Performance Anxiety

Performers tend to be private about their own performance anxiety. Although its effects are often apparent to the listener, it’s difficult to admit there were blips at all, and even more difficult to dig into the biological and psychological reasons why. Sometimes we avoid discussing the problem; in my experience a big gaffe in a recital is much more likely to elicit compliments about what did go well rather than result in a conversation about why the mistakes happened. This is a totally appropriate audience response, because we support the performer – but eventually, there needs to be some post-performance evaluation that includes an inquiry into the topic of nerves. And, of course, taking auditions is a different kind of performance with its own list of stressors, unique from a recital or chamber music performance, and that might require its own separate investigation.

There are myriad resources available to help a performer address both biological and psychological responses to stress, from books to blogs to yoga. I’d like to share some things I’ve gathered directly from other performers or from reflections on my own performances (both those I’m satisfied with, and those in which I wished for a different outcome). Of course, since our stresses are individual and our musical and performance experiences personal, these probably won’t resonate with everyone – but I do think everyone can benefit from finding their own list of helpful self-hints to think about before performance.

  • Bring your own audience – I don’t mean this in a marketing sense; I mean this to be a visualization exercise, and it does take practice. Think back on successful performance and audition experiences you have had over the past several years, and think of the people who surrounded you in the preparation and execution of those experiences. For me, this became key when I was taking grad school auditions. I couldn’t get through my repertoire from memory in studio class the week before my first audition, and in a moment of panic I emailed a professor I’d studied chamber music with. She agreed to meet with me and spent a lot of time and energy helping me find my confidence again. She’s in my “own audience,” as are all the teachers I’ve had and other significant mentors – musical and otherwise – along the way. Friends and family don’t really count – this audience should be comprised of people who have helped you struggle through something and have bolstered your progress.
  • Diversify your interests and activities – I think it’s important that every student at a conservatory have a non-musical hobby, and, if possible, for all students to take intellectually challenging courses outside of the musical curriculum. There are several reasons for this, perhaps the most often cited being that you can’t create meaningful musical experiences in a vacuum – you must have other human experiences to draw upon. Personally, I believe that aside from having an obligation to yourself as a human to experience the world as richly as you can, you must also find something to commit time and energy to that you are not competitive about. This can be something that is intellectually stimulating or personally enriching like learning a language and immersing yourself in another culture, but it can also be as simple as committing to training for and running a race, or volunteering with a non-musical non-profit. This should be an activity that adds meaning to your life, gives you the opportunity to become a part of the non-musical community in your hometown, and challenges you without stressing you out. This year, I began to volunteer as a coach of a local Girls on the Run group. It has been wonderful to be a positive influence on the lives of others without once bringing my viola, and without undue emphasis on my line of work or place in life. To the girls on my team, I was “Coach Emily” – not “Emily the violist,” and although it’s difficult to describe, this is very important to me. Perhaps the best way to attempt an explanation is that it gives perspective to my musical pursuits; if it’s only a part of who I am and what I do, I can be a more whole person and give more of my whole self when I am playing.
  • Trust your fellow performers – This has been a big one for me. I’m more likely to be nervous for a chamber music concert than for a solo recital. I tend to get sympathetically nervous for the other performers on stage and to completely lose track of where I am in my own part, which of course leads to silly mistakes. I’ve been trying to learn to trust my fellows, which is a hard thing to practice without performing often. So there you have it – to trust your colleagues, perform with them as often as you are able in as many different settings as are available to you, from coffee shops to house concerts to sight-reading gigs. When the whole group is actively trusting one another, each individual plays better.
  • Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend – This is something I think we all could do more of all the time, not just in a musical setting. When a friend asks you to listen to repertoire for an upcoming performance, or when a colleague plays in studio class, we look for ways to give both constructive criticism and praise; neither of these modes of feedback is helpful without the other. The same is true when we are giving ourselves feedback while we practice, and even on our feet while we perform. In the practice room, it’s easy to get caught up in what isn’t going well, and we often forget to recognize and acknowledge the progress we are making. In performance, one mistake often leads to more mistakes because we immediately start in with negative self-talk. Instead – and again, this takes practice – in performance we should learn to recognize the good and mark the areas that need attention for later practice, and for the moment to let them go. In practice, work on giving yourself a comment in the same vein that you would give to a friend. Notice first what you are doing well, and then notice what you need to work on; give yourself concrete instructions about how to effect change, and act.
  • Breathe – You are no one’s surgeon. Your performance is probably going to make someone’s life better for at least a little while, but you most certainly won’t make it worse. Be grateful for what you are given the opportunity to do, breathe in, breathe out, and share your music.


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