Back when I was in grad school, a friend of mine asked me if I had any thoughts about performance anxiety. At that point, I had developed some ideas of why I thought people might get nervous for performances, auditions, and even lessons with teachers. My thoughts and approach haven’t really changed much over the years, so I thought I would share them with you all with the hope that considering these points might help some of you overcome performance anxiety.
There a great deal of books and blog posts that have suggestions for ways to treat the symptoms of performance anxiety. My aim with this article is to try to dig into the underlying cause of why we might experience anxiety while performing. I’ll be discussing four reasons in total. They are: lack of preparation, focusing on what listeners might be thinking, having an inconsistent mental approach to your practice, and caring about the outcome too much.
Lack Of Preparation
The biggest reason people might become nervous while performing is they are simply not prepared. The most direct interpretation of this means the way they practiced the material did not provide them with the ability to recall the material with consistency and accuracy when they needed it.
I believe the root of this problem is the quality of one’s practice. Most people don’t have a problem with quantity of practice. It makes sense to us that if we need to be more prepared, spending more time preparing is a simple way to do it. Unfortunately, as many people reading this have experienced, more time doesn’t always work the way we think it will.
Learning a musical instrument is similar in many ways to learning a physical activity. But it differs in the way that the progress isn’t infinite; once you have progressed to your desired tempo, you’re there. It’s like you’re trying to build up to being able to run 10 miles. It’s not easy to do that, but once you can, you don’t need to run more than 10 miles. Your time is better spent trying to learn how to run that 10 miles more efficiently.
On an instrument, in order to perform at the highest level, we need to be executing our instruments at the highest level that we can for the majority of our time spent playing. This is why slow practice is such an effective tool — we can minimize technical challenges and focus on the quality of our repetitions as a metric for improvement. There are many other tools that are available to improve the quality of our practicing: skeleton work, removing articulation and playing the passages long and connected, isolating difficult spots and practicing them separately, etc.
This whole discussion can really be summed up in a simple way: we need to seek out deep practice. It’s not enough to play through the music a bunch of times and hope that we will be prepared. True preparation, the kind that allows you to perform with consistency and accuracy, is best served through thoughtful and organized practice.
Another aspect of preparation I will touch on briefly is that of belief of preparation. This has much more to do with your identity that your actual preparation. If you believe you could be more prepared for a performance, you will doubt yourself when the pressure on. It doesn’t matter how well you actually did prepare, you will never perform as well or with as much conviction as if you believed in yourself. So prepare your best! When the performance comes, trust yourself, and put on the best show you can in that moment!
Focusing On What Listeners Might Be Thinking
If you’re someone who has prepared so deeply that you feel incredibly confident about nailing the performance and you still feel nervous come game day, then you might be someone who cares what the people listening might think about your playing. Mistakes we make, such as playing out of tune, playing a missed note, or playing notes in the wrong place are all examples of things that can make us self conscious. We have all been there. We think the listener, or even the other musicians around us have made a decision to judge who we are and the kind of musician that we are.
Thinking about what a listener might think is a source of anxiety. There are a lot of things I could say about this, but the simple fact is that in order to have your most compelling version of a performance, we must stay in the present moment. Distractions like missed notes, worrying about future difficult sections, and worrying about what the listener might think are all thoughts that take you outside of the present moment of your performance.
To combat this, I suggest focusing on your plan. Focus on executing the material the way you know will lead you to being successful. Make a plan that you believe in, not one that you think others will want to hear. If you have prepared deeply, then you should have a wealth of knowledge to fall back on to inform your performance. If you don’t, refer back to point #1.
Now, to address what other musicians might think of you if you make mistakes. This is something I think all of us have dealt with. If you think about the times you’ve heard friends or colleagues make mistakes, more often than not, you don’t really think anything of it. You recognize that it happens, but it also doesn’t take away from the great things that player does. To help with anxiety, let’s just assume that other musicians feel this way about our playing.
To the people that are dealing with other musicians that you KNOW are actively rooting for you to fail, or they are constantly judging what you play and deciding if they think you are good enough, I’m sorry. To quote David Goggins, the solution for this is to “Take their souls”. Don’t let them define you. Instead, prepare more, learn more, and achieve more than they could ever think possible. This shouldn’t be hard, as people who think like this have often decided they are already a completed work of art. My sincere hope is that nobody reading this is dealing with people like this, but just in case you are, that’s my advice.
Having An Inconsistent Mental Approach To Your Practice
So far we’ve covered how preparation and our perception of others judgements can affect our level of anxiety in a high pressure, performance situation. If you have mastered the first two points, but still struggle with performance anxiety, you might be someone who is not consistent in the way you mentally approach your practice as a whole.
What I mean by this is that you prepare excerpts and repertoire with as much detail and focus as you can, but when you play etudes or fundamentals, you approach them with less care. I think virtually every musician can be guilty of this from time to time, and I believe that if left unchecked, these two mental states can be a source of anxiety during performance.
The reason for this anxiety comes from feeling like “it matters”. If you assign extra importance to audition related material, when the audition finally comes around, you may feel like you have to play better than what you have prepared. It is highly unlikely that when faced with more pressure, you will outplay your preparation. I’m sure we could find anecdotal evidence that someone found a higher level of playing in some high pressure situations, but let’s assume that none of us are like that so we can actually address how to fix this area of performance anxiety.
For me, the fix is to make everything special. If everything is special, nothing is special. If you bring the same level of focus and excellence to your C major scale as you do the excerpts for an audition, then that becomes the way you play. You have the opportunity to practice high level, focused playing every time you pick up your instrument. Then, when the performance comes along, it’s just another day at the office. You’re playing the same way you always do, just in a different space for some people.
I’m sure you’ve put together that these points all affect each other. If you believe you are prepared, you’re more likely to execute your plan, and you’re less likely to care what others think. If you assign maximal importance to everything you play, it will lead you to a higher level of preparation. They all help each other.
Knowing all of this, and working to implement it into my own playing, I can honestly say that I don’t suffer from performance anxiety very often. So the times that I do experience it, I’m actually somewhat unequipped to deal with it. I have found in performances that have big repertoire, or recent orchestral auditions I’ve been to, have been a source of performance anxiety for me. After talking with my wife, Kathleen, she helped me find the fourth point that is the culprit for my source of performance anxiety: I care too much about the outcome.
Caring About The Outcome Too Much
For me, this happens far more often in an audition than a concert setting, although I have experienced it in both. In a concert setting, it might present during a piece like “Pictures At An Exhibition”. I’m not nervous because I’m worried about whether or not I’m prepared. I feel nervous because I have a plan and I hope that the audience feels the musical message I am trying to convey. I would consider this to be a positive form of performance anxiety. Although I feel some effects of the nerves, the biggest thing I feel is focused. I know I can be great, I just need to dig in and execute.
I’m sure many people agree, the anxiety I feel in an audition is different than other performance events. It seems that no matter what I do, it‘s nearly impossible to reduce the adrenaline I feel while on auditioning. I can still play well, but it feels a bit like I’m surviving, rather than being comfortable and doing my thing. The singular reason I feel this is simply because I want to win.
Even though I know it’s not helpful to think past the outcome of an audition, it is so difficult for me to separate myself from the possibility of having employment on the other side. I’ve done so much work to be in control of my mindset, and it’s still difficult.
In my most recent audition for the Chicago Symphony (June of 2019), I had about 3 hours between the time I showed up to the audition and the time I played on stage. That experience amounted to 3 hours of me telling myself “Don’t focus on the outcome. Focus on your plan.” I was able to keep my nerves at bay for that duration of time, but it was difficult and exhausting.
After talking with some trusted counsel, I’ve realized there is one more strategy I haven’t tried: beta blockers. I’ve always felt like I should be able to manage without them, and 99.9% of the time, I can. To me, if I can’t get through most of my performing life without them, I have work to do on the other three points I’ve laid out. Everyone is different, I get it. But I think most people can understand that beta blockers are a tool, not a fix.
I don’t take auditions all the time. Before Chicago in June, the last audition I took was the same audition in Chicago.. in June.. in 2017. There’s no groove for me. I prepare the best I can, and then I have to make it work. In this extreme case, beta blockers are a tool I might be able to use to help minimize the effect of adrenaline coursing through my body.
Everyone Is Different
In the end, everyone needs to figure out their own relationship with performing, and they need to find the tools they need to feel confident. When you listen to people who have succeed in auditions, recitals, competitions, etc, they can clearly communicate the amount of work they did to prepare. You can tell that they know the best strategy is to play the way they need to sound their best. They also take great care in how they approach their overall routine and maintenance on their instrument. If you struggle with performance anxiety, nothing is going to replace owning all parts of the process. Take ownership, and never stop learning!
“To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.” – Stephen R. Covey
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