Written for the International Musician (April 2019), official journal of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada.
During my thirty-five year career as a peak performance psychologist, I have helped countless performing artists learn how to perform their best under pressure. My clients have won major auditions and competitions all over the world. I have never met a performing artist who has not felt some kind of performance stress. Whether they call it “nerves”, “stage fright”, or “performance anxiety”, the stress comes from fear. Fear of how it will go, fear of how people perceive them, fear of not performing at a high enough level, and so on. My goal is to help performers break down this fear and give them tools to combat it.
When musicians encounter highly stressful situations they tend to react instinctively. It does not matter whether something is really threatening their safety or if it is just a perceived threat (like an audition panel or an angry conductor). The perception of potential harm triggers the part of the brain known as the limbic system or emotional (not rational) mind.
If you are like my clients, then you have felt yourself getting nervous at an audition or performance. Your limbic system responds to your nerves by releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream and triggers physical changes to occur. Within nanoseconds, the heart starts to race and respiration increases. You become very alert and your senses become extra sharp. You start to feel shaky as you scan your environment for danger. Your muscles tighten and you begin to sweat. Sensing the extra energy surging through your system, your mind goes into overdrive. You may begin obsessing about the potential results and feel things like dread, self- consciousness, self-criticism, loss of focus, and confusion.
If a real danger was present, you would be ready to fight for your life or run away at record speed. But for many musicians, the physical and mental changes caused by this flight/fight response deteriorate their normal performance skills. The goal is to learn to use this extra energy to your advantage.
There are several things you can do to prevent your nerves from progressing out of control. First, try to figure out what are your most common symptoms of performance stress (i.e., racing heart, shakiness, butterflies, perspiring, cold limbs, racing thoughts, dry mouth, unfocused mind, etc.) Then, start keeping track of your sleep, food, hydration, and preparation level before the stressful performances. Adequate sleep helps quiet and focus the mind. Try to limit or eliminate caffeine, sugars, alcohol, and heavy meals. Proper hydration helps with dry mouth, jet lag, and adjusting to changes in climate for traveling performers. Feeling prepared always boosts confidence and, in turn, helps decrease performance stress symptoms.
Next, learn to accept that you may feel nervous. You can expect to feel a huge rush of energy before important performances or auditions. Instead of viewing adrenaline as a negative thing to overcome, you want to use it to your advantage by channeling it into the music. The energy will allow you to deliver exciting, intensely focused, and powerful performances that can move audiences and sway audition panels. Start to practice performing with that extra energy.
Set up your instrument and music, then turn on a recording device in a room. Step out of the room and do something to get your heartrate up like jumping jacks or run a flight of stairs. When your heart is pounding, enter the room and pick up your instrument. Take a slow, deep breath and relax the muscles that are actively involved in your playing. Ignore your racing heart and focus on what you need to do. Shift to your right brain by hearing the first phrase just the way you would like it to sound. Then, without hesitation, let it fly with reckless abandon, riding the extra energy that you feel. Stop after the first few phrases and turn off the recording device. Do not listen to the recordings until you’ve completed the exercise five to seven times. By then, you’ll get the idea and be ready to listen to your progress. You will have practiced performing your best with at least some of the symptoms you feel when you are under real pressure.
Dr. Don Greene’s Centering method is another great tool to help channel the mental and physical effects of performance stress into powerful performances.