Blog | Feb 14

Dealing with Performance Anxiety (Part 1 “Stage Fright”)

Quality Music Lesson Practice

Dealing with Performance Anxiety (Part 1 “Stage Fright”)

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, is a universal experience for all performers. I have only met one person in my entire life who claims not to suffer from it.

When we’re in the grips of it we can feel very alone, as it triggers a deep sense of vulnerability and exposure. Stage fright has driven even the finest musicians to pre-concert vomiting (Barbra Streisand), feelings of crippling inadequacy and mild paranoia (Linda Ronstadt), and even to the point of giving up live performance altogether (pianist Glen Gould).

How does this work? Why is it so paralyzing and how does it interfere so much with such a key aspect of being a musician? And HOW can one cope with it so that it doesn’t ruin our performances, and more importantly, destroy our love of playing our musical instrument?

Several years ago I decided to dive into how I myself could cope with performance anxiety and ENJOY a big, high stakes music performance I had coming up. In this two-part blog series I will share with you what I learned.


Series 1

Dealing with Performance Anxiety (aka “Stage Fright”)

In 2012 I was invited by an orchestra to perform Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, commonly called “The Beethoven Triple”. It is a bear of a work for cello (all three instruments, really) and I wanted to do it justice. I felt confident that I could learn to play it at a more than satisfactory musical level. I did not feel confident playing it with a symphony orchestra in a large hall for 200+ audience members.

That year I had been very lucky to be a practicum student for a colleague who was pursuing her certificate in Body Mapping® and I enlisted her expertise. (Body Mapping® is an extension of the Alexander Technique, a somatic awareness method very popular with musicians and actors.)

For a little bit of background, in the past I had tried various methods of dealing with performance anxiety, such as pretending I was playing for a loved one (such as my father), or pretending that the audience was wearing no clothes (yes, no kidding - that is a famous line of advice shared just a couple of decades ago), or pretending there was no audience (yes, that too was a common one. What, then, is the point in performing, and how can one communicate with an audience that is not there??)

My Body Mapping® teacher, Cathy Allen Aird, helped me realize that a large cause of stage fright is the split between our music lessons and practice room experience and the live performance experience. In the former, we become accustomed to playing to no one. Even when we pretend there is an audience, we are safe in our practice room (or hall) with no feedback.

In a live performance we feel the bodies in the room and their eyes on us, we hear the rustling of programs and coughing of our viewers. Suddenly we are no longer in Kansas anymore, and it’s unnerving and possibly utterly distracting.

We are suddenly present, and the presence around us feels foreign.

I needed to learn how to be present not only to my playing but to every iota of energy in the room, and then transfer that presence to the hall.

Cathy had me play for her, being aware of her eyes on me, being aware of the space behind me (the desk in the practice room as well as the door), the space above me (ceiling and lights), and how my entire body felt in that space. Like meditation practice, the goal was to develop my sense of awareness in myself and around myself and make it such a habit that I carried it into the performance. Rather than berate or ignore my sweaty palms and shaking arm and the butterflies in my stomach, I acknowledged them, explored them, welcomed them with curiosity as friends. What this did was to normalize the physical stage fright symptoms so that they were an accepted part of my experience, therefore less likely to throw me off track.

Week after week in my music lesson we met and worked on these skills while I played through my part. Cathy also gave me some centering and relaxation exercises to do that I could practice the day of the performance before I played. This included draping myself over a balance ball and feeling my ribs rise and fall as a I breathed, staying tuned into my breath.

When it was time to rehearse with the orchestra I practiced all the skills she had worked with me. The day of the performance arrived. Was I nervous? You bet. I allowed myself to feel all the manifestations of nerves: butterflies, pounding heart (surely visible – it had to make my cello push in and out as I sat waiting for my cello entrance), sweaty palms, shaking hands. I felt it all and breathed. I felt the energy of the bodies in the hall, the eyes watching the three of us and waiting expectantly to hear the music. And I enjoyed playing. Yes I had a few minor blips. Maybe they were noticeable to the listener and maybe not, but I had fun! At the end I could say I’d gotten 80% of what I wanted. (A teacher once told me that we get a 70% performance – that is, 70% of our very best – we’ve performed well.)

This was a valuable learning experience for me on so many levels: 1) actually enjoying performing 2) being able to share with students and colleagues concrete ways to work on stage fright 3) enjoying working with Cathy for so many months expanding my body and musical awareness. It was a gift.

Remember that you are not alone when you suffer from performance anxiety. It is universal, and there are ways to work with it rather than against it!


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