5 Big Mistakes in Dealing with Performance Anxiety

1. Treating the symptoms instead of the cause

You’re about to take the stage and all you can feel is your racing heart, trembling hands, and shallow breathing. Maybe you even feel nauseous and you’re having trouble focusing your vision. How could anyone in this condition perform in a way that’s expressive…well, expressive of anything other than dread! It’s no wonder that overcoming performance anxiety is equated to eliminating these troublesome bodily sensations.

But sometimes attending only to the physiological symptoms of anxiety is like putting a Band-Aid on a more serious injury. These symptoms are a natural part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, which kicks in when a person perceives a threat. In the case of a real threat—say, coming across a wild animal trying to hurt you—these physiological responses are good. They help you to more effectively fight or take flight. So if your symptoms are not debilitating and you merely seek to ease them, then you may benefit from pre-performance exercises like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

It’s often more important to identify why performing is viewed as a threat, or what aspects of it are most threatening. Identifying the source of anxiety may be the key to performance becoming an activity in which you can be your musical best.

2. Viewing practice as the cure-all

Sometimes the task itself—playing or singing music—is in fact the source of anxiety. Additional practice is the solution if you find yourself taking the stage thinking, “I just don’t know if I can physically perform this music. I’ve hardly ever done it before.” For many performers, though, this is not the problem. They know that they can play or singing the music well, but they worry that they won’t be able to once on stage. In cases like this, simply preparing and over-preparing your music will not likely help. It may even signal a resignation to anxiety, almost like saying, “If I’m over-prepared, then when anxiety inevitably hits, the drop-off in my focus and control will still yield a decent performance.” If playing/singing is not the problem, but doing so for an audience is, then more time in the practice room is not the answer.

3. Overdosing on positive thinking

The term catastrophizing describes when a musician entertains fears of a horrible performance outcome. Catastrophizing is like a dark, agitating, ominous cloud out on the horizon. These negative thoughts are usually vague and exaggerated. Instead of realistically considering “what’s the worst that could happen?” the catastrophizing performer fixates on some nebulous feeling of disaster.

The main problem, however, is not that the thoughts are negative, but that they’re irrational. So replacing absurdly negative thoughts with overly positive ones will not likely do the trick. Let’s say a musician who struggles with catastrophizing is able to convince herself “No, I’m not a terrible musician doomed to fail. I’m an amazing performer, and I will give the best recital ever!” At the first sign of performance trouble, however, she may find her inflated hopes dashed and quickly plummet to new depths of negativity.

Rather than thinking in terms of negative and positive, seek to replace irrational thoughts with realistic ones. Also, shift the focus from what the audience may think about a bad performance, to what you (the performer) need to do to carry out the music making successfully. Positive thinking can help, but only to the extent that it’s rooted in reality. For a great example of how realistic thinking was the key for a musician overcoming performance anxiety, check out Kurt Knecht’s blog post, which he graciously offered in response to my tweeted request for stage fright stories.

4. Letting others determine your performance elements

As musicians we may have some firm ideas of what performance should be like, related to selecting repertoire, the musicians’ attire, the setup of the performance venue, and onstage etiquette. But the common practices for these things are not written in stone anywhere, they’re conventions. Research suggests that certain situational factors tend to elicit greater anxiety in performers. I’m of the opinion that such conventions of performance are negotiable, especially if it means performers enjoying the experience more.

I appeal to music teachers to not mandate the performance elements for their students. Rather give them as much choice as possible. A sense of freedom and autonomy is a huge contributor to intrinsic motivation, which is essentially the opposite of anxiety (it’s also an important facilitator of learning). Also this type of decision-making may go a long way toward students becoming independent musicians. If they’ve always had others overseeing their performances—requiring it of them, dictating the conditions to them, making all the decisions for them—it’s unlikely that performance will ever become something of their own after their years of training.

So, teachers, give your students more decision-making power. It will only make them better performers and faster learners. And musicians, take ownership of more aspects of your performing. As much as you can, let the performance setting be a reflection of you.

5. Avoiding performance (or performing infrequently)

It’s almost cruelly ironic that musicians who suffer from performance anxiety will naturally want to perform less, but their path to overcoming it ultimately involves performing more. So perhaps the worst mistake is to avoid performance. However, this doesn’t mean that an anxiety sufferers should just force themselves to give high-pressure recitals in order to overcome it, taking the attitude of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

A better approach may be gradually overcome anxiety. To do so in a systematic way, make a list of as many kinds of performance scenarios as you can think of. Then rank order them from least anxiety-inducing to most anxiety-inducing. Below are some sample variables that play into a performance. For example, drawing from this list, you might decide that a low anxiety-inducing performance setting would be to perform: with a friend for your family, in your home, a well-known piece of popular music, from notation you’ve practiced before. After you’ve been able to successfully manage anxiety with that type of setting, you might change one variable to make it slightly more challenging. You’ll gradually work your way down your list until you can manage anxiety while doing what was originally a high anxiety-inducing scenario, such as performing: by yourself for an audience of musicians, in a performance hall, an assigned piece of classical music, from memory.

Performance should not just be something you strive to endure. Ideally it is something you enjoy. If you don’t, perhaps you’re performing the wrong kind of music for you. Or perhaps you’re performing in the wrong settings. Or perhaps you need to change the way you think about performance. Changing deep-seated conceptions is no easy task, but I think it can be quite helpful to view performance at its most human level—as the sharing of music with people who want to hear it.

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14 responses to “5 Big Mistakes in Dealing with Performance Anxiety

  1. Thanks for the great thoughts. I especially like the points about giving choice. I know that there’s always a risk as a teacher that giving students too much choice allows them to avoid facing their weaknesses and fears. But being forced into something risks being truly harmful. Rather than announcing everything myself or making all my students do their own announcements, I let each student decide. Most seem to then be up for doing their own announcements at recitals. And everyone seems to feel relaxed because the recital is then a situation where they know they can choose to do whatever allows them to be more comfortable.

    A question: Your #3 point, about not going positive… that reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy ideas. I don’t know much about the decades of progress in related psychology since his time nor that much detail about Logotherapy, but is that in line with what you’re talking about? Are his ideas still considered valid, and are they applicable here?

    • Aaron – I love hearing how you give your students choice in their music making. It can be so powerful in the long-run. Regarding Logotherapy, I’m not all that familiar with it (although I now intend to look into it a bit more!), but assuming it’s related to Frankl’s ideas about finding meaning, it would seem to apply. Instead of just reacting to circumstances, we would do well to ponder the meaning of our performing. I like the connection you’ve made with this.

      • Thanks, Bob. All I know is at the end of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl describes his Logotherapy theories. There, he says that someone who has continuous failings to achieve something they want — they make themselves MORE nervous by telling themselves it WILL happen this time. It makes them worry it won’t despite their positive-talk. He suggests people tell themselves the opposite: “I will make mistakes, it will be much worse than in practice” or something, but don’t be negative just really believe it — almost a cocky prediction that it will be bad. He says this takes off all the pressure, and then there is the possibility of being wrong when things actually go well. At least that’s how I remember his points…

        I actually tell my students this: that they will probably make more mistakes than usual. That chances are very high that the one best time they play is probably one of the many practice sessions rather than the unlikely coincidence of the best playing happening at performance time. Accept that, and go and do what we can anyway.

  2. Eric Richards

    Excellent post as usual, Bob. I appreciate your clinical and positive perspective on this issue!

    • Thanks for stopping by again, Eric! For someday when we grab lunch together…I’ll add performance anxiety to the list of the many things I’ve been wanting to talk with you about. :)

  3. Great work, Bob – thanks for posting such a meaningful and useful article.

    Love your point about how irrational self-talk and beliefs can undermine security regardless of whether they’re positive or negative in tone. As I see it, though, for students to focus on realistic things in performance, they must have developed awareness of those things in practice.

    I’ve observed, however, that there are vast disparities in the degrees to which music performance educators address practice and performance skills in lessons/classes – skills such as ways to learn and memorize music securely, direct attention, and build self-trust.

    In my experience, when students lack such essential skills and are unaware that they exist, they tend to rely on rote, automated learning strategies, ones that are easily corrupted by stress. Such rote learners tend to repeat endlessly in practice to pound in ‘muscle memory’ and will typically be extremely anxious in high-stakes performance situations – e.g., solo performances from memory – because their learning is so fragile that they can’t realistically expect to be in control.

    Backstage, they might turn to relaxation techniques and irrational positive thinking in attempts to establish the mental/physical conditions in which their tenuous learning might hold up. Often to little effect.

    In these sorts of scenarios, the cause of the anxiety remains unaddressed – your mistake #1. Although more mindless practice probably wouldn’t help such students, different, more skillful practice probably would. And that new sort of practice would need to include plenty of practice performances, as you indicate in #5.

    Anyhow, my long-winded point is that, in regard to your #2, students (and sometimes their teachers) don’t necessarily possess the tools to assess whether they know their material deeply enough to be secure on stage. Although performance anxiety can arise from diverse and interrelated causes, when sufferers rely on mindless learning strategies, both they and their therapists can miss this primary contributor to their problem.

    • Gerald – Thanks for reading and especially for offering some feedback. I share some of the concerns you express. I’m not a big fan of the term “muscle memory.” It seems to take the psych out of psychomotor skills! That said, there is the principle of automaticity, in which the many components of complex skills (like playing music on an instrument) become more integrated and eventually can be executed with much less conscious thought. But, as you say, the notion that it is mindless is incorrect. On the contrary, the reason that expert performers can carry out skills so fluently is that they’ve built sophisticated mental representations. And these only result after much cognitive strategizing and deliberate practice.

  4. Great post, Bob! In fact it has inspired my own weekly blog post which comes out on Sunday (From the Front of the Choir). I’ve linked to your post and picked up on your points 1 and 5 and expanded a little further.

    My main angle is “What’s the worst that can possibly happen?” It’s usually far less terrible than we can imagine.

    Chris

    • Chris – I checked out your blog post. I loved it. Of course I’m flattered to be credited with inspiring you to write it! But you have some great insights and present them in a real enjoyable way. I’ve bookmarked your site and will be visiting more in the future.

      Bob

  5. Excellent post. I loved the bit about too much positive thinking, and in fact one of the books on my to-read list is one you and your readers may be interested in too. It’s called The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Hate Positive Thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I love positive thinking, and I am a positive thinker by nature. But I can’t stand when positive thinking is taken too far, which is one of the main reasons behind several of my blog posts (especially my post on the genetic basis of talent).

    • Chad – Thanks for checking out my post here and commenting. I’d like to look into that book you mention…sounds intriguing. And I plan to visit your blog too. Thanks for sharing!

      Bob

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