Performance Anxiety

Performance Anxiety

The following article is being used by permission from the Career Services Center of New England Conservatory. The Career Services Center publishes a bi-weekly job bulletin as well as several informational handouts jam-packed with practical, concise career advice and referral information. All information is researched, compiled, and written by the Career Services Center staff. There are over 70 informational handouts to choose from - pick the ones specifically targeted to meet your career needs. For current fees and a complete list of resources, please contact:
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Every performing musician has experienced performance anxiety to some degree. The way we each experience it, however, is unique. The extent to which it affects one's playing is individual, as are the combinations of symptoms; and it changes over the course of one's career. Each musician must find her/his own way of coping because what works well for your colleaugue may do nothing for you. There is no "magic bullet" cure; it all depends on what is going on inside you specifically.

So we need to focus not on a quick fix, not the 20 minutes before the performance, but on ideas and self-research that may take you time but will be worthwhile in the long run in changing ingrained thought patterns and performance habits. The following information includes ideas and coping strategies you can incorporate into daily practice to build new habits in the months before your next major performance. This handout is divided into three sections: the first deals with the causes and manifestations of performance anxiety; the second, with self-assessment; the third, with interventions and practical treatment methods.

I. Causes and Symptoms

What is stress?

Stress is our reaction to events and situations, both positive and negative, in our lives. Stress is a basic part of life; without it our lives would be routine, predictable, boring. Stressors (the events and situations we react to) make life exciting and memorable. It's the way we react to these stressors that may be problematic.

Experiencing stress before a performance can be positive: it means you care about the performance and are excited to be performing. It can give your performance an "edge." Musicians look for a balance between having no excitement in their performance and having too much.
You may know people who lead very busy, pressured lives and yet their general demeanor is relaxed and happy. Other people may "make mountains out of mole hills;" blowing small issues out of all proportion; they may be generally worried, hectic, and dissatisfied, type "A" personalitities. These extremes can be attributed to temperament but the reality is that we each have a choice in the way we react to stressors. You can change your attitude towards any difficulty or predicament in which you find yourself. Changing one's attitude, one's perception of a situation, is a powerful tool - it's the power, in fact, to change one's reality.

What is performance anxiety?

We can break it down into 4 elements; these can occur independently or in any combination.

  1. physical symptoms: nausea, dizziness, rapid heart rate, trembling, shortness of breath, dry mouth, sweating and increased muscle tension.
  2. cognitive element: thoughts, worries, concentration, dwelling on negative thoughts about the performance and the self.
  3. psychological element: feelings of inadequacy, fear of disapproval, fear of fear, irrational exaggeration of the performance situation - emotionally, it becomes a test of one's worth as a person, a life or death situation.
  4. behavioral changes in response to the above: avoidance, deciding not to do the audition, postponing a recital, etc.
  5. People who experience high levels of performance anxiety tend to concentrate on the symptoms, causing more worry, more negative thought patterns, more feelings of inadequacy, and this may increase all the symptoms. So one can get stuck in a performance anxiety loop, or a downward spiral.

The paradoxical nature of performance anxiety is that it can have nothing to do with the performer's actual abilities: the sense of vulnerability comes from within. It is not just an external drive for perfection, but an inner self-imposed standard. It has more to do with the performer's perceptions than with any actual reality.

Our body's extreme reaction to stress is called the fight or flight response: racing heart, rush of adrenaline, blood rushing to the major muscles. Biologically, we are programmed for the fight or flight response for self-preservation in life-threatening situations. Unless you're playing in a war zone, a performance is not a life threatening situation. If we are perceiving it as a life-threatening situation, then there's a clear indication we need to examine our thoughts and feelings and make some adjustments in order to alter our perception and symptoms/responses.

Career stress adds to the stress of any one performance. Competition is an inherent element in the life of a musician; musicians are judged all through school, to win scholarships, to be accepted to schools, festivals, to win seats in ensembles, play concerti, and eventually, to win employment. Every musician wants to play her/his best, to become the best they can be. Musicians learn early on that their career depends almost entirely on their success as a performer. This reality exacerbates the pressure one can feel over any individual performance. There can be a perception that if a performance goes poorly, it may mean the end of one's future career. The competition in the music business can produce a general job stress that is cumulative and contributes to performance anxiety.

While it is clear that stress and performance anxiety comes with the territory of a music career, what is often not clear is that musicians have the ability to change their reactions to stress. The first step to change is self-assessment.

II. Self-Assessment: check out your attitudes

In order for you to find appropriate coping strategies for your own performance anxiety it is necessary to do some self-assessing. Your attitudes towards yourself (your confidence and self-esteem); towards your instrument (is it a love/hate relationship?); towards performing in general; and towards your audience, are all important factors and may be contributing to how you experience performance anxiety.

Attitude towards self

Performers tend to view themselves as musicians first and as people second. In his article "Resuscitating Art Music," bassoonist/composer John Steinmetz writes "Many of us musicians ... have made the terrible mistake of letting our sense of personal worth and our self-esteem get wrapped up with the quality of our performances. Somewhere along the line we decided that we have no value as people unless our performances are really good. If not, we are worthless scum." If all of your confidence and feelings of self-esteem are tied up in the last performance you gave, you are setting up an emotional trap for yourself.

What does performing mean to you?

Is it about sharing? About telling a story through the music?
Or is it about perfection? About self esteem or self worth? About proving something to yourself or to others? About being better than someone else?

Most musicians would not have just one answer here. Unfortunately, if there are some negative issues for you around the motivation for performance, this can cause more performance anxiety.

Perfectionism is a trap

We all aim for an ideal performance, and we are all critical of ourselves. Because music is a very competitive field and we study it in a competitive setting, musicians can easily slip into perfectionistic, or all or nothing thinking: that a performance must be 100% "perfect" to be any good at all. This is a Catch-22 because we necessarily set our sights on unattainable perfection and so we are constantly disappointed in our "failure" to reach our goals. Instead of striving for perfection in a performance, we should be striving for excellence. Be careful what you are actually expecting from yourself and of how you evaluate your own performances.

How do you react to the compliments people give you after a performance? Do you shrug them off? Do you immediately say or think, "Yes, BUT . . ." ?

Take your performance history

What were your first performance experiences like? Many of us began studying and performing as young children in very supportive atmospheres. Recitals may have been held at a teacher's home, it was a party atmosphere and you may or may not have liked it.

Chances are that if your first performance experiences were postitive, that you had lots of preparation and so the recital, while being special, did not feel like a life or death situation. Unfortunately, once we're in a competitive school environment the fun supportive atmosphere seems to disappear and we get caught up in judging ourselves and in the "pecking order" at school. We also tend to have far fewer performance opportunities handed to us. So it's important to create opportunties for ourselves so that performing becomes a weekly event, not a yearly event.

If your early performance experiences were positive, you can get back to that ease. If your early performance experiences were less than positive, you can learn new responses. Remember, you are in the driver's seat in terms of how you react to stress.

Attitude towards audience

The foundation of performance anxiety is the fear of public humiliation. It's easy to forget why someone comes to hear you perform; it's not to judge you or to give you a grade, it's to hear your interpretation of some great music. It's to be moved by your performance.

How do you picture your audience? Friend or foe? What are you communicating to them? When you are performing can you feeling their support, their interest, their gratitude? Are you able to acknowledge their applause instead of slinking off stage because of a few missed notes?

III. Interventions / Practical Treatment Methods

A range of coping techniques and methods follow. Experiment with these to find a combination or adaptation that works well for you.

Preparation: excellent preparation for your next performance will do a lot to increase your confidence. Create a plan for the months preceding the performance that includes a schedule for an appropriate number of lessons for each movement/piece. Plan a number of "warm up" performances before the "real" recital: use master class performances, performances for friends, or performances at a local church, community center, nursing home. This will give you opportunities to work on what's going on in your head during performances - in a less pressured atmosphere.

Memorization: To prepare a piece you plan to perform by memory, it's important to recognize there are four styles of learning or memorizing. In your lessons and in your practice room, make use of all four methods, using a combination of methods is far more effective than relying on just one. The most secure memorization uses more than one component, so that if, for instance, you momentarily can't hear what's coming next, or can't see the page, that your body knows the motions.

Intellectual: know where you are structurally in the piece: at the recap. in the development, etc.
Auditory: hear the music
Visual: see the music in front of you
Kinesthenic: your body memorizes the motions

You can work on these multiple memorization strategies by practicing away from the instrument, by visualizing the score and hearing the work in your inner ear, or by imagining all the physical motions involved and playing through the work again, away from the instrument. It's amazing how much progress one can make away from the instrument!

Visualization: here are 4 different visualization exercises. First, think back to a performance you had that you felt satisfied with. How did your body feel? What was going through your mind? You can practice recreating this state of mind in your practice room; you can learn to recall that state of mind at will before performing.

Next, create a movie in your mind of the way you want to perform a particular passage, a movement, a piece. Include all the details: what it feels like, what you see, hear, feel. Play the movie in your head from walking out on stage until the bow and the aplause. You may want to close your eyes as you do this. Start first with just a phrase, then build up your movie-making ability to a complete piece. Make sure that you are not just replaying a favorite CD in your head - this visualized performance has to be yours, with all the nuances, inflections, body movement involved in your optimum performance. This is imaging: see/hear/feel all the specifics of how you want your body to function while playing. When you create such a movie in your head you are teaching your mind and body how to recreate this performance in reality.

Third, create your ideal performance experience: athletes call this state of optimim performance being in "the zone;" it's close to a meditative state, full concentration; one doesn't notice external distractions and one's body and mind work with ease. Suspend time, feel a freedom in your playing, and feel your body work at ease and your mind in a calm receptive state.

Circle of Excellence: Musician Michael Colgrass writes about this exercise in his article "Performing at Your Best." Simply draw or mark a circle on the floor, using chalk or if you're playing in a carpeted room, you may be able to "draw" your circle in the carpet's pile with your finger. Now step into your circle of excellence. Michael Colgrass writes, "Inside the circle is your own personal excellence, what makes you unique. If even for a split second you feel less than your best, you step out of the Circle, quickly do what's necessary to regain your optimum state, and step back in again. The Circle is like a force-field made of your own energy, and it's impenetrable. You can visualize the Circle anywhere you need it - on stage, in the practice room, at auditions - and it's always with you because you carry it in your head. Performers claim they feel an almost electrical power in their Circle of Excellence, a feeling very like their peak performance state."

Keep a performance journal: keep track of your performance preparation by keeping a journal; write down your plan and scedule for lessons and "warm up" performances. Record in your jouranl how you felt during the recital run-thrus; pay close attention to your "self talk" and record whatever visualization techniques you used and how they worked. Also record how you felt after the performance and specifically what other people said to about the performances. It's important to know one's strengths as well as one's weaknesses. It's important to be able to appreciate what's good, what's working well. Writing down these positive comments should help you let them "sink in."

Cognitive Approach: cognitive therapy is based on the theory that one's thoughts determine one's feelings and therfore one's behavior. Here's how it works: before an audition, performer X is having negative thoughts, "I'm not good enough," or "I'm not prepared." These thoughts are often lurking just below our consciousness, may be habitual or automatic, and we may not be aware of them at all, yet they exert a powerful effect. These thoughts produce negative feelings: worry, fear, feelings of inadequacy, and these feelings in turn ignite the physical symptoms of performance anxiety. In other words, we react to our perceptions of reality rather than to reality itself.

The cognitive therapy approach to improving the situation is to change the negative thoughts that kick off the cycle. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones, such as "I have prepared well," or "I have a good performance waiting to unfold" or "I have a story to tell through my playing and I want to share it with this audience." The new positive thoughts trigger positive feelings of confidence and reduce the physical reactions to the stress. The main point is that you can control the self-talk and choose which "voices" to follow, the negative or the positive.

Consider your practice room as your laboratory. This is the place you can experiment with new kinds of "self talk," with visualization techniques, and can simulate performance situations in your imagination so that "the real thing" goes the way you'd like.

Learn to let go. During the performance, are you staying present? If you make a mistake you need to let it go and focus on the present. After the concert, can you let go of dwelling on the faults of the performance and acknowledge all that went right?

Give yourself permission to fail. Remember, a performance is not a life or death situation. If you realize that mistakes won't kill you, and give yourself the leeway to take risks in the performance, you may surprise yourself and feel a new freedom in your performances.

Take a deep breath: Better than any pill is deep abdominal breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing will slow your racing heart rate, will help regulate the surge of adrenaline, and will help to calm and focus your thoughts. Make it a habit to practice this breathing twice a day. The practice will pay off: your body will adopt the relaxation response as a habit, a part of your routine that you can "turn on" as part of your performances.

Meditation: can be practiced either alone or with a group. There are a variety of different meditation disciplines, but the basic approach generally involves slow deep breathing to aid the individual in focusing her/his mind over a given amount of time each day. Some people use a mantra, a sound, repeated phrase, or image, to help focus the mind and create a sense of inner peace and calm. Meditation lowers blood pressure, facilitates muscular relaxation, increases ability to concentrate.

To summarize, you will need to experiment with a range of techniques to find the answers to your own situation. The self-assessment and experimenting can lead to much more satisfying performance experiences and to a deeper understanding of how music fits into your life.