Festive gigs ahead: I might need a parachute!
A radio programme I heard this week really caught my attention and has made me view my forthcoming festive gigs, especially the Red Hot Highland Fling biggie at Hogmanay, with fresh thoughts. One of BBC Radio 4’s always-excellent documentaries on music, it was highlighting aspects of a musician’s life and some of the lesser known facts about performing.
Hormones, it turns out, are crucial to performance and scientists have found that one in particular - cortisol (the so-called stress hormone and part of our body’s built-in alarm system) – shoots up during a show to levels akin to skydiving!
Put like that, it sounds kind of scary, but should it put the fear of death into me? Well, along with adrenalin bringing those butterflies in the stomach and release of endorphins inducing excitement and exhilaration, it’s undoubtably an interesting chemical cocktail, but I imagine there isn’t a musician alive who doesn’t know what all this feels like. The butterflies and nerves that can afflict a musician prior to walking onstage can be aggravated by a multitude of factors from level of preparedness and rehearsal, to the comfort and practicality of your outfit and who’s in the audience. But the amazing thing is how that anxiety can evaporate once you start playing.
Then the glorious fun and sheer delight of playing and singing kicks in and though the cortisol might be coursing in your veins, it brings an exuberance and energy that is so exhilarating. It’s probably what keeps us going back for more!
Other hormones and chemical messengers helpfully play a big part in countering the fear factors onstage and off. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone which aids bonding and attachment, is usually at work within bands, with that feeling of social support and fraternity proving a massive stress buffer. Dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, serves to enhance the sense of pleasure and happiness in the playing of music.
What researchers have also discovered however is that this physiological chaos needs to be normalised in between shows. If for instance a band is on a lengthy tour with little opportunity for recovery and rest, the continuous chemical imbalance in the brain and body can be highly damaging to physical and mental health.
The programme’s psychologist contributor revealed that 70% of musicians suffer three times average levels of anxiety and depression and, while many factors may contribute to this including unsocial hours, lack of sleep, being away from families, financial worries and the pressures of simply being freelance, it makes sense that there could be a link to this see-saw of hormonal imbalance. It’s perhaps not hard to see how alcohol or drugs can become crutches for those on long-haul, exhausting tours.
Solo artists, who don’t have the oxytocin effect of bandmates around them for supportive and even loving connectedness, experience the highest stress levels. Again, various factors might be there but who would have thought hormones and brain chemistry would play such a big part.
I’d speculate that this hormonal rush would apply to performers of all kinds, from sport and elite athletes to dancers and actors and, who knows, maybe even politicians? The lung-bursting 400m race or ninety minutes of professional football are possibly not so far removed from the high energy show.
My gigs over the festive period are all local with days in between, so the skydiving effect of cortisol will have a chance to recede and bring me back to earth. I believe it was David Bowie who said playing music is like an out-of-body experience without the use of drugs, and he wasn’t wrong.
I’m just so looking forward to that familiar, exciting buzz and enormous fun of doing one of the things I love most - music. If you’re coming along to Inverness’s Northern Meeting Park for the Hogmanay party with ourselves (Dorec-a-belle), Torridon and Skipinnish, I’ll see you there and hope you enjoy the show!
(First published by Scottish Provincial Press 13th December 2019)