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Release the Fear Monster: how to conquer performance anxiety and perform at your best

Brian Hodges and Diana Allan discuss the origins of stage fright and offer guidance on how to combat fear during performance

March 22, 2016

‘Why can’t I ever play these double-stops in tune? I can play it in the practice room, why can’t I on the stage?’

‘I’m not going to make this upcoming shift…’

‘I can’t stop my hand from shaking! Everyone is going to see it!’

‘I am going to have a memory slip, I just know it’

‘I’m a fraud, and the audience knows it’

If you have you ever had any of these thoughts on stage, chances are, you’ve been in the grip of the dreaded Fear Monster, more commonly known as music performance anxiety.

As a student, or as a performer, you may have dealt with music performance anxiety; as a teacher, you probably have students who struggle with some level of self-doubt and nervousness that doesn’t go away once the performance begins, and that inhibits their ability play at their best. The Fear Monster, as it were, is a very real thing, but it absolutely does not have to control you or your performances.

Before one can combat the fear, it is important to understand what it is, and where it comes from. Music performance anxiety, or MPA, has a variety of symptoms:

●    Emotional:  unhappiness, fearfulness, confusion, helplessness
●    Mental (or cognitive):  repetitive negative thoughts, difficulty concentrating
●    Physical:  shaking, upset stomach, headache, heart racing, sweating

When one feels the physical symptoms, one is experiencing the fight or flight response that emerges from the most primitive part of our brains. It developed to help protect us from impending danger. Danger? Are we talking about music — this thing we chose to do because we love it? We are not in literal physical danger, so why is our mind and body reacting as if we are?  We think we actually are in danger — danger to our self-esteem, our self-concept, and even our self-worth.

Our rational thoughts can turn into fears of:
●    embarrassing ourselves
●    disappointing ourselves or others
●    physical symptoms that interfere with playing:  shaking or sweating
●    making mistakes, or of not being perfect
●    not being good enough
●    simply failing, in general

Where does this come from? In truth, it comes from us.  It comes from our perceptions and the beliefs we form about ourselves and our abilities and skills.  MPA is of our own making.

Mindset

Our mindsets are a set of beliefs, and these beliefs can be compared to a lens — a lens through which we view our world, our performances, and ourselves.  Our mindset can be our greatest asset or our most debilitating hindrance.

Our basic mindset helps us determine:
●    what to pay attention to
●    how to interpret and draw meaning from our experiences
●    how to feel
●    how to cope or which strategies to choose in order to cope
●    what to consider motivating
●    what kinds of goals to pursue

The work of Dr Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, has shown that we operate out of two different mindsets: the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.  In the fixed mindset we are motivated to prove our ability, and to look talented and smart. (Sound familiar?) Those in the fixed mindset attempt to do this by comparing themselves to others, trying to impress people, and by avoiding risks that may challenge their image. Whereas, in the growth mindset, musicians are motivated by the desire to improve their ability and skills.  They can embrace risks and seek information and feedback they can use to grow and learn.

Naturally, there are lots of pressures on musicians to be good.  We want to make a good impression, but by focusing on this — the outcome of our music-making only leads to dissatisfaction and anxiety. With a growth mindset, we can see auditions, goals, and even setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. Adopting this mindset can help release the stronghold fear has on us.

How does one make this mindset shift from fixed to growth? For starters, think about the point of the performance. It’s to communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions. Very rarely, if ever, does someone wish to communicate nerves and self-doubt to an audience. A wise teacher once said: ‘If you’re focusing on what you want to say musically, you can’t be nervous.’ Simply put: start focusing on the music itself, and push the anxiety to the background. It’s not that your nerves will go away entirely, but you can learn to manage the pressure and have it work to your advantage in your performance.

As with any musical skill, this adjusting your mindset will take practice. Let’s look at a few ways you can practice this mental shift.

First of all, recognise that performing is a skill.  Performing is not the same as practising.  In practice, your thoughts are concerned with analysing and correcting.  In performance, you must turn down the volume on your analytic, coaching thoughts in order to trust your preparation and accept your performance for today.  You actually need to practise switching from practice to performance daily so you can practise managing the excitement and nervousness you feel during a typical performance.  The more you perform, the more prepared you are for the experience. Create performance opportunities. Play for anyone. Play anywhere. Play at all times of the day and week. Perform, perform, perform.

To further simulate the experience of performing on stage, you can engage in adversity practice.  This type of practice serves to sharpen and narrow your focus and concentration.  When you simulate distractions it helps you to practise keeping your focus on what is most important during performance.

Some ideas include:
1.    playing while wearing a heavy coat (overheated)
2.    playing with a fan blowing directly on you (cold hands)
3.    playing after having quickly climbed a couple of flights of stairs (to elevate your heart rate)
4.    playing while someone stands next to you and talking to you (concentration)
5.    playing while having audience talk loudly or answer a phone call (audience distraction)

Another crucial activity is reflection. Let’s say, something happens during a performance: your hands are shaking, your sense of intonation goes out the window, or you have a memory slip. Instead of beating yourself up about it, reflect on it.  Remember the growth mindset — looking for information you can use to grow and learn. Think about what happened, why it happened, and how you can correct if for the future.

Empowered and confident performers refuse to feed the Fear Monster/MPA and instead, feed the mindset and thoughts that help them perform their best when it matters most.

Watch: Violinist Hilary Hahn on dealing with performance nerves

Brian Hodges and Diana Allen appeared at the 2016 ASTA National Conference for the American String Teachers Association in Tampa, Florida.

Brian Hodges is an active soloist, chamber musician and teacher. He is associate professor of cello and coordinator of chamber music at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho. He is the principal cellist of the Boise Baroque Orchestra and performs regularly with Classical Revolution: Boise, which has been featured at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and live on the radio at Radio Boise. He can be reached at www.brianhodgescello.com.

Dr Diana Allan is associate professor of voice at The University of Texas at San Antonio as well as a certified peak performance coach.   She works one-on-one with musicians to help them assess both their strengths and challenges and teaches them how to cultivate the mental skills that will enable them to break through the barriers that prevent them from achieving optimal performance. Her website, Peak Performance for Musicians has a readership from 170 countries. 

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