Blog | Feb 20

DEALING WITH PERFORMANCE ANXIETY (Part 2 Stage Fright)

 

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, is a universal experience for all performers. I have met one single 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 affected even the most notable and world-class performers and musicians. 
 
Several years ago I decided to dive into how I could cope with performance anxiety and ENJOY a big, high stakes performance I had coming up.
If you haven’t read the first part of this two-part series, check it out here.
In this second part I will share with you some ideas for helping students cope effectively with stage fright.
 
Why can performance anxiety be so paralyzing and how does it interfere so much with such a key aspect of being a musician?
It may be interesting to readers to know that public speaking is often rated as the number one fear for a majority of people all over the world. Performing is a vulnerable act. Musicians, actors and dancers share our creative selves with an audience, as well as show our “chops”, or technical prowess. We often become concerned with how we are “measuring up”. In addition, artists innately tend to be perfectionistic – playing our best requires such a keen awareness of accuracy, precision and unique self-expression. We hold an ideal performance in our mind as our yardstick of measurement, often one that cannot be matched in reality. All of these factors make us vulnerable to performance anxiety.

 

Here are some practice habits to help us cope:
 
It is important to remember that we perform the way we practice.
One of the biggest factors that cause stage fright is what I call the
“cognitive dissonance” of practicing versus performing. Practicing in
our living room, or even in a practice room, is very different than performing on a stage or in a classroom. Therefore, we need to make our practice experience as much like our performances as possible. We need to create the performance pressures in our practice sessions so that we eliminate some of this cognitive dissonance.
 

  • Analyze with friendly curiosity what exactly our symptoms of performance anxiety are so that we can work with them in our practicing. For example, my palms get sweaty, my stomach gets “butterflies”, I feel cold and clammy, my bow arm shakes. This makes me feel like I cannot control my bow strokes, shifts and vibrato. Other people feel nauseated or light-headed or get a dry mouth and racing thoughts. What are YOUR performance anxiety symptoms?

 
We want to experience our symptoms in the practice sessions so we can learn how to “invite” and include them in our performance experience. This does two things: a) it makes the experience of them in a performance situation less jarring (and therefore less interruptive) and b) we learn how to stay more in our body (less in our head) and develop our playing skills to an even higher level so that they naturally are less affected by our nerve state.
In order to create this more performance-like experience on a regular basis:

  • Video and audio record our practice sessions. One of my teachers, Associate Principal at the time in the San Francisco Symphony, used to turn on the tape (this was pre-cellphone video!) every day as a routine part of his practice, because he said it made him nervous.
  • Ask friends and family to listen to us (feedback is not necessarily required. We just need to get used to someone watching us and listening to us so that it doesn’t feel so startling when we’re on the stage.).
  • Join a monthly “practice group” (or create one!) where other musicians gather to perform works-in-progress for each other.
  • Video or audio performance clips and send them to a fellow musician or to your teacher. The more practice performances we have the easier it gets.
  • Ask your local luthier or music store proprietor if they mind you coming in once a month to play on their instruments. It’s a more public opportunity to play, and playing on different instruments adds another challenge.
  • If weather (and your instrument!) allows, play outside in a park or at a train station.
  • Volunteer to play your repertoire at a senior residential community or a local preschool or elementary school (once CDC protocols allow, of course).

 
Another of my teachers told me that when preparing for a big performance we should aim for ten practice runs before the main event. When we think about how many times world-class artists such as Yuja Wang, Hilary Hahn, or Yo-Yo Ma have performed, it’s no wonder they are able to consistently deliver such impeccable and moving performances.
I believe that all performers, whether children, youth or amateur players, can grow into more comfortable performers through integrating some of these ideas.

I wish you the best in your musical journey!