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.

Staying on the 'Edge'

I have an ideal version of my playing. I don’t always have access to it. I only reach it after a secret combination (unbeknownst even by me) of warm-up, playing done in a given week, and time of day. I know immediately when I am in this ideal state of playing. Playing the flute is easy, not hard. My sound comes out effortlessly, and my body is doing what it has to do without my mind trying to think about it or force it. The ease at which I am able to play allows me to release tension and relax, which frees up my sound even more. This creates a positive feedback loop that fuels the ideal state even more.

Yet as I mentioned, I only reach this ideal state when the conditions – some in my control, some not in my control – are perfect. I wish I could have this ideal experience every time I play, but the truth is, this is not realistic. Here’s how I like to think of it: Playing is not an act of balance, but an act of balancing. The word ‘balance’ implies a type of static equilibrium. The word ‘balancing,’ however, implies a constant back-and-forth movement. Having the perfect sound all the time would mean that I as a physical and mental being would be static and unchanging. But humans are dynamic creatures. Our sound changes just as our mental, physical, and emotional state change. In other words, our playing is a direct reflection of our physical, mental, and emotional states. We have to learn to live with this fact rather than fight against it.

Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We cannot expect to always be in an ideal state when we practice. In fact, I believe that it is crucial to practice specifically in times when we are not in our ideal state. Why? Because this will help us prepare for the reality of a higher-stakes performance or audition, where we are certainly not going to find ourselves in an ideal state, no matter how much preparation for the event we may have done.

Because no matter what you might do to try and prevent it (sleeping well, eating a banana before, visualization. etc.), there will still be that element of uncertainty, the nerves may evidently show up. However, rather than letting the certainty of uncertainty, if you will, be a reason for us to give up, we can learn to work with the uncertainty. We can accept that the nerves may evidently be there without letting them have complete power over our capabilities as musicians.

“Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty – and thinking that it is perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental groundlessness of being human.” – Pema Chödrön

Practicing in a non-ideal state: playing “on the edge”

Learning to play comfortably in a non-ideal state is learning to play “on the edge.” At the risk of sounding cliché here, the playing “on the edge” as often as you can allows you to become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. First, figure out what times and conditions you generally avoid practicing in. This could be playing at a different time of day than you normally would, such as in the early morning, playing in situations where you feel nervous or on edge (in front of people, in public places), or playing when you don’t feel you have enough energy, such as at the end of the day.

Before you even play your first note in this uncomfortable place, accept that this state you are in is a temporary reflection of your situational state and not a permanent representation of your identity. There is nothing morally wrong with how you are going to sound. Let go of the notion that there is only a good sound and a bad sound. They are simply different types of sounds with different qualities, and each has its own value.

Be prepared to hear your inner critic’s voice a little louder than usual – you’ll have to learn how to turn down the subjective judgment and turn up the objective, neutral observation. Yes, you’ll have to live in that sound you don’t like for the time being, but don’t lose yourself to a snowball effect, letting every aspect of your playing go to the wayside (well, my tone sucks, so I guess I can’t articulate as clearly, so now my rhythm is off…). Instead, notice what you can and can’t control in this non-ideal state. Hone in on the aspects that you can control.

One way to neutralize the inner critic is to replace judgments with key words that can act as gentle reminders to bring you back to what you are doing – such as “relax,” “breathe,” and “listen.” Let’s go over each of these key words.

First, relax. You may notice yourself tensing up the muscles more. Repeatedly stop and tell yourself to relax. Don’t try to force the sound out. Restrain yourself from making constant adjustments to your instrument in the hopes that a better sound will come out (doing stuff with the reed, adjusting the headjoint). Try to soften the muscles around the area of tension. A progressive muscle relaxation meditation can also help with this.

Breathe. When our body is relaxed, we can breathe more deeply. See my previous post for breathing advice – think about breathing low and full, from the diaphragm. Especially for wind players, when we are breathing more deeply, we can move more air through our instruments, thus giving our sound a nice cushion of support.

Listen. The number of elements we can potentially notice in our playing can be overwhelming, especially when we don’t feel in complete control of all of those elements. Instead, choose one thing to listen for at a time. As my teacher Karla Flygare says to her students, “focus on the note you are playing and its relationship to the next note.” That’s all you need to do. This focus can help melt away irrelevant thoughts that are getting in the way of your playing. Try also singing along in your head to the music. That is, instead of monitoring and judging what you sound like as you play, focus on what you want to sound like by singing along with the music in your head. Think, for example, of pianist Glenn Gould’s habit of singing to guide his piano playing. For more information on this idea, see Noa Kageyama’s article: What Should You Think About When You Perform?).

“The terror of performing never goes away. Instead, you get very, very comfortable being terrified.” – Eric Whitacre

The most rewarding part of non-ideal practice is when you are able to get over the initial hump of discomfort and forget that you are in a non-ideal state. You may still sound the same, but your mind is no longer obsessing over the way you sound. Your muscles are more relaxed and you can play freely and with ease. At this point you have entered a flow state despite being in sub-optimal conditions. You realize that your musicianship is unconditionally contained within you, it is not something elusive that must be externally sought after. When you have let go of striving to arrive in a perfect or ideal place, you have the freedom to enjoy what you are doing. You are reminded of why you fell in love with music in the first place.

Beyond the Masterclass, and Out of the Box

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Jim Walker’s “Beyond the Masterclass,” a weeklong series of flute masterclasses and recitals held at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. It was a fantastic experience, both to get more practice at performing in front of others and to be inspired by so many talented, driven, and passionate musicians.

Jim emphasized a few key themes in the masterclasses throughout the week that reflect his philosophy and approach towards playing music. I thought I’d share some of those themes and my reflections on them here.
 
Being an intentional performer.
 
Simply stated, to perform something means to convey an idea to a recipient, or audience. A performer ideally aims to impart to their audience a certain emotion, or to get their audience to feel a certain way through the medium of their choice, in this case, music. In this respect, a performer is channeler of emotional energy, which flows from themselves to the audience. (And for music, there is also a channeling of a very physical element – sound waves).
 
In order to effectively channel energy to an audience, a performer needs to have a clear idea of what that exactly that energy is. They need to have a clear intentionality in everything they do. Jim often stressed that every musical action we take as a performer must have an intention, and that intention  must have been practiced and rehearsed beforehand. Even is the exact message isn’t known until the time of the performance, such as in the case of improvisation, the performer still has spent hours honing his or her craft of improvisation. In the case of composed music, this means knowing and anticipating what you’re going to do on certain notes.
 
Intentionality is not an easy task. To approach the act of performance with intentionality requires complete commitment. The performer’s attention should be fully invested in what is going on in the music at that moment. In other words, the performer is completely present in what they are doing. To me, this notion of intentionality is a key to overcoming performance anxiety. Performance anxiety either occupies the past (I should have practiced more) or the future (I’m going to fail). The intentional performer, however, is too invested in the present moment of the music to be distracted by those worries of the past and future. Professionalism is, simply stated, being able to think about what you are doing. It’s a mentality of being able to turn on the focus, even when its not comfortable.
 
Having an understanding of the music.
 
How do we, as musicians, determine the intentions behind what we are performing? In order to have an intentionality about the music, you need to be able to understand what exactly you think the music is trying to say. This is where having a theoretical understanding of the music becomes so important. Understanding the underlying harmonies, motifs, and structure of a piece – its “inner logic” – allows you to essentially read the hieroglyphics and break the code of what’s going on. This is what you should essentially be doing in practice: decoding the hieroglyphics. This is very different from what you might call the “rote” method of practicing – repeating something over and over until you trust that you can reproduce it on automatic pilot, without thinking about it.
 
Jim repeated throughout the week that don’t practice something to have it on “automatic pilot,” rather, we practice to know exactly what’s going on in the music, so that we can pay attention to the notes and have a clear visualization of exactly you want to perform each part of the music. The “deliberate practicing” that this type of method requires is painful – but its the only real route to owning a once-unfamiliar cluster of notes at a whole deeper level. This mentality of diligent patience (understanding, attention to detail) that needs to be cultivated, but it yields great results. (Stay tuned for a future post specifically about deliberate practice).
 
Another side to intentionality that is important to note is having an idea of why you are performing. To win an audition or competition? To satisfy your teacher? To make money? Try to get to the deeper, core values behind what you do. For the love of music? For the joy of performing? Sometimes it becomes easy to forget why we have dedicated so much of our lives to becoming proficient at our instrument, and reminding ourselves of these underlying beliefs and projecting them through the energy we bring to our playing can be both motivating to ourselves and our audiences.

You have to do whatever you have to do to sound good.
 
You need to be in the mindset where you’re consistently dedicated to producing a beautiful sound on your instrument, and everything you do is in service to making that beautiful sound. When we hear a performer, the first thing we’re struck by is their quality of sound. Does your sound have a dynamic energy to it? (Hint: use more vibrato, and sing right away on your tuning note with the piano – its the first impression you make as a musician).
 
Ask yourself in any situation, ”what can I do to make it easier to sound good?” In other words, be results oriented – what is going to get you the best results? That might mean breaking so-called “rules.” But as Jim put it, “If that’s what you have to do, that’s what you have to do.” (And breaking the rules to sound good is not breaking the rules, by the way.) Dare for 90% of the sounds you make to be “money” sounds – a sound that you, yourself are passionate and engaged with. Impart some feeling into it. Get the listener involved. Remember, your sound is the fundamental medium for communicating your message, your voice, what you have to say and how you feel about the music.

Expanding your box.
 
You might have a “lid” on your sound – unintentionally limiting the full extent of the volume or resonance you can produce out of a fear of cracking a note or making a mistake. As Jim stated at one point, “you’re playing cautiously because you don’t want to make a mistake. But just do it, even if that’s tough in this environment.” Making a great sound might require you to expand your comfort zone in a scary situation, to open that lid. Using your voice to your fullest capacity, in fact, might require you to act completely against your nature. We all have our own “nature” (our sense of self). But in order to continue to grow as both performers and humans, we need to give ourselves permission to give yourself the opportunities to expand our own nature. Be in a play, or do an activity that requires you to stand up and deliver/use your voice. Be curious – learn what is completely NOT in your nature… so you can do it.
 
Learning to use your voice and do things not in your nature doesn’t mean abandoning you who are. (I, for instance, am proud introvert and a more quiet and reflective person by nature. But in order to perform, we have to learn to be like an actor or actress, able to put on different masks and portray different characters or moods in the music. To success to which we channel the energies of those characters and moods depends on the extent to which we use our voice to fully embody those masks and let them become who we have, even if just for the length of the performance. This is my personal next step in the quest to see myself as a performer. My job, especially in this year ahead as I apply to graduate programs, should be to give myself chances to evolve. Yes, its always going to be scary to expand the box, but every time you have a chance to stand a little higher, or use your voice a little louder, dare yourself to do it.