You're on stage, about to play your solo. Your knees are shaking. Your palms are sweaty. You feel terrible - nervous, scared, already beating yourself up. You swear never to play in public again.
Sound familiar? Performance anxiety happens to everyone at some point. While different people find different ways to overcome it, I firmly believe that there is a way to make performing enjoyable for everyone. So here are six strategies to get you started on your quest for stress-free performing. Good luck!
Sounds simple, but what exactly does your preparation entail? Companies and militaries often conduct a post-mortem before an event: imagine everything that could go wrong, and then work out a way to prevent it. Try this with your performing.
- Write down your fingerings, bowings, and breath marks - don't try to wing it in the performance because your brain will freeze between the two options.
- Think about your wardrobe - will playing in heels make you nervous? Is your tie/collar too constricting?
- Organise your music well in advance - get your page turns fixed on day one, not half an hour before the performance.
2. Performance Practice
Once you've done everything in #1, arrange a mock performance. Get your friends (or even better, someone who makes you really nervous). Try the following:
- Play without warming up.
- Run in place to get your heart rate up (simulating adrenaline) and then play before you have time to catch your breath.
- Play your piece through three times to develop stamina.
These three steps will tell you what your weak areas are, many of which can be fixed by improving your preparation. But if you are totally prepared but still paralysed by nerves, there are further steps.
People swear by different foods to decrease anxiety, with bananas and chamomile tea being popular choices. If you're like me and vividly detest both of those foods, find a food that does make you feel happy and relaxed.
Stay hydrated, but don't drink too much shortly before the performance so you don't worry about needing the loo. (However, needing the loo and playing in front of friends is an excellent way of simulating nerves!)
Beta-blockers work by blocking the action of hormones such as adrenaline. They are a controversial topic, with some musicians saying that beta blockers have made their careers possible, with others arguing that they only target the physical, and not the psychological, aspects of performance anxiety, may cause addiction, or give an unfair advantage.
If you do decide to try beta blockers, make sure you:
- consult with your doctor as not everyone can safely take beta blockers.
- try them out before your big performance or audition, in case of any side effects.
(N.B. This blog post does not constitute medical advice.)
5. Mindfulness Meditation
Meditation is more of a long-term solution, but beyond calming your nerves, it can take your performance to a higher level. Mindfulness meditation is based on being deeply aware of your physical surroundings from moment to moment.
This awareness, which is cultivated over months and years, anchors your mind in the physicality of your instrument or voice, letting go of the cycles of anxiety and fear. To start a meditation practice, you can try the Headspace app or Mark Williams' guided meditation on Spotify. I recommend starting out by committing to ten minutes a day for one week.
6. Breathing Exercises
A bit simpler than meditation, breathing exercises can help as well, especially if you incorporate them into your daily routine.
- Get into a comfortable position (standing/sitting with feet on floor, arms resting on chair, or lying down).
- Breathe in through your nose as deeply into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it. You can count steadily from one to five.
- Then, without pausing or holding your breath, breathe out gently, counting from one to five again.
- Repeat for 3-5 minutes.
Is performance anxiety good?
Many musicians argue that performance anxiety can be channeled to make your performance even better. For an alternative viewpoint, check out this Bulletproof musician blog: How to Make Performance Anxiety an Asset instead of a Liability.
Hopefully, this article sends you on the right path toward dealing with your peformance anxiety. If you have a favourite way of dealing with anxiety that you'd like to share, send us a tweet at @joinencore!
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