Ease Performance Anxiety Naturally
by David Nesmith © 2000
(This article first appeared in The Horn Call, The Journal of the International Horn Society, Volume XXXI, No. 1 November 2000.)
I am sitting on stage moments before the opening horn solo in Weber’s Oberon Overture. It feels as if a giant spotlight is on me, gradually narrowing its powerful beam. It threatens to immobilize me like a deer caught in headlights. My palms are sweaty and my heart is racing as I remind myself to breathe and think of the music. Now comes the nod from the conductor. Ready!? Here goes . . . !
Many horn players experience this feeling at some point during their careers, whether they are amateurs or professionals. Performance anxiety can range from mildly annoying to completely incapacitating. Here is a simple, yet powerful technique I have used in my performing and teaching to deal successfully with this reaction.
Two Steps to Ease Performance Anxiety
We all know that preparing well for a performance means practicing in a way that will eliminate all doubts about its technical and musical aspects. As one teacher said, “A doubt in the practice room, can become a disaster on stage!” Preparing with this in mind builds confidence. However, since we are human beings and not machines, we are often subject to a barrage of feelings surrounding the act of performing in public. Typically, these feelings are reactions to anticipatory thoughts concerning an upcoming performance in general or a delicate entrance in particular. The next time you experience feelings of nervousness do two things:
1. Notice the feeling as non-judgmentally as possible. Say to yourself, “It’s just information.”
2. At the same time, while enlarging the musical conception in your mind, open your awareness to include at least one more non-threatening element that wasn’t in your awareness before, such as the support of the chair or floor beneath you, shadows on stage, the weave of a colleagueês coat, etc. Continue noticing more and more as the range of your awareness grows in all directions.
Often, it is the act of judging our nervousness as bad that begins the snowball effect of becoming more nervous, sometimes to the point of feeling out of control. The fight/flight/freeze response is a valuable, natural protective device, but going into this reaction and staying there is not. Intellectually, we all know a performance situation is not really life-threatening, though at times it may certainly feel like it! The simple acknowledgment, “It’s just information,” along with the opening of awareness to give the nervous feeling company, will eliminate the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Practicing is the key. Before a big performance, expose yourself periodically to performance-like stress. Find someone to listen to you. If there is no one around to lend an ear, do five minutes of jumping jacks or climb some stairs to elevate your heart rate. Then, while playing your solo, notice all the accompanying feelings simply as information and widen your awareness little by little. You can also practice these two steps during ensemble rehearsals.
One way to know if your awareness is expanding versus contracting is if you are using your peripheral vision. Seeing more peripherally, as well as frontally, naturally opens up and balances more of our entire being to the moment of performing. Any distraction can be dealt with in this way, from butterflies in the belly, to the rustling sounds of the audience, the sound of a dropped mute, or even a fly on your nose! Being easily distracted is a sign of a narrowed awareness. A positive consequence of an expansive awareness is that distractions begin to disappear. Or rather, what used to be a distraction is now just a part of the whole picture. As another of my teachers has said, “Itês not a distraction if youêre already aware of it!”
What is another way to know when our awareness is contracted? By the resulting contractions in our bodies: stiff neck, fixed eyes, rigid arms, and shallow breathing, to name just a few. Quite simply, our bodies reflect the state of our awareness. If we are too concentrated with an attention that is “fixed” on our nervousness or on “trying hard,” then we lose the more productive “in focus” quality of easy clarity and sharpness in our thinking. (Also, be wary of “scanning,” which is nothing more than rapid, sequential concentrating from object to object.) To avoid the excess concentration of physical and mental effort that results from a contracted awareness, train yourself to look for little windows of opportunity in which to open your mind. Rests in the music or pauses between movements are perfect.
As we broaden our awareness auditorially and visually, we must simultaneously stay in touch with ourselves tactilely and kinesthetically. Frank Pierce Jones, author of Freedom to Change, called this “cultivating a unified field of attention”: an awareness that is expansive and inclusive of ourselves and our environment, rather than exclusive.
Circles of Attention
In his book, An Actor Prepares, the great Russian theater director, Constantin Stanislavski, described how to use circles of attention to aid awareness on stage. Imagine three circles, a small one containing you and your music, a medium circle containing colleagues on stage, and a larger, third circle containing the audience. As we learn to organize the contents of these levels non-judgmentally within our awareness, we free our energy for the task at hand, music-making. If, however, much of our energy is spent attempting to block our awareness of the audience, or of the music critic in the twelfth row who happens to be a horn player(!), or any number of other distractions, we have wasted valuable energy resulting in diminished expressive power.
A Bit of Ancient Wisdom
As long ago as the fourth and third centuries B.C., the Chinese sage, Chuang Tzu, had something profound to say about performance anxiety. Thomas Merton composed the following verse from existing translations.
THE NEED TO WIN
When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets–
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting–
And the need to win
Drains him of power.1
Cultivating the intention to notice without judgement while increasing awareness multi-sensorially will allow your energy to become more fully engaged in performing and naturally support the communication of your rich musical ideas. Persevere gently and have fun as you learn to ease your own performance anxiety naturally.
Jones, Frank Pierce. Freedom to Change. London: Mouritz, 1997. ISBN 0-9525574-7-9 (Previously published as Body Awareness in Action. New York: Schocken Books, 1976, 1979.)
Kaplan, Dr. Robert-Michael. The Power Behind Your Eyes. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1995. ISBN 0-89281-536-1
Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. New York: Theater Arts Books, 1936. ISBN 0-87830-001-5
1The Need to Win by Thomas Merton, from THE COLLECTED POEMS OF THOMAS MERTON. Copyright 81963 by The Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1977 by The Trustees of the Merton Legacy Trust. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
The Author David Nesmith is an Andover Educator and a teacher of the Alexander Technique.