It Comes with the Territory – the Challenges of Performance Anxiety

Anxiety Looking Over the CliffCall it what you like – performance anxiety, nerves, butterflies, stage fright, etc – if you’ve set your heart on a career as a musician, it’s something you’re very likely going to have to confront sooner or later.

And don’t be fooled – it’s potentially always there, lurking in the background ready to ambush even the most hardened of old hacks like me, most especially when you return after a well earned performance “holiday.”

While it’s useful to “know your enemy” via books, seminars, courses and their ilk, believe me – nothing will enable you to conquer this debilitating condition faster than experiencing a disastrous performance from time to time, forcing yourself through the subsequent painful analysis and then embarking on a methodical rebuilding programme.

Being used to writing material like: Performance Anxiety, Competition Jitters and Audition Nerves, it came as a complete shock to find myself sitting down and making a public confession like this: Classical Music Connects Episode 17 as I honestly can’t recall the last time I was struck down by anxiety to such an extent that it severely affected my performance.

My conclusion – not taken from sitting in isolated academia scanning source text but real life at the sharp end – as a musician there is unequivocally no substitute for real live performance and oodles of it throughout your career.

Whether you opt to take a well earned performance breather of a few months to a few years, I’ll wager that when you start gigging again, the nerves you feel on the jitter scale are directly proportional to how long your focus has been turned elsewhere.

How Judgement Spoils Innocence

Watch a toddler jumping about in time to music, painting with their hands or playing shop – “acting” – with their friends and you will seldom see any evidence of fear or self-consciousness. At that age there’s no need for them to read Erkhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” to re-learn how to live in the moment!

It doesn’t matter where they are or who’s watching – as far as they’re concerned, nothing else exists.

So what happens to change this idyllic scenario between toddler and adulthood? Amongst other things, the development of reasoning – the ability to think and along with it the discovery of judgement – of self and by others.

It’s judgement, the worry as to whether a performance will stack up to your satisfaction and the approval of others that I suggest lies at the heart of the problem.

Use It Or Lose It

Those of you who exercise regularly will know that if you stop for a while, you experience some loss of cardiovascular fitness and muscle tone.

The same applies to performance when you take a breather. It’s as though our brain “forgets” what it all felt like before and, depending on the reason we took a break in the first place, we may have some tune-up training to undertake before we’re back at peak once again.

My advice if you’re “coming back” – start with low priority gigs and work up.

I honestly thought that when I was invited to play locally back in December, I was starting small.

The reality was that all standing room had been taken at this official event, plus consequent dampened acoustics, and I found myself sharing performing space with a couple of TV cameras and the press… but anyway… make “small” your intention!

The idea is to have a positive experience and be able to bask in the afterglow of positive feedback. Like an incredibly joyous family reunion, you’ll be champing at the bit for a repeat.

On the other hand, if you do unfortunately end up being eaten alive by nerves and turning in a car wreck, you should be able to avoid a career breaking scenario.

If you do discover anxiety is a problem, you must, MUST, take immediate action to deal with it so it does have the time to fester like an open wound. Your goal is to avoid repeating a bad experience over and over again.

There’s plenty of material on the market, and coaches of all price ranges, to enable you to be successful in overcoming your fear. However, I’m reluctant to name any of them. Why? Well, we’re all different, inevitably have bias and have varying learning preferences. I’d prefer to leave the joys of shopping to you! A Google search is always a great place to start if you’re looking for somebody or something to help.

My Own Personal Plan

To satisfy your curiosoty, here’s what I have been doing as “recovery” from my, shall we say, “less than exemplary” December production:

  1. Arranging some free informal gigs with a couple of shopping malls and retirement complexes before a live streamed performance this Saturday, February 25th – sharpening myself before my next important appearance.
  2. Reading The Inner Game of Music, and actually working through the exercises instead of just skimming material!
  3. Diligently showing up for my practice sessions every morning during the week from 1100-1500 (11a.m to 3:00p.m), or if that’s really impossible, disciplining myself to “keep to the programme” in another section of the day.

Let me explain – when you freelance and work for yourself it really is too easy to skip, especially if you know your upcoming repertoire well. This discipline gives me cast-iron assurance that I’ll be more than ready.

I also rehearse roughly what I’ll be sharing with the audience. I never use a script, so in my head each time I take an exercise session.

Personally, it’s rarely laziness that keeps me away from the music stand but rather the lure of instantly paid musical work like writing and editing. Boredom is another trap I have a tendency to fall into so remember to inject new life into your practice from time to time.

  1. Talking privately to other musicians and performers who are trustworthy friends. Everybody needs a support network.
  2. Having a life outside the music profession works wonders!

I am very interested to hear about your own experiences with performance anxiety and how you deal with it. Go on, be brave and share so we can all benefit.

One Response to It Comes with the Territory – the Challenges of Performance Anxiety

  1. Johnny Amott March 20, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    You know, I have experienced every single thing you have mentioned.. Anxiety is a horrid nightmare to live with everyday. I can’t even go out into public anymore. And eating at a restaurant, well that stopped a few years back. Just all the noises of people talking and moving around.. Drives me insane! I just have to put my head down and cover my eyes and ears. And my anxiety just hits me out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. Thanks for making this video.

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