Table of Contents
- Who suffers from performance anxiety
- Famous people that have suffered performance anxiety
- What causes performance anxiety
- What is the stress response
- How do I deal with performance anxiety?
- Avoid too much caffeine
- Deep breathing
- The audience is not the enemy
- Monitor your thoughts
- Remember, you’re only human!
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- The Alexander technique
- Systematic Desensitisation
- Share your struggles
- Final thoughts
For some musicians, taking to the stage seems to come naturally. The music starts, and right away, in a relaxed but focused mindset, they set about delivering the ultimate expression of their craft through a tsunami of stage presence seemingly exuding a confidence that shouts "I was born to do this"!
For the rest of us, it’s not so easy! I know I suffered from anxiety before shows. Also remember, those that make it look easy are obviously not suffering from crippling anxiety, but you can bet most are nervous before a show to some degree.
For some of us, frustratingly, it’s actually very challenging just to get to the stage. Do you feel a little nervous before a performance? This is fairly normal but what if you struggle to cope or struggle to perform at all? Do you worry about a performance days or weeks in advance? Does every performance conjure up feelings of dread before the show? Performance anxiety can be severe and has even ended some performers careers altogether.
The most common reported symptoms are poor concentration, rapid heart rate, tremor, sweating, and dry mouth. Performers can even throw up before a show when the anxiety becomes too much and some even walk off stage as they feel they can’t continue.
Although performance anxiety or stage fright is common, it often goes unnoticed and perhaps does not get the attention it deserves. Some studies show up to 60% of musicians have encountered performance anxiety at some point. Many musicians find anxiety peaks just before the performance, rather than during the performance itself.
Amateur right through to seasoned professionals can be affected. Veteran performers often develop their own ways of managing the anxiety associated with a show, sometimes via self medication.
Who suffers from performance anxiety
- Perfectionists can be prone as they set the bar so high for themselves. If they don’t meet their own high expectations, they see their performance as a failure
- Studies have shown women tend to suffer from performance anxiety more than men
- People who've had a bad experience during a performance in the past
- People that suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder or other anxiety conditions
- Self conscious people that worry more what others think of them
- Younger people are a little more likely to suffer performance anxiety than performers 45 - 50 years or older
Famous people that have suffered performance anxiety
Barbra Streisand, Adele, Rod Stewart, Luciano Pavarotti, Eddie Van Halen
What causes performance anxiety
It takes some bravery to stand before an audience expecting you to entertain them. Some people understandably find it very hard to be the focus of attention on stage.
As a musician, it's also worth noting you tend to have a lot invested in a performance. You spend sometimes thousands of hours practising your craft. The actual time you spend performing by comparison is very small. After all that time practising, it’s important to you that live shows go well. You know a performance can go wrong and some probably won’t go as planned from time to time.
If you're in a band, you may feel under pressure to do a great job for your band mates.
It may be that you have chosen music as your career. A bad performance during an audition may be seen as a threat to that career.
A combination of reasons usually causes the stress you experience before a show.
What is the stress response
Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, stress from the higher functioning parts of the brain often trigger the bodies’ stress response (fight or flight). This is part of the primitive brain that’s hard-wired to act when a threat is detected and does so whether you want it to or not. Very useful when there’s a genuine threat.
The stress response circuitry is extremely efficient and overrides the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. People have been known to jump out of the way of an oncoming car before they have realised what has happened. This is a great survival system but I think most would agree that, although difficult, a live show is not a threat to life!
Heart rate increases pushing blood to the muscles and other vital organs. Blood pressure increases and the person breathes more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide to take in as much oxygen as possible. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Senses become sharper. Meanwhile, adrenalin triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) which floods into the bloodstream, supplying extra energy to all parts of the body.
How do I deal with performance anxiety?
Remember it's normal to feel nervous before a performance, especially if it’s a big performance or a performance that’s valuable to you such as an audition. What's important is how you react to your anxiety. Trying to fight off the anxiety because you think it’s wrong or there’s something wrong with you, will lead to failure in most cases which will usually then make things worse.
Accepting anxiety as a normal healthy physical response to a stressful situation, should help stop the anxiety perpetuating. You don’t want to start worrying about worrying! Although it feels uncomfortable, try and let the anxiety just be there without trying to stop it. Read on further to learn about interventions that may help lower your anxiety level.
Make sure you rehearse your set list so you know exactly what you're doing when it comes to the show. Worrying about songs you haven't quite committed to memory or a passage you haven’t quite mastered is a sure fire way of working yourself up.
Arrive at the venue early so you have plenty of time to set up and familiarise yourself with the surroundings. Write the list of songs down on a sheet to follow during the gig so you're not worried about which song comes next.
Avoid too much caffeine
I'm addicted to tea! I've had to cut back a bit to help sleep. Caffeine can also make stress harder to manage. Moderate caffeine consumption triggers the release of adrenaline, stress hormones and slightly increases blood pressure. The effect caffeine has is not as strong as the effect performance anxiety has. The trouble is, in combination with performance anxiety you further trigger the stress response.
Studies show caffeine consumption increases sympathetic nerve activity pushing the body towards a stressed state.
During the two-week study, the subjects experienced, on average, a 32 percent increase in adrenaline and a 14 percent increase in noradrenaline on days when they consumed caffeine.Study covered by Sciencedaily
To take the edge off anxiety, keep caffeine consumption to a minimum on days you’re due to perform.
Anxiety causes a change to the way you breathe. The same is true in reverse. The way you breathe can alter your anxiety
The stress response causes shallow and fast breaths. By taking control of our breathing, slowing it down and breathing more deeply, despite feeling anxious, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system which calms our body down. This takes a little practice and is unlikely to stop all anxiety but this is a great tool everyone can use to calm the body and mind.
You may be surprised how effective simply breathing in a different way can be, helping you gain some control of your anxiety which will ultimately give you more confidence before a show.
Useful breathing techniques you can lookup are:
- Box breathing is used by Navy SEALS so stay calm in extremely stressful situations, helping them think clearly. Breath in for 4 seconds, hold breath for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds and hold breath for 4 seconds and repeat for a few minutes.
- Pursed lip breathing is a slow and intentional breathing technique. You inhale through your nose for two seconds before exhaling with pursed lips (as if you were going to blow out a candle) slowly for 4 seconds.
- Equal breathing stems from pranayama yoga. You inhale and exhale for the same period of time.
The audience is not the enemy
Remember the audience is there to enjoy the show, not to take notes whenever you make a mistake! A mistake is an authentic and very human endeavour! It’s surprising how most of the time people don’t even notice the errors. Try speaking with people after the show. Ask if they noticed an error you made. I bet the vast majority don’t.
The audience will appreciate you for getting up there and entertaining them. You may find breaking the ice with the audience by telling a joke or two will help settle your nerves.
Try developing a routine you can follow before every performance. Feeling like you’re not sure what to do with yourself twenty minutes before a show may trigger further apprehension whereas finding a quiet space where you can practise deep breathing and mindfulness may be helpful.
Monitor your thoughts
We can be our own worst enemy at times. You may not even consciously be aware of the unhelpful thoughts that go through your head during a stressful period. You feel awful so surely something is very wrong and therefore negative thoughts easily crop up.
If you catch yourself before a show thinking something like ‘This is going to be a disaster’ or ‘Why am I even here’, stop and ask yourself, ‘Why is this going to be a disaster?’. My other performances were not disasters so why should this one be different. Alternatively, you could replace the negative thought with a positive thought. ‘I think this will be a great show for us’.
The important thing is to recognise the negative thoughts and call them out. Negative thoughts will make you feel worse thereby reinforcing the anxiety.
Remember, you’re only human!
No performance is perfect. No matter how hard we try, we all make mistakes. Don't feel like you've failed if things didn't go perfectly. Take the pressure off yourself. If you did your best but it didn’t work out, why are you annoyed with yourself? By reducing the pressure you place upon yourself, you’ll usually deliver a better show anyway.
Illegal drugs or alcohol may put a quick band-aid on the issue but this is not recommended. A more constructive and longer term approach such as learning to manage your anxiety is the best way forward.
Prescribed medications are available that can lower anxiety levels such as beta-blockers. This may be useful whilst you’re getting a grip on the problem or if you simply can’t cope. Speak to your GP if you’re struggling.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
If you're finding your anxiety particularly bad, it’s important to get help. Try speaking with a CBT trained therapist, ideally a practitioner that has helped other musicians or performers.
CBT is a talking therapy commonly used to help people with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder amongst others. A CBT therapist will help identify thoughts, beliefs, behaviours and attitudes that may be triggering your anxiety further. Don’t feel like you’ve failed because you need extra help. Identifying a vulnerability and getting help resolving it is a great strength.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was developed in the 1980s by psychologist Steven C. Hayes, a professor at the University of Nevada. Rather than avoiding, denying, and struggling with emotions, ACT teaches us to accept these as appropriate responses to difficult situations that should not prevent us from moving forward. ACT helps people with various conditions but has been shown to be particularly effective at combating anxiety.
The Alexander technique
Developed by the Australian actor F. Matthias Alexander and taught at many performing arts schools worldwide, The Alexander technique focuses on improving body awareness and movement patterns. Specialists work with individuals to help them release unnecessary tension, improve balance and coordination, and restore natural alignment, through verbal instruction and gentle hands-on guidance.
The technique emphasises the proper use of the head, neck, and spine, as these areas play a significant role in overall posture and movement.
The Alexander Technique goes beyond teaching posture and movement. It also teaches responses to stressful situations.
Musicians may also benefit from a reduced chance of repetitive strain injury by employing the Alexander technique as it improves the quality of movement.
Unlearning the conditioned stress response forms the basis of Systematic Desensitisation. Reducing anxiety usually involves getting the patient to imagine they’re in the threatening environment. As they become stressed, they use relaxation techniques to counter the anxiety. Repeating this process allows the patient to manage the anxiety. Once this has been achieved, the technique can be used in a real world situation.
Sports people have been using the power of their imagination in an attempt to increase performance. It’s become common to see an athlete rehearsing an event before actually setting off down the track. You may see racing drivers, eyes shut in the pits before they head out to qualify.
Visualising can also help calm us. Imagine sitting on a quiet tranquil beach. Heat from the sun beams through the blue sky keeping you warm, you can hear the waves gently lapping up against the sand. The water is crystal clear. You feel calm.
When stress builds, you can go to this place or any place you find relaxing, in your imagination.
Some people will imagine playing the piece or a song from the show they are about to perform. Imagining the song in detail, note by note.
Breathing techniques combined with visualisation can have a very calming effect.
Share your struggles
Share how you feel with family, friends and other musicians or performers. Talk to them about the steps you’ve taken to bring down your anxiety level. Find out whether other performers you speak to have suffered and if so how they cope. Let’s get this problem out in the open.
Some anxiety before a performance is normal. However if you’re struggling to cope or finding it affects your performance, the above tips should help you regain some control over this annoying and sometimes debilitating condition. You may need to experiment to see what works for you. Always seek help if you’re really struggling.
I believe we have covered the majority of the methods that can really help in this article. Ultimately, you may need a combination of measures in order to get your pre-show anxiety to normal levels. Always remember your anxiety is a perfectly normal and natural response which is best managed rather than fought.
We hope you found this information useful and thanks for reading! If you’ve already dealt with performance anxiety, what helped you? Please share your experiences in a comment below, we would love to hear your insights.