Addressing Performance Anxiety
Anxiety does not need to be feared. Rather it can be turned into an asset, a tool used to help enhance your performance. Nervousness is a reality every performer faces. A belief that being nervous is a bad thing can be stifling, even debilitating as a musician. Instead, it is important to reframe our thoughts and perceptions in regards to performing. When I started playing after the ten year hiatus, I found that I had a new level of performance anxiety I had never experienced before. This stemmed a brief study on the topic, this is a compilation of what I found. I do not profess to be an expert but I have developed extensive coping skills and awareness as a result. And awareness is half the battle.
“It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach.
The key is to make them fly in formation.” -Unknown
Identifying Symptoms of Anxiety (Lists from The Musician’s Way):
When the mental, physical and emotional effects of anxiety are identified, healthy and positive responses can be learned. No one performer is exactly like another, each musician’s symptom list will be individual to them. Utilize these lists by marking the items affecting you, marking twice those of largest concern. This will instantly help to identify weaknesses and map out a plan to cultivate greater confidence in performance. “The quicker you can recognize your old patterns and adopt a strategy for sidestepping them, the sooner you will be free of indecision, doubt, and fear- free to play music (Inner Game of Music, pg. 112).”
- Avoidance of Practice
- Obsessive Practice
- Worry/Distorted Thinking
- Difficulty Focusing
- Stomach Upset/Loss of Appetite
- Trouble with Relationships
- Academic Decline
- Substance Abuse
2. Cold Hands
3. Racing Heart
4. Heavy Perspiration
6. Muscle Tension
7. Technical Insecurity
8. Rapid or Restricted Breathing
9. Dry Mouth
10. Urge to Urinate
3. Memory Lapses
4. Distorted Thinking
7. Negative Self-Talk
- Distorted Thinking
- Avoidance of Practice
- Persistent Insomnia
- Trouble with Relationships
- Academic Decline
- Substance Abuse
You may be surprised to find that most of your anxiety lies in the Pre-Performance section or that most of your symptoms are mental, triggered by your own thoughts. Every musician will have different results. Once symptoms have been identified, the next step for an anxious musician is finding what exactly triggers this nervousness.
Finding the Source
In 2009, a study was performed with the intent of listing the sources of performance anxiety in music and dance students. A sample group of tertiary-level music students in New Zealand were asked to identify and rank the factors that contributed most to their performance anxiety, the results were as follows (Kenny, pg. 92):
All ranked causes of music performance anxiety
- Pressure from self
- Inadequate preparation for performance
- General lack of confidence in self
- Attempting repertoire that is too difficult
- Excessive physical arousal prior to or during performance
- Bad performance experience
- Concern about audience reaction
- Technical flaws that cause uncertainty
- Concern about reliability of memory
- Lack of confidence in yourself as a musician
- Negative thoughts/worry as a musician
- Bad performance feedback
- Generally high level of self-consciousness
- Tendency to be anxious in general, not just in performance
- Pressure from or competing with peers, other musicians
- Generally low self-esteem
- Inadequate support from people close to you
- Not knowing how to manage physical arousal
- Not knowing how to manage negative thoughts/worry about performing
- Pressure from teacher
- Pressure from parent(s)
Where do you fall on these lists? While it may be challenging to recognize your shortcomings, it can also be reassuring to know that you are not alone in your plight.
In The Musician’s Way, the roots of performance anxiety are broken into 3 categories: person, task and situation. A list is provided with itemizing both problems and solutions:
- General anxiousness- Some individuals are more easily stirred up because their anxiety levels are higher on a normal basis. May need more relaxation techniques.
- Fear of evaluation- Need to adjust their perception so music is an occasion for sharing rather than tinged by judgement.
- History of stage nerves- This learned habit follows musicians from one stage to the next. Need to develop more positive experiences and reliable on-stage skills.
- Shyness- Coping strategies may need to be tailored to their personality, extra pre-concert planning or less backstage conversation may be necessary.
- Overly challenging repertoire- To develop confidence as a performer, manageable material is a must.
- Insufficient practice- Shortage of practice increases anxiety and decreases mastery and confidence.
- Weak practice skills- Practice habits make performers who they are on stage.
- Lack of performance skills- When performance techniques are mastered, the thrill of being under the spotlights propels musicians to the pinnacles of artistry.
- Difficult circumstances- People, venues, and instruments can all be sources surprise and unexpected challenge. Aim to be adaptable to virtually any situation.
- Public scrutiny- Public performance opens up a musician to intense scrutiny. Be ready to take charge on stage.
- High degree of concern- The greater concern for the outcome, the higher the stress level. Extra preparation can ease anxiety.
- Poor self-care- Rest, diet and personal needs when left unmanaged can hinder performance.
Just by identifying the sources of your performance anxiety you have already travelled half the journey to finding resolution and healing. While it can be a daunting and overwhelming task, the time and effort you invest into alleviating your performance anxiety challenges will be immensely beneficial in the long run as you continue on your path as a musician.
Fight or Flight
The instinctual reaction or state of awareness that occurs in a stressful situation is called the “fight or flight” syndrome. Martin Schuring explains, “When confronted with danger, the body reacts by preparing you to respond in an aggressive and forceful manner. Within seconds, you are physically and mentally prepared to kill a bear, or slay your opponent, or run from the avalanche. But instead of having a bear to vanquish, we only have a concert to play. Moreover, the oboe is not a good outlet for pent-up aggression. We need control and calm, not adrenaline and a racing heartbeat.” These physiological responses (racing heart, trembling hands, shallow breathing, nausea, trouble focusing vision) can make it challenging to perform to the best of your ability. Addressing only individual symptoms is the equivalent of putting a band-aid on a broken leg. You must identify the source of the anxiety.
The symptoms of “fight or flight” can be a resource rather than a handicap when performing is no longer seen as a threat. With deep-breathing and muscle relaxation, the physical effects can be lessened. Racing thoughts can be tamed. And heightened awareness can amplify musicality.
Catastrophizing is a path of negative thought that is magnified and repeated in a musicians mind as they imagine possible negative outcomes of a performance. It is a dark cloud overshadowing any possibility of positive thought. More often than not, these thoughts are irrational, not founded in fact but rather a nebulous feeling of disaster. By taking a step back and logically assessing the situation, honestly looking at reality, this negativity can be dispelled. There is a great exercise to help dispel catastrophic thoughts in The Inner Game of Music:
- Make a list of the worst outcomes that you could reasonably expect to happen. Include the activity itself, and also its possible consequences.
- Now list the best outcomes that you could reasonably expect…
- Reexamine your purposes and goals, and focus them toward experiencing and expressing the meaning of the music…
- Make a choice to set … doubts and worries aside, and trust that you will survive both the best and worst consequences. Not blind trust, but the trust that comes after hard work, and the trust that comes from knowing there is music inside you.
Permission to Fail
The fear of failure can instill tension and anxiety. Give yourself permission to fail. In fact, try to fail. You may find that when you stop trying so hard, you begin to find success. Release the fear of failure, welcome it as a possibility, and recognize that a few missed notes will not be as paralyzing as you once believed. “Develop a more courageous, resilient, risk-taking mindset (Kageyama.)” You may even find you release any extra physical tension in your fingers and embouchure resulting from overzealous efforts to play perfectly. When this successfully accomplished, you are free to worry less about notes and focus more on making beautiful music.
Unlearning Panic Responses
In The Secrets of Musical Confidence, Andrew Evans shares some essential steps to help a musician unlearn the panic habits developed over time. The goal is not to eradicate all fear and anxiety, large audiences and challenging music are daunting regardless, but to minimize unrealistic fear and reduce it to manageable levels. This can first be done by “identifying how the panic response became associated with performing in the first place.” Second, you need to “disassociate the added panic situation from the essential process of making music. The two are not the same.” He also recommends that you recognize that whatever ‘catastrophe’ has happened in the past, or is imagined for the future, is not in reality a normal process of music making. By facing your fear repeatedly both mentally and physically in performance, you will find security in the knowledge that the feared ‘catastrophes’ were really just that, groundless fear. You will redefine your self-image by your successes, no matter how minute.
How Body Mapping Can Help
“Body Mapping can powerfully reduce the symptoms of performance anxiety because it trains the performer to develop an awareness of how the body contributes to good performance and then encourages the performer to increase that awareness every day in the practice room.” -Stephen Caplan
Caplan’s theory is that when you focus on the little, tangible, tactile things, like your fingers on the keys of your instrument, you forget about your anxiety. He also believes that attention to breathing and rib and abdominal movement will help counteract symptomatic shortness of breath due to shortness of breath. This is best achieved by practicing acute attention on breathing every single day in the practice room. When deep, supported breaths become the standard it will be habitual and the new normal in high stress situations.
Caplan also recommends videotaping yourself or using a mirror during practice sessions and asking these questions:
- How much pressure do your fingers exert on the keys?
- Could they exert less pressure?
- How far away from the keys do the fingers move?
- Could they move less?
- At what angle do you hold the keys in relation to the keys?
- What are you doing with your thumbs during technical passagework?
- How are you using your wrists to support the work of the fingers?
- How does the arm’s structure support finger movement?
When you are in the habit of monitoring these movements in the practice room, your mind will be less overwhelmed by nervous actions like trembling fingers or distressed, scattered thinking.
“Practicing is not forced labor; it is a refined art that partakes of intuition, of inspiration, patience, elegance, clarity, balance, and, above all, the search for ever greater joy in movement and expression.”
—Yehudi Menuhin, violinist
Before you can have success in performance, you must first prepare for success in the practice room. Instead of bringing the practice room out to the performance hall, reframe your thoughts and bring the performance hall to your practice room each day. Refining your practice techniques can fortify your nerves with confidence when done intentionally and diligently. It can also help bridge the gap between the practice room and performance so can play consistently, regardless of the situation.
According to Klickstein, “practice is the deliberate, creative process of improving musical ability and of mastering music for performance.” Below is a series of lists from The Musician’s Way that will help you develop better, more deliberate practice skills.
5 categories of an ideal practice session:
- New material– sight-read, break into sections, absorb artistic and technical content
- Developing material– refining interpretation, increasing tempo, memorizing
- Performance material– renew interpretive and technical details, maintain memory, practice performing
- Technique– scales, arpeggios, etudes, instrument specific work
- Musicianship– sight-reading, listening, improvisation, study
Five tips for scheduling practice sessions:
- Practice regularly
- Arrange multiple, shorter stints
- Take breaks- 10 minutes each hour of practice
- Increase gradually- 10-20% per week
- Live a balanced life- harmonize music with health, relationships, school and work
Record your practice sessions. This can be hugely beneficial in regards to performance anxiety because listening helps you develop a realistic perception of how you are playing. It is hard to obsess over one troublesome phrase and belittle your ability when you play the rest of the movement flawlessly.
Another key to diffusing performance anxiety is to prepare well enough that you know, without a shadow of a doubt, you have worked hard and are performing to the very best of your abilities.
“Your central tasks are finding inner peace and strength, on the one hand,
and being very well-prepared for your performances, on the other.”
-Eric Maisel, author and psychologist
Defining “the best of your ability” can be tricky, especially if you are a perfectionist. A weekly practice journal can be a helpful tool to log progress during a performance preparation period, enabling you to look back and see a tangible record of your hours of study, work, accomplishment and progress.
“Life begins with breathing, and it is something so basic to all activity and to all musical art that it is essential to be aware of it while practicing. Breathing should be smooth and unforced, even during the most intricate movements involved… should continue quietly. A certain amount of training and a high degree of co-ordination are necessary to achieve this.” –Yehudi Menuhin
Our breathing is a mirror of our psychological state. As stress increases, breathing gets shallower. By training your body to breathe deeply even in the most anxious situations your muscles and thoughts will reflexively be more relaxed.
Exercise 1: Breathe in deeply to the count of 5. Breathe out gradually to the count of 10. Imagine all of the anxiety and negative thinking being pushed out with your exhales. Repeat. For variety, do a slow 3 count in and a slow 3 count out. Find the count that suits you and feels most natural and soothing. Experiment breathing both through your nose and your mouth, notice what is most relaxing.
Exercise 2: As you do the above breathing exercise, be aware of the muscles in your body, releasing a different muscle group with each exhale. Fingers with one breath. Arms with another. Shoulders with the next. Neck. Back. Belly. Legs. Feet.
Exercise 3: Stretch. Keep breathing. Do neck rolls, arms circles, hand stretches, even legs since they are the foundation of performance stance. The more limber your muscles are, the more relaxed and capable you will feel.
For the Love of Music
On occasion music can become a burden if practice and performance goals have overshadowed the love of music that once motivated you. When this happens, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the technicalities of the music rather than the bigger picture. Reconnect with the joy you once found making music. What do you enjoy most about music and why do you perform? Redefine your purpose as an artist.
Actively participate in music selection and learn the history of the composers and the eras in which pieces were written. Bring the music to life. Picture imagery or stories to help you better visualize and convey the mood the composer intended in your piece. Become the music, forget yourself.
“The player needs to be able to forget about himself.
This is when real communication begins.
For with the elimination of self, he is able to reach the very core of the music, and is free to transmit it.”
–Kato Havas, Violin Teacher and author of Stage Fright
Just Do It- Realize Your Potential
A common theory is that the best way to overcome performance anxiety is to perform. Again and again until it becomes a normal part of your life as a musician. This may seem daunting at first but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said,
“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”
On his blog The Bulletproof Musician, Doctor Noa Kageyama writes, “If indeed we are to make the most of our gifts, talents and abilities, and if indeed growth occurs at the boundaries of our comfort zone, then doing one thing every day that makes us uncomfortable, that stretches us slightly forward, will help us to become the person we have the capacity to be.” He maintains that tiny acts of courage each day will become habit and in time “become part of your character and give rise to a more courageous future you.” Through practice, patience and commitment you can become a person that acts courageously in the face of fear and performance anxiety.
While your adrenaline may be pumping and nerves may be on high alert, the reality is that the worst that can happen in a concert is embarrassment. Of course make efforts to study techniques for stress management and unwanted habit eradication. But you must learn to play when you are nervous. The more gracefully, the better. Harness the heightened senses and use them to your benefit. Trust your technical preparations and enjoy the musical experience.
“Focus on two things: making beautiful sound and staying present in the music.
Even if you think about nothing else but these two things, they should help you stay on course and play beautifully.” -Martin Schuring
Caplan, Stephen. Oboemotions: What Every Oboe Player Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA Publications,
Evans, Andrew. The Secrets of Musical Confidence. Hammersmith, London. Thorsons Publishing, 1994.
Green, Barry and Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Music. Garden City, NY. Anchor Press, 1986.
Kageyama, Noa. http://www.thebulletproofmusician.com/blog
Kenny, Dianna. The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Klickstein, Gerald. The Musician’s Way. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Niemann, Brand Keola. Biofeedback Training, Selected Coping Strategies, and Music Relaxation Interventions to
Reduce Debilitative Musical Performance Anxiety. A Thesis for the BYU School of Music, 1992.
Schuring, Martin. Oboe Art and Method. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Woody, Robert H. http://beingmusicalbeinghuman.com