Managing performance anxiety: an introduction
Music performance anxiety consists of unpleasant, distressing and often debilitating physical and mental symptoms before, during and even after a performance. It can be experienced by children, adolescents and professional musicians alike, varying from simple feelings of excitement to the inability to perform adequately through complete loss of physical control.
It happens, especially, in situations where the individual perceives that they are a potential target for other people's criticism, such as in exams, competitions, solos and auditions - settings that young musicians regularly experience.
Having interviewed over 80 young people, from 11 to 21 years of age, on this topic, let's hear from them:
'All your peripheral vision and awareness of what's going on around you, other than what you're involved in, shuts off.' - Flautist
'I felt worried at first but then I got used to people looking at me - I was nervous because I was worried I'd get it wrong. But in music when you're nervous you perform better... you try your hardest.' - Singer
Developing confidence through experience
Experience of performing and adequate levels of preparation help young musicians to develop their confidence as performers:
'I'm not worried that I'm going to completely collapse, so I just tend to get up and do it really.' - Jazz singer
Accepting the physiological symptoms of performance anxiety as a natural process can also be helpful:
'When your hands start getting sweaty, your mouth starts getting dry, your hearts starts beating - you just accept that these are just signs of adrenalin.' - Flautist
The importance of posture
Adopting a particular posture can help the performer to feel more controlled, balanced and poised:
'I try and breathe well before I start and let go of the tension in my shoulders. I have my stance - left foot slightly in front of my right foot - which makes me feel relaxed.' - Singer
Adequate preparation is essential because the level of conscious control through alpha wave brain activity is substantially reduced:
'You're using your unconscious much more than your conscious mind at that moment - which is why if you haven't practised and prepared seriously, no amount of furious, overt concentration at the moment of performance will help - it's too late for that.' - International concert artist
Concentrating on the big picture
Young performers tend to place themselves under pressure by fixating on small details of the performance, but a top level performer advises against a focus on minutiae:
'The way in which you are vulnerable is not generally because you might drop one note and make a mistake... you receive performance just as you give it, you give it as a whole outpouring - and you receive it that way.' - International concert artist
Communicating with the audience may be the young performer's aim, but if the performance is flawed, the natural response is to withdraw and to play inwardly - to protect weaker areas of playing from criticism:
'Try not to think technically about all these things... that's the hardest thing because you can't quite let go of all that. When you're in that scary environment focus on the audience and communicate with them.' - Singer
In a competitive situation, young performers try to protect themselves from scrutiny and the conscious mind loses focus:
'I've developed a way of putting a wall up... blocking people out. But I did find my mind wandering as I was playing, thinking about what people were thinking.' - Tuba player
'You start to shake when you worry and horrible thoughts come into your head - but if you wipe them out you can actually play a really good piece.' - Percussionist
Focussing on the music!
Focussing on the music can allow the mind to relax and the performer to communicate.
'Really listening to the piano for example helps calm me down a little bit.' - Flautist
'I want to get how I feel about the music across to the audience... make everyone feel comfortable or enjoy it.' - Pianist
Even the friendliest setting can feel unsettling if the performer has arrived unprepared and under rehearsed. Arriving in an adequately prepared, organised and calm frame of mind, can help enormously in overcoming performance anxiety:
'Once I got into the room and everyone was quite relaxed and it was a nice environment, I relaxed into it a bit.' - Oboist
Look out for more on performance anxiety in the next issue of Libretto.
Our Preparing for Performance CPD course provides additional information and support.
This article was featured in the January 2012 edition of Libretto, the journal of ABRSM.