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.