On Practice: Performance Anxiety
(and how to deal with it)
By Daniel Roest
If you've ever experienced performance anxiety, you remember how it felt physically and how you felt emotionally: bad, for both. Physical symptoms may include a sense of diminished control and ability in your hands, hampered breathing and breaking out into a cold sweat. You may feel flushed. Your vision may change from normal to "tunnel vision." Panic may set in, and your racing heart may cause you to think you just might die right on stage.
For the reader thinking of the stress of "never playing well" at the guitar lesson, this may seem highly exaggerated. But for those who have been on stage alone with an attentive audience, it may ring true. It certainly does for me, because I've felt all of the above at one time or another. The emotions in the experience of performance anxiety last a lot longer than the physical symptoms. You may be completely disheartened, feeling like you let yourself and the audience down, and be "down on yourself" because of it. From mild resignation to bitter disappointment, anger and depression, these feelings revolve around unfulfilled expectations.
If you've invested a lot of emotional energy into how well you perform music on stage, you carry a lot of liability onstage with you. It can materially affect your self-esteem. You may think all the pro players have gotten past it and don't have to deal with it any more. Actually the reverse is true. A lot of very accomplished artists have to overcome some real cases of nerves. So the fact that you experience it does not mean you're not cut out to be a performer. You just have to learn how to deal with it successfully.
There are two keys to overcoming performance anxiety at whatever level it occurs:
·Deal with the physical side ·Deal with the emotional side
The cause and effect relationship of mind and body is circular. That's the first thing to understand. Your mind finds the situation uncomfortable, and a conflict arises. Physical discomfort follows immediately. Your breathing changes, and as the body and brain continue exchanging chemicals, you're trying to keep focused on what you set out to do. Quite like ice skaters trying to fly and twirl in competitions while smiling and being artistic and graceful, even after missteps.
Here are some pointers gleaned from my experiences on stage:
·Be prepared. Don't set yourself up for failure by reason of lack of preparation. After you have your pieces memorized and sounding good alone, ask family and friends to listen, and get familiar with what it feels like to play for someone. ·Breathe. There's nothing like restricted breathing to make your body shout at your brain with a squirt of adrenaline. Then the fight-or-flight response kicks in and you'll have an awfully hard time concentrating on the music. By contrast, if you try breathing consciously, that is, causing the depth and rate of your breathing instead of leaving it entirely up to the unconscious, the reverse will happen. The circular relationship between mind and body acts to calm everything down, leaving the rest of your brain and consciousness to be with the music. ·Don't resist the way it goes. Don't expect it to be like it is when you practiced at home. ·Be natural. Don't take yourself too seriously. ·Focus more on the music than on yourself. It's the music that's the focus of the audience, not you. Try picking out an aspect of the music like the meter or the melody, and then make that a guiding force as you perform. In other words, say you're playing a piece by Bach. It has a tempo and a meter. As you perform it, make sticking to the tempo like a Swiss watch your constant goal. It will occupy your attention, rather than irrational thoughts and worries about non-musical distractions. ·Look your best. It conveys a respect for the music. Remember your role: you are there to serve the music, not the other way around. ·Eat well and rest up for the stress of performing and concentrating. Keep your blood sugar where it ought to be - not too high or low. ·It's better to play something less technically challenging well than to bomb on a difficult piece. Often we find this out too late, but that's just the trial and error nature of performing. ·Stage fright is often directly proportional to your perception of how significant a performance is. This is extremely common in academia, where music majors are being graded and judged and build up to their senior recital. And the more you perform in public, the more normal and less extraordinary performing in public becomes.
We should also relax a bit about who we are and what we can do. Let's just have some fun out there and share the love we have for the music.
For a good 15-minute podcast on the topic by Gail Berenson, President of the Music Teachers National Association, see
- she makes many good and useful points.