Saturday, November 13, 2004

Performance Anxiety

As performers, we’ve all had to deal with being nervous. Your heart is racing, there are butterflies in your stomach, you start to sweat; these are all symptoms of performance anxiety. The first thing to understand is that fear is a natural and normal human ‘negative’ emotion. The purpose of negative emotions is to tell us that something isn’t quite right; an indication that we need to take some kind of action.

In the case of fear, the message is ‘danger’. We are born with fear of loud noises and fear of heights ‘pre-wired’ in our nervous systems, and all other fears are learned from experience. Although you have no choice of how you are raised, you can do something about how you deal with being nervous.

Four Steps for Managing Performance Anxiety

Step 1: Self Assessment: Getting to know yourself better, as a person and as a musician.
-Identify problematic thinking. Figure out whether you are a negative or positive thinker. If you are a negative thinker you are obviously going to be harder on yourself and be more critical of your performance than if you thought positively.
-What are your personal motives for performing? Think about what you want to achieve while performing (i.e. Do you want to make an impression? Do you want to use music? Do you want everything memorized?).
-What are your capabilities and limitations as a performer? If you are not capable of doing something, don’t try it or else your nerves will increase.
-Ask yourself: “What am I really afraid of?” Worst-case scenario-you run off the stage and everyone laughs hysterically. That’s highly unlikely, and might give you a perspective into the realities of what it is you are really afraid of.
-Try not to confuse self-assessment with self-criticism. When you assess yourself you should just evaluate how you did and what you can improve on for the future. Criticizing yourself doesn’t do anything but make you feel worse about yourself and your performance.

Step 2: Gradual Exposure and Preparation
-Look for opportunities for exposure to moderate levels of stress that challenge but do not overwhelm your coping skills, example: visualization of the performance. Other examples: practice performances, dress rehearsals, taping yourself and playing it back.
-Be thoroughly prepared. Nothing replaces adequate time spent in rehearsal and practice.
-Consider how the use of relaxation techniques can help “harmonize” the body. Meditation, yoga, and/or muscle relaxation can help the body and mind feel uplifted and balanced so you feel excited and prepared, but not overwhelmed. Using these techniques can help you avoid self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Step 3: During the Performance
-Rather than blocking out the audience, or seeing them in their underwear, try seeing them as allies who are generally supportive and want you to do well.
-Remember, most performers have to deal with anxiety-it comes with the territory. You are in good company!
-Feelings of anxiety are natural, and can be used to your advantage. For example, when your adrenaline is running, sometimes it causes you to have a better performance!
-Maintain your normal routine when preparing for a performance. Don’t do anything out of the ordinary that would make you lose your focus for your performance.
-Act calmly, even if you feel nervous. The more you dwell on anxiety, the more you are likely to remain preoccupied with it.
-Try to overlook minor errors when you perform. Overall impressions are more important to the audience than note-perfect performances.
-Consider performing as an opportunity by becoming immersed in the musical experience. For example: get out of yourself and into the audience. Try switching off the left brain’s critical words and switching on the right brain’s passive observation. This may help you escape self-criticism and stay in the moment.
-Enjoy what you’ve accomplished. Others are more likely to enjoy this way, too.

Step 4: After the performance
-Temper such external feedback with internal beliefs and expectations you have already established.
-Asking others afterwards, “how did I do” without asking yourself first might be depriving yourself of a significant source of valid information about your performance: YOU!

If you read all of these steps and try to apply them to yourself and your performance, your anxiety will lessen with time. Although if you do all of that and your anxiety for performing is still out of control then you could consider taking prescription drugs for the problem.

The only drugs that are prescribed with any degree of frequency for musical performance anxiety are the beta adrenergic blockers, such as nadolol, oxprenolol, and propranolol. The theory is that beta-blockers eliminate the physical symptoms of anxiety that may interfere with performance (e.g. butterflies, palpitations, sweating, unsteady hand or voice) while leaving the head clear for optimal performance. These may be a useful stop-gap but long-term dependence on drugs of any kind is best avoided.

Hopefully these steps will help you with improving your performance ability by coping with your anxiety. Always remember that you are not alone. Even professional musicians get bad cases of performance anxiety before a show or concert. It is a common thing and the best advice would be to know how your body reacts to nervousness and try and control it by using the steps above.

The Social Psychology of Music. Edited by David J. Hargreaves & Adrian C. North. 1997.