What To Do About Performance Anxiety
by Barbara Conable
Our students come to us with physical discomfort and with emotional discomfort related to playing. Performance anxiety is the worst of the emotional discomfort. Here is what to do about it.
There are four distinct phenomena that go by the name performance anxiety. Each requires a different response, so it is important to name all four and distinguish them from each other so that the appropriate response may be chosen. Mixing responses guarantees failure.
FOUR KINDS OF PERFORMANCE ANXIETY:
Three: emotions associated with inadequate preparation.
Four: debilitating fear, terror, dread, panic.
One, butterflies, the fluttery sensations, sometimes intense, that precede performance and disappear as performance begins, often regarded by seasoned performers as indicative of readiness to perform but often mistaken for performance anxiety by inexperienced performers. Normal, not pathological.
Two, self-consciousness, defined in my dictionary as “morbidly aware of oneself as an object of attention for others.” A brilliant definition. I’d like to shake the hand of the person who wrote it. Self-consciousness is a pathology, but rather easily remedied. To call it performance anxiety is a misnomer because anxiety is not involved, as you will learn if you carefully question a self-conscious person. He or she will say, “Oh, I don’t feel any fear; I’m just so self-conscious.”
Three, emotions associated with inadequate preparation. A witches’ brew of shame, confusion, avoidance, and fear, not pathological, just human, often mistaken for number four by those who don’t want to acknowledge the truth that they are not ready to perform. Shame predominates in this mix.
Four, pathological, debilitating fear, terror, dread, panic. Intense emotion, coming in waves, usually expressed physically as sweating, shaking or other involuntary movement, rapid breathing, dry mouth, senses distorted or diminished, e.g., “It sounded like the piano was a quarter of mile away.”
TIME OF OCCURRENCE:
One, butterflies, occurs in the hours immediately preceding performance.
Two, self-consciousness, occurs whenever the performance is thought about.
Three, emotions associated with inadequate preparation. Pretty constant in the weeks preceding performance. Usually low grade because of the avoidance factor.
Four, debilitating fear, terror, dread, panic. Grandly episodic throughout the entire period of preparation. Middle of the night. While driving one’s car. At a party. Walking past the concert hall. Talking with one’s accompanist on the phone. Taking a walk. Sudden. Unpredictable. Subsides, only to reappear another time, like herpes.
EFFECT ON PERFORMANCE:
One, butterflies, enhances performance.
Two, self-consciousness, compromises the whole performance, start to finish. “I always play better in practice than in performance.” Emotional expression and meaning are compromised.
Three, emotions associated with inadequate preparation. Performance spotty and substandard because of the inadequate preparation, not because of the associated emotions.
Four, debilitating fear, terror, dread, panic. May stop performance altogether. Performers may refuse to play or sing at the last minute or they walk off stage mid concert. If they play or sing the whole concert, the fear and its physical manifestation are episodic throughout. The sweating and shaking may be visible and result in wrong notes. The sensory distortion may interfere with ability to read the notation or to hear the other players so that performance has to be stopped and started again. Often results in “memory slips” or rhythmic distortion. Rarely if ever compromises expressiveness. In fact, some performers claim they are not expressive unless they are filled with fear, terror, dread, panic.
One, butterflies. Learn to enjoy them. Begin the performance and they disappear.
Two, being self-consciousness, morbidly aware of oneself as an object of observation for others, requires a two step remedy. First, get clear about the fact that the audience pays money and comes to the concert hall to make the music the object of attention. If the audience paid money and came to the concert hall to make YOU the object of attention, you wouldn’t have to play the music. You could just sit there and let them look at you. Second step in the remedy, develop self-awareness. True self-awareness (kinesthetic, tactile, emotional) is the great, reliable remedy for self-consciousness. This two-step remedy can work literally overnight and solve the problem forever if the first step is truly comprehended. The music is what it’s all about. The music is the object of observation for the audience and for the performer, who have a mutual interest in the music.
Three, emotions associated with inadequate preparation. Cancel or postpone the performance or the audition, or get a sub. No other response is appropriate. Then, get yourself adequately prepared. If you don’t know how to prepare, find someone who will teach you. Never, never use performance anxiety as an excuse when it was inadequate preparation that compromised the quality of your performance. Teachers, don’t let your students get by with this, either. Nail them. Call them on it. It’s your job. Don’t let them perform unprepared.
Four, debilitating fear, terror, dread, panic. The remedy for this is strenuous, demanding, difficult, uncompromising, but it works. The remedy will be described in great detail later in this essay, but, first, I believe it is important to understand that this type of performance anxiety happens in a context. In my experience, the context must be credited in order for the sufferer to do the work of liberation.
Performance fear, terror, dread, panic is not purely personal and cannot be remedied without some understanding of its cultural context. In order for musicians to exert themselves to genuine change, they need to sense they are changing not just themselves but also the musical culture. In other words, they are doing it for everyone.
Let’s look at the problem from the perspective of circumstances in which performance anxiety rarely or never occurs. Then, let’s examine some unusual factors in the way music is taught and heard in our culture. Third, please consider the status of musicians in our culture as a factor in the fear musicians feel.
Let’s look first at the circumstances in which performance anxiety rarely or never occurs in order to shine some light on the circumstances in which it does occur. Performance anxiety rarely occurs among pro-ams, as they are now fondly called, that is, amateurs who play at a professional level. It rarely occurs among church musicians, especially those who regard themselves as having a vocation for music, and it rarely occurs among Indian classical musicians (those who play the traditional ragas), though their music is at least as complex and demanding as western classical music, and it rarely occurs among African drummers, though their music is far more complex rhythmically than is western music. I have the impression that performance anxiety is less frequent among western jazz and rock musicians than among western classical musicians. Pro-ams tell me they feel eager anticipation when they perform. One said it is like preparing a fine meal for friends.
Pro-ams play a lot of chamber music, and the music itself is the motivating factor, the joy of hearing it, the joy of playing it, the joy of discovering something new about it. For these highly skilled amateurs there are no bad consequences in their imagination if they don’t for some reason play well, no loss of job, no scorn from colleagues, and the like.
Church musicians tell me they attribute their absence of fear to the fact that even their very finest performances are not ends in themselves but rather dedicated to the overall effect of the celebration. Organists sometimes tell me it helps them that they are not seen by the congregation, or not watched as a concert pianist is.
Indian classical musicians tend to attribute their comfort in playing to the communal nature of their training and to the fact that they usually live with their teachers, who teach them every day, not every week, and offer the ongoing nurture and support in supervised daily practice. The students never experience the isolation so many young musicians experience in our culture.
One of the great African drummers at a Percussive Arts Society convention, when asked about performance anxiety, said he had never met anyone who suffered from it. Laughing, he said, “We are not afraid of music.” Then he became serious and named some elements in the training of drummers that may prevent performance anxiety. First, he said, “We never ever name a mistake. Naming mistakes seems silly to us,” he said, “like naming the mistakes” in a young child’s talking or walking.” He went on to say that young children are kept at the same level of playing for a long time and not allowed to go to the next level of complexity until they are practically bursting to do so. Then, when they do go to the next level, they can achieve it easily, they have so long anticipated it in their minds and because they have heard it and seen it for so long from others. In addition, African teachers play with their students or for their students all or most of the time, and there are no competitions, only performances.
Rock musicians, in my experience, are free of performance anxiety. When I ask them about this, they generally attribute it to the connection they feel to their audience. They are deeply, profoundly aware of their audience as they write and rehearse, so it is as if the audience is perpetually present. The audience is not something to be feared but something to draw strength and inspiration from. Listen to interviews with great rock musicians and you will hear them talk about their audiences in the same way some well-known novelists talk about theirs. A mutual loyalty is being described. Jazz musicians share to some degree the sense of audience, especially those who get a following in certain clubs, but they have the further cushion of improvisation. Improvisation is a very demanding enterprise, but it does give a kind of space that the strict notation of classical music does not.
There are some aspects of the ways music is heard in our culture that we take for granted much of the time, but which are nevertheless quite unusual and may contribute to the debilitating fear some musicians experience. An audience sitting in rows facing a stage with nothing else to think about is unusual in the world. In other cultures people wander in and out of the performance space, paying close attention when they like and peripheral attention at other times. The musicians are not watched so intently. Nowadays many people have CD’s of the music being performed. Notes not written by the composer have been corrected on the CDs, and therefore people’s ears are geared to a level of technical perfection that is unrealistic. Also, audience members may be comparing a university professor¹s performance to the performance of the finest concert musicians in the world. The comparison spoils what would otherwise be a profoundly enjoyable experience, and, to make matters worse, the performer may also be making the comparison, contributing to performance fear and dread. Some fine musicians perform infrequently, upping the ante on any one performance, like getting to play one or two poker hands a year.
And then there is the matter of envy. I will not write about envy in this essay because it has been discussed so brilliantly by James Jordan in The Musician’s Soul, a book all musicians need to read and study because envy is a truly significant factor in performance fear and dread.
As is status. Musicians’status is our culture is described in one word: low.
Evidence: joke. Three people appear at the pearly gates. The doctor is welcomed right in, likewise the lawyer. The musician is directed around to the back door.
Evidence: COVER STORY in city magazine: HOW TO IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS THIS YEAR. Tip number ten: BUY SEASON TICKETS TO THE SYMPHONY AND NEVER, NEVER GO.
Evidence: musicians’ salaries at universities as compared with others who have spent decades of hard work in preparation for what they do.
Evidence: the way musicians are treated at the White House. Rosalyn Carter made sure that musicians were greeted when they arrived and that they were served good food and had a comfortable place to change clothes and warm up and rest between performances, but other occupants of the White House have not followed her example.
Evidence: the reluctance of symphony management to adopt and adhere to elementary safeguards for musicians and their instruments, like temperature control, reasonable schedules, and ear protection.
Evidence: the failure of universities to credit practice time and score study as work hours. Many university musicians work a full work week in addition to their practice and study time. From a non-musician’s point of view, this is cruel and counter productive, like asking a scientist to do research after hours, and it contributes to performance anxiety because the performing professor is tired and sometimes resentful.
I have been privileged to spend some time in a culture in which musicians are held in the highest esteem, revered, cared for, regarded as very, very special. Their status is in shocking contrast to that of musicians in American mainstream culture.
THE REMEDY FOR PERFORMANCE FEAR, TERROR, DREAD, PANIC:
I derive some linguistic pleasure from building the remedy on the letters in the word F-E-A-R, thus:
F- feel the fear.
E–embody the fear.
The devise also helps my students remember what to do. Feel the fear. Embody the fear. Truly arrive in the performance space. Truly relate to the space, the music, and the audience.
It sounds simple, but it is actually very mentally demanding, and the feeling and the embodying must be done over and over again throughout the preparation period whenever the episodes of fear occur, so it is a day by day commitment over a period of weeks or months, and it is particularly demanding at the time of performance because feeling and embodying must continue unabated while you at the same time truly arrive in the space and truly relate to it. Not simple. Not easy. Why do I recommend something so demanding as remedy? Because it¹s the only thing that works. Believe me, I’ve seen everything you can imagine tried to solve this problem and nothing but this demanding procedure really works. If you don’t believe me, try all the others and then do this, hard as it is. No one ever said being a successful performer was going to be easy, only that is was going to be fulfilling and in keeping with our deepest humanity, so the reward is great.
So, here is how it’s done, letter by letter.
Many people make the mistake of trying not to feel their fear, terror, dread, panic, or they try to diminish it, or they try to ignore it. This turns them into two people, the person who is feeling the fear and the one who is suppressing or ignoring it. You can’t perform split. It just won’t work. So, the first task in solving the problem of performance fear is to just agree to feel what you¹re feeling full out in every part of your body, not diminishing any tiny bit of it.
Now, understand that fear, terror, dread, panic only overwhelm if they are experienced in isolation from other sensations. So, your next FEEL task is to feel also all the other emotions in your experience. You may think there are no others, but you will be wrong about this. If you go looking for them, you will find the others — anger, perhaps; self-compassion, we hope; your love for the music you will be playing, your anticipation, yearning; hope for a fine performance; regard for the other musicians on your concert. The key here is to let all those other emotions live in your experience and come into relationship with the fear you feel. If you let them live there with the fear, the other emotions will cushion the fear, change its texture. Probably they will not diminish its intensity, but that's okay, really, because they will change the physical expression of the fear. Sweating and shaking will subside. Your body only produces these expressions of your fear if your fear is all you’re feeling, if it’s alone there in experience, all by itself. When you’re feeling all your other emotions at the same time, the monochromatic response of shaking and sweating gives way to a rainbow of expression that also prevents the sensory distortions that compromise performance so seriously.
You may want to actively cultivate and enhance some of your other emotions. If you love music, right there in the presence of all your fear, expand and enhance that love. If you have some joyful anticipation of playing this marvelous music for people in the audience, enhance that. Don’t stop feeling the fear, just give it good company. You are cultivating richness in your experience. If you allow it to, the music will help you as you practice it. Be sure you are making the fullest possible emotional response to the music you are practicing. You will need to make your entire nervous system available to the music, then it will provide you with the richest possible context for your fear. Music teaches you how to feel what it expresses. That is one of its glories, and it is how music helps you with your fear.
Now, remember, this is just the first step, and it will not work in isolation from the others to solve your performance fear problem, but neither can it be skipped or cheated. You will have to do this step consistently, day after day, in your practice and every single time you feel an episode of performance fear coming on.
Now you go the next step and give all your emotion a larger context. You need to put all your emotion in the company of all your other physical sensation. Just like fear never overwhelms when it is given the company of other emotion, so emotion never overwhelms when it is given the company of other sensation. We call this strategy embodying the fear.
First, put all your emotions in the context of your tactile experience, the feeling of your skin, your tactile sensation of your shoes, socks, floor, clothing, the temperature and movement of the air as perceived by your skin. Find it all and put your emotion firmly in relationship to it.
Then find all your kinesthetic sensation, that is, all your experience of your moving, of your position, of your size. You will be moving to perform, and you will need to feel your moving with great clarity in order to choose the best movement and in order to change your moving if it needs to be changed. So, in embodying your emotion, you are also availing yourself of information crucial for performance anyway, apart from its function as a primary cushion for fear.
As you become kinesthetically awake, you will feel overt movement and what is fashionably called micromovement, all the inner hum of muscular and visceral activity. You will feel this all as related, like an orchestra of sensation, not isolated like orchestra members warming up.
You want to be sure you are feeling any other sensation that may be present. Pain, if it’s there, hunger, thirst, pleasure, the whole richness of being. Then your fear is like a clarinet in the orchestra, just one element of a complex but unified whole. This reclaiming of experience requires intention, or will, but it is worth all the mental effort it takes to recover it.
To repeat, you must make this recovery every single time you feel the fear, terror, dread, panic, in the months coming up to performance. There is a discipline in this, a consistency. Every time.
Then you have to put all this richness in the context of the actual performance situation. We are nesting experience here, you see, like those nested Russian dolls, one within another. Your fear is the littlest doll, which you put within all the others so that you have it in a safe context. You have to truly arrive in the space.
Now, this is the opposite of unsuccessful strategies like, “I try to pretend I’m still in my practice room.” The pretending strategy is disasterous on two counts: it removes your from reality, and it ties up your imagination, which you need for performance.
Arrive. Come to the concert hall early. Walk out onto the stage. Get clear about where the walls are, the floors are, the seats are. Sense the space. Relate to the space. Claim the space. Be in the space. Get clear about the objects in the space, learning where the piano is, for instance, the music stands, the chairs, the lights. Watch in the wings as the audience filters in. Do this arriving in your dress rehearsals so you’re used to it for performance.
You can also practice this by truly arriving in your practice space, using the same stategy for your practice you will use later for your performance.
In your practice space, even if it is very small, you will need claim a space for your moving that is at least as big as the space you will perform in, otherwise coming into the larger performance space will be a shock. Many successful musicians ordinarily claim a much larger space for their moving than a concert hall, but the size of the concert hall is the smallest that works. This does not mean that you imagine you are in the concert hall. No. Rather, you claim, own, move in, command, occupy a space in practice big enough for performance.
Arrive. An audience is coming into this space in which you will perform. Part of arriving is ackowledging the likely nature of that audience. If some of your audience is hostile, may write bad reviews, will be catty, you will need to arrive to that fact and really be present with it. There’s no pretending they are other than they are. Hostile people, along with those who are kindly and truly interested in hearing the music, must be treated as audience. You are not responsible for how they behave, but you are responsible for how you behave, and it is your job to play or sing in good faith for all the members of your audience, including the hostile and the catty and the uppity. This is rich and complex experience, which is just how it is for an artist.
Which brings us to the final maneuver in eliminating performance fear as a problem. Fear remains, perhaps, as an emotion, but it is no longer a problem because you know how to handle it. You feel, you embody yourself and your feeling, you arrive, and you relate. You relate to the space; you relate to your audience, you relate to the music, you relate to your instrument.
Let’s take each of those in turn. You relate to the space as I have described above, claiming the whole of it for your movement in performance. You do not go out on stage and play in a space the size of your practice room. If you do, we in the audience have to look into your space as through a window. We are not included in it and we feel left out, as though we were watching someone practice. If you do not relate to the space in performance, you do not get the advantages of perceiving its accoustical properties or its beauty or the spaciousness that might inform the quality of your moving. You do not get the benefit of its sheltering.
You relate to your audience, that is, they are in your awareness and you are playing for them. There is a mutuality. They enjoy your performance, and you feel their enjoyment and appreciation and that helps you in your performance. Performers who do not relate to their audiences do not get the benefit of the audience reaction for stamina and for pleasure in performing. It’s a big, big loss to everyone.
You relate to the music, that it, you let the music benefit you as much as it is benefitting the audience. You make a full emotional response to the music, which carries and sustains your performance. You let the music sustain you.
You relate to your instrument. There is great security in this, for you will be able to feel your instrument clearly. It may seem that the instrument is warmed up, ready to go, that it is eager to perform, like a racehorse at the beginning of a race. This will help you. Your love for your instrument as well as your love for the music can be a source of stability and cushioning in the performance. This is especially true for singers, of course. If you are relating profoundly to your instrument as you perform, you will know when it needs some special care or some adjustment, as to a quirky reed or to a voice just recovering from a cold.
One result of feeling-embodying-arriving-relating is that time has a different flavor. There seems to be more of it. There is enough time to make choices. There is a temporal spaciousness that allows you to recover and renew your feeling-embodying-arriving-relating if it weakens.
This all becomes second nature over time, as it is first nature for those who never lost it. The deliberateness falls away; the need for will falls away. Feeling-embodying-arriving-relating is no longer a discipline, but just what one does, naturally. Fear as a problem is a poignant memory.
BEST TIPS FOR ELIMINATING PERFORMANCE ANXIETY AMONG YOUR STUDENTS:
Help your students see that their fear is not purely personal but is a shared, cultural phenomenon that requires a cultural change as well as a personal one, to which they may contribute.
Frequently remind your students that becoming a highly accomplished amateur is an option for them. Encourage your students to explore and enjoy all kinds of music and to see themselves as part of a community of musicians that includes all kinds of musicians.
Encourage your students to seek out performance opportunities, to perform in nursing homes, for instance, or at their own dinner parties.
Encourage your students to play or sing chamber music at every possible opportunity, just for the joy of it.
Cultivate a positive environment in your studio and set clear rules for how students treat each other. Always perform on your students’ recitals, always. They need to see your preparation and they need your modeling.
Keep your own performance at a high level and perform frequently even if you primarily earn your living by teaching.
If a student comes to a lesson unprepared, practice for the student, talking to the student about what you’re doing, e.g., “Notice that I repeated that passage because I changed my mind about how it goes.” Or, offer to observe the student’s practicing, coaching the student in good practice technique. Never, never just ignore or overlook the fact that the lesson is unprepared.
Play with your students.
Play for your students.
Face your students whenever possible. It’s a great help for them to see what you’re doing. They can’t see you if they are on a stand with you. Help your students from the very first lesson to truly know their instruments. Many students are handicapped and fearful because they are playing fantasy instruments which differ greatly from the instruments they actually have (like a piano student listening to the keys instead of the strings; like a piano student imagining that the point of sound is at the key bed). Always let the students know the limitations of the instrument they are using so they don’t feel bad because they can’t make their student violin sound like your Strad.
Deal constructively with wrong notes. Much of the time you don’t even need to point them out. Just play the piece again yourself, asking the student to listen carefully. If you feel its important to give feedback about the note, just say that the student played a note the composer didn’t write and always play that note yourself. “You played this (you play B flat); the composer wrote this (you play B natural).” Give the student time to hear the difference and to play the difference, one and then the other, so that the correction can truly be assimilated. Put the correction in a musical context, asking, “Why did the composer choose B natural here instead of the B flat you played?” Sometimes the student will have played something that actually sounds better than what the composer wrote. Always acknowledge that when it is true.
Be very, very careful to give students age appropriate and skill appropriate music and not too much of it.
Keep the students at a skill level for a long time, letting them enjoy their success in coming to that level, so that year after year as they grow they get to experience real competence and musicality.
Never, never, never let a student perform unprepared. Just reschedule the student to the next recital.
Keep your young students out of competitions and seek opportunities for them to play for supportive, knowledgeable colleagues in non-competitive situations. Stay with them in those situations so you know they are being treated well and constructively.
Be as educated as you can be about the youth choirs and orchestras and the music camps in your area so that you can steer your students away from harsh circumstances and into nurturing, supportive circumstances.
Teach your students to improvise, right from the first. If you don’t know how to improvise yourself, join Music for People and let David Darling and his certified improv teachers teach you how. Help your students build a genuine sense of having an audience. In the beginning it will be the parents and friends who come to the recitals. Refer frequently to the audience and to the pleasure the audience will take in the music. Make it clear that in your studio musicians are held in high esteem, consistent with the intelligence, humanity, and artistry it takes to do the job. Model for the students a very high level of self regard and self care.
Teach your older students how to treat auditioners and jurors as genuine audience.