Working With Performance Anxiety

Learning how to deal with performance anxiety has been one of the central points of my growth and development as a musician. We all want to represent the most accurate version of our playing in a performance or competition context. So, we prepare diligently in order to put our best sound and our best self on stage. It can be extremely frustrating when symptoms due to nervousness and performance anxiety get in the way of us being able to convey this best self.

There is a usual gamut of suggestions that one can expect to hear when dealing with performance anxiety. This advice includes seemingly quick fixes like taking slower breaths to lower your heart rate, eating a banana an hour before playing to calm down, or drinking water with lemon to avoid dry mouth. The problem with many of these suggestions is although they can be helpful, they address the symptoms of performance anxiety, but not the underlying causes. Learning to live in harmony with performance anxiety ultimately requires addressing what happens before the symptoms ever appear: the thoughts you have, and what you choose to focus on before, during, and after a performance.

Everybody experiences performance anxiety differently. A big part of better understanding your own performance anxiety is being able to identify your specific fears and trigger points, and how these manifest as symptoms.The sources and triggers of our worries can vary: for some people, it may be anxiety over the judgment and perception the audience has of our playing, for others, it may be general fear of losing control. Thus, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to performance anxiety.

For all of us, however, coming to understand and work with performance anxiety begins with cultivating a healthier relationship with our own selves – through what we say and think to ourselves, what we choose to focus on leading up to a performance, and how we choose to frame our experiences.

Listed below are some helpful strategies I have found for practicing better mental hygiene, both on and off the stage. It isn’t necessary to diligently instill all of these suggestions at once – that would be a potentially anxiety-inducing endeavor in itself. Simply try out what speaks to you, and come back to this post if you’re ready to expand your anxiety-busting skill set or are still looking for a strategy that works for you.

1. Affirmations

An affirmation is a simple phrase or sentence you can say to yourself that can help put you in a positive or empowered mindset. Your affirmation might not express how you feel or see yourself right now, but it does represent how you want to feel or where you want to be. Start by finding some examples of affirmations on the internet that appeal to you, and later modify them to fit your needs. Ideally, you want your affirmations to be personal to your values as a person and musician. Here are the four main affirmations I have gradually crafted that I find myself continually returning to:

“I am strong, grounded, and capable.”

“I am free and relaxed.”

“I have something I want to share.”

“I strive for clear expression.”

Try to make a habit of going through your affirmations on a regular basis. Choose a specific time to review them, such as when you first wake up or right before you go to bed. You can also write down your affirmations on sticky notes and place them in areas where you will come across them often (such as on your music stand or inside your instrument case).

Affirmations can also be used within the context of a performance. For example, oftentimes its difficult to silence the chattery mind right before a performance, and repeating your affirmations to yourself can help you return your focus back to what matters in this moment: the music.

2. Mindfulness

You are not your thoughts. You are, rather experiencing thoughts that are happening to you. You are the ocean, and your thoughts and emotions are the waves, temporary forces that swell and fade. However, it can be difficult to remember this, especially in the context of performance, when your stress response is running high. It can be easy to become caught up in the chattery commentary that likes to rush through our minds at top speed while on stage. (i.e., “Wow, the lights are really bright.” “Oh boy, here comes the hard part! Will I make it through?” And so on.) As you may have experienced, this commentary becomes very distracting and can get in the way of us being able to play and enjoy the music.

How can we distance ourselves from these types of thoughts while performing? One useful strategy for this is to sing along with the music you are playing in your head, as you are playing it. We can call this strategy “singing brain.” Sing the music so loudly in your head that you drown out the unhelpful thoughts. And whenever you find your mind drifting back to the same worry or anxiety, simply return to singing.

The ability to return to this singing brain mode in as short of time as possible after catching your mind drifting is a skill that gets better with repetition. At the end of each practice session, try setting aside a time to run through part or all of your piece using singing brain. Most of our time in practice, our brains are focused on analyzing and problem-solving. “How can I make the phrasing more clear here?” “What can I go to make this technical passage more even?” When performing, however, we need to be able to turn off this analytical monitoring and focus on making and expressing what we have already worked so hard to polish.

Mindfulness meditation is another great way to overcome mental chatter. Meditation has become vastly popular in health and wellness culture and the amount of advice and apps on the many ways of meditating can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t need to be anything complicated – you don’t even need to download a special app or join a special program to meditate. Start by following the steps below:

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Breathe naturally (make no effort to control you breath)
  4. Focus your attention on your breath, moving in and out of the body with every inhale and exhale. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. If you find your mind wandering, simply return your attention back to your breath.
  5. Continue this practice for two to three minutes to start, and then try gradually increasing to longer time periods, up to five, ten, or even fifteen, whatever feels most comfortable for you.

You can bring your meditation experience into a performance context by directing your attention onto whatever is happening in an accepting and nonjudgmental way. When we become more mindful in performance, we are able to better shift our attention to what we are currently doing, that is, getting in the act of what we are doing, rather than getting caught up in all the thinking and worrying about what we are doing.

3. Visualization

Visualization is a technique you can use to mentally rehearse your performance. Simply put, it is the process of using your imagination to create an experience of how you want your performance to go. Find a quiet space where you can be alone for about 15 minutes, close your eyes (if you can), and relax your body. Next, envision yourself going through a successful concert, audition, or competition.

The technique may be called “visualization,” but do your best to incorporate all of your senses. Try to include as many details as possible. Start your visualization with the night before – imagine yourself getting a good night’s rest, waking up refreshed and alert, having a nourishing breakfast, and going through a relaxed and focused warm-up. Moving to the performance itself, how do you feel as you walk onto the stage? What expression do you want to carry on your face? Now hear yourself playing the music. (You can chose to sing through in your head all of the music, a few highlights, or maybe beginnings and endings of pieces, depending on how much time you have). Where is your focus? When you finish playing, how are you feeling? How do you acknowledge the audience?

Start your visualization practice early on – but even doing just one visualization exercise the night before each audition can be helpful. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. As with affirmations, right before bed or right after you wake up are powerful times to go through a visualization process. Visualization is an effective and certainly a positive alternative to worrying about everything that could go wrong in a performance. As Jasmine Choi described in a January 2017 Flute Talk article on nervousness, “Imagination is a fabulous tool, and we should strive to use it in a positive direction.”

To Sum Up…

Learning to work with performance anxiety is a process. Even after employing some of these techniques, you may find that the physical symptoms of nervousness still come up for you. Part of dealing with performance anxiety is accepting that the physical symptoms (like dry mouth, trembling hands, weaknesses, racing heart, vertigo, etc.) may or may not occur, and that you cannot control that. However, you can choose how to respond to the symptoms. Affirmations, mindfulness, and visualization can prevent us from falling into a negative thought spiral (i.e., worrying about the symptom, causing the symptom to get worse, causing us to worry about it even more). In the moment of performance, all we can do is acknowledge the fear, accept it, and then choose not to give it any further attention. Remember that your audience is here not to judge you, but to enjoy the music. They want you to play well! Share what you’ve worked so hard to be able to express, and sing out with all your heart.