually better off under previous principles. If not for pressures/stresses–one could argue no evolution of principles would occur.

  5. Grant Edmunds says:

    I think you hit it right on the head, but so did hob. Perhaps what it comes down to is that stress sends a message to our subconscious that something is wrong. Then, subconsciously, we try to change something to make the stress go away. Generally that change is a reversion back to old habits which, as you said, are the bad ones we left behind. But in the case of men with understanding and self-control those changes can be consciously directed to be a good thing. So, how do we ensure that we don’t go with our knee-jerk reaction? I think it is a matter of training ourselves to think. If we think about it we can usually see what the right response to a stressful situation is, but if we haven’t specifically trained ourselves to think, we are in big trouble when stress comes knocking. unfortunately while that sounds like a simple solution, the difficulty in accomplishing it makes it far from simple.

  6. Griffin says:

    Reversion is an incredibly strong force. Law enforcement and militaries train very hard to make the habits reverted to those most likely to lead to successful outcomes (Like surviving combat.)

    Thought-provoking, this.

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