Performance “Anxiety”

We don’t often talk about the act of performing itself until students are struggling with performance anxiety, or at the very advanced or collegiate level facing rigorous auditions and high pressure performances.

I don’t have a great forum to communicate with parents what we work on in class and group class regarding performance- just like theory, little bits are usually just integrated into the lesson as a whole.  So, while students get to work on performance skills as we go, and hopefully have a toolbox full by the time they reach those high pressure performances, parents might appreciate some basics as well!  Hopefully it can help you support your student or open up some dialogue.  Performances aren’t just limited to music after all!  These skills go a long way in public speaking, interviews, and in the classroom.

These bullet points are a excerpt of the performance psychology portion of my syllabus for the SF Conservatory class, and what I see as the “basics”.  For brevity’s sake I haven’t sited the studies and sources contributing to this information here. I’m more than happy to point you to those if you have interest!

  • Good performing is a learned skill. We like to say some people are “natural performers” and certainly for some, the skills used for performing come pretty easy.  It is essential to remember, however, that it is a learned skill (or rather, set of skills), and that anyone can learn it, or learn to do it better. It doesn’t even seem to matter if you’re introverted or extroverted according to studies on the subject. It can be helpful to keep in mind that everyone “chokes” at some point, and everyone messes up a performance at some point (everyone!). The good performers just learn and revise and get better, which takes some mental toughness (that’s also a learned skill, by the way).
  • Don’t tell performers who get anxious to relax. Performers who try and “reframe” their anxiety (negative) as excitement (positive) perform better than those who try to calm down. One possible reason for this effect is that we rarely are able to actually calm down (and trying and failing to calm down can be an added stressor), but excitement and anxiety are both “high energy”, an easier switch to make. Even in professionals, the fear of performance anxiety can create a vicious cycle that just leads to more actual performance anxiety.
  • Cheerlead cautiously.  Comments like “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine!” and “There’s nothing to worry about!” can actually harm good coping skills by causing performers to dwell on the idea that they shouldn’t be nervous, or what might happen if they don’t do fine (don’t think about elephants! What did you just think about?). Instead, try something that isn’t outcome based (see below), sticks to your own experience, and doesn’t negate feelings of anxiousness: “I’m looking forward to hearing you play”, “It’s so neat to see you get up on stage”, etc.
  • Performers who are a little “nervous” do better than those who are totally calm.  There’s a really common assumption that being nervous is bad- not true!  A super calm performer will have less investment in the performance and play worse than one who is a bit nervous (which can make for good awareness and focus). On the other hand, a performer with a lot of nerves, especially when  the natural physical responses kick in, will perform worse than a performer with fewer nerves. The key is that the point at which performance goes from bad to good to bad is different for everyone. “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation.”  ~Unknown
  • It’s all about focus.  Focusing on the music, in the moment, makes for the best performances- and focus can be practiced.  When performers dwell on the many distractions inevitable in each performance (“Everyone’s looking at me!”, “Here comes the hard part!”, “I always mess this up”, “I just DID mess that up”!), there’s less ability to focus on just playing, and performance is compromised. It’s really huge to “stay in the moment”.
  • Performance is process, not outcome, based. In other words, being a good performer is all about preparation, for “preparation’s sake”, rather than outcome (an award, a win, a perfect performance, etc). What is clear is that when the focus is on outcome, performance suffers (there’s also a high drop-out and burn-out correlation for outcome based learning). Ideally, we perform what we practiced, and practice and preparation is all we can control.
  • Good performances don’t happen on performance day. Many performers feel like they have to make something “new” or “extra” happen at a performance that didn’t happen in practice. In reality, the only thing that performers really control when they perform is their attitude and coping. Ideally, we perform just what we rehearsed, with a little natural (ideally positive!) boost from excitement/nerves. Being very prepared makes a complicated task like playing an instrument a lot easier and leaves more room for all the hard work of focusing and being creative in front of lots of eyes!Feeling prepared has the added benefit of helping with positive thinking which in turn is related to ‘positive coping’- which results in better performing. A note here: playing something perfectly oncein rehearsal probably won’t result in a perfect performance (unless you’re super lucky!).  The added performance distractions mean every thing you missed in rehearsal at any point and didn’t solidly fix will probably all happen in performance.  That’s one reason for the memorization tradition- if it’s memorized, you probably know it better. “Messing up” in performance is more about practice or preparation, rather than any specific performance failing.
  • Fail, and fail, and fail. And fail!