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Managing Performance Anxiety for Musicians

Managing Performance Anxiety for Musicians

If the thought of getting up in front of a group of people and performing fills you with anxiety, you are not alone. Most people suffer from some level of performance anxiety. Public speaking is the second worse fear in the general population—and that’s higher than death!

It’s natural to feel nervous before a performance. When you perform you become the centre of attention. Your body reacts to this as it would to any other stressful situation— with its inbuilt ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism.  Your pulse may start to race, your breathing quickens, your hands and voice tremble with the release of adrenalin. 

None of which are particularly suited to playing a musical instrument or singing a solo. And yet 96% of orchestral musicians admitted to anxiety before performances. Frederic Chopin was one such performer who famously said: “I am not fitted to give concerts. The audience intimidates me, I feel choked by its breath, paralysed by its curious glances, struck dumb by all those strange faces.”

Not all elements of performance anxiety are detrimental.  A certain amount can be useful. It shows that you care about what you are doing and can activate your attention and help you to focus. But when anxiety limits a musician’s skills and talent being demonstrated, when it defeats the purpose of performing, then it is too much.

A public speaker may be told the remedy for performance anxiety is letting go of perfectionism. It’s not quite the same for musicians. Composers expect their pieces to sound exactly as they were written. The orchestra relies on your accuracy. Dancers and singers are following your lead. So what do you do if your performance does, in fact, rely on being perfect?

As musicians, you would already know there are no substitutes or short cuts to practice. You practice to ‘make perfect’. That usually means a lot of work and dedication before a performance. But when it comes to performing, the context is different with added elements that are not always in your control. 

Although it may be impossible to totally overcome performance anxiety, there are things you can do to reduce it before and during your performance.

Firstly, starting out well with aspects outside of your performance is important.

• Practising wisely will help you be well prepared. 
• Managing stress levels in everyday life will help you stay well rested.
• Being organised with the correct arrangements and right equipment will avoid any unnecessary problems.
• Arriving early to get familiar with your environment and to allow time for a warm-up and practice run will help you get settled.

The second step is how to work with what happens in your mind— learning how to redirect your negative thoughts, beliefs, images and predictions about performing in public.

Expect that you are going to experience some level of anxiety. Accept that this is part of your body’s preparation for the performance. It’s an acknowledgement of its importance to you and can help you get into the ‘zone’ to perform. Remember that nerves are often worse beforehand and will lessen once you begin. There’s no need to feel anxiety about feeling anxiety. It’s natural.

Challenge your fears. What is it that you are you most worried about? Are you imagining the worst case scenario? How many times has this not happened? More than likely you are getting worked up about something that is not going to occur. How many times has someone made a mistake that nobody has ever noticed or remembered? Remember all the times you have worried and it’s worked out ok.

Recognise your experience. Do you feel that the audience is going to be critical of you? Unless you are a mind reader it is more likely this is a projection of your own self-doubt. The audience is here because they enjoy music like you do. They want you to perform and they want you to do well. Try to see yourself the way the audience does. Acknowledge your experience. You are not an imposter but are here because you deserve to be.

Visualise how you want it to go. Your imagination can shape your outlook so harness it to serve your needs. If your brain is clever enough to project your worst fears then it's also clever enough to imagine better or more ideal outcomes. Focus on all the things that can go right not wrong. Visualise what you need to do at certain stages without focusing solely on the end result.

Silence your inner critic. Negative self-talk involves thinking or saying anything that reflects a lack of confidence or a defeatist attitude. It fuels self-doubt and has the potential to talk at you during your performance and throw you off course. Understand that you will often be your own worst critic and avoid the black & white thinking that only recognises success or failure.

Breathe mindfully. Consider anxiety as another physical technicality of your performance and meditate beforehand or practice controlled breathing to help you relax and redirect your thoughts when they turn negative. Shallow rapid breathing keeps us in ‘fight or flight’ mode whereas diaphragmatic breathing will activate your parasympathetic nervous system and reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Trust yourself.  When you started riding a bike you had to concentrate on a lot of different tasks. It was difficult at first but then it became automatically synchronized and you were off. In fact, now it would be difficult to focus on any one of those individual tasks and still ride well. This is the same flow that you are aiming for in a performance. It's almost a hypnotic state or ‘zone’ that uses a different part of our brain. It requires faith that we've done the required practice and that we have the muscle memory (or procedural knowledge) to perform without having to focus on each individual element (explicit knowledge). By having trust in yourself and the process, you can stay in the zone without your inner voice commentating on your performance and tripping you up. When you react emotionally, it is more likely that your concentration can be affected. Just go with the flow.

Focus on the music. Try shifting the emphasis off yourself and your fear to the enjoyment you are providing to the audience. The focus of the performance then becomes about the music not you. You could visualize yourself as a vessel communicating the music of the composer. Get out of your own head, let your muscle memory take over and let the music flow through you. That's why you have practised. Some musicians even have a favourite ritual like wearing a certain item that signifies this mental transformation to performer.

Performing as a musician offers tremendous rewards as well as challenges. Acknowledging that anxiety is part of this and learning ways to manage it can be empowering—both for you and your music.

Wendy Roncolato and Prue Foster

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