Violinist and performance consultant Berenice Beverley Zammit shares some helpful reminders for those dealing with stage fright, including why you should regard yourself as a superhero
1. What is performance anxiety, or stage fright?
Performance anxiety is a survival response. Whenever we get into an uncertain situation, our brain evaluates our chances of success by deciding whether the resources we have are adequate to handle the demands of the situation. It’s all about your perception of your resources and the situational demand.
2. What effect does it have on me?
There are two aspects of performance anxiety: the physical and the mental aspect. The physical aspect manifests itself in cold hands, palpitations, dry mouth and so on. In string instrumentalists for example, tension may result in bow shakes. The mental aspect, on the other hand, manifests itself in worries and in catastrophising thoughts such as the fear of making mistakes which you have never done before, or sudden memory loss. So performance anxiety is a multi-dimensional construct because of these two aspects. Each of these aspects affects performance differently.
3. Why do I get nervous?
This is a fight or flight response which represents the options our ancient ancestors could choose from when dealing with dangerous environments. When we are faced with a threatening situation our first impulse is to either fight or run away to protect ourselves. To help us do this our body produces adrenalin. But on stage we hardly ever face a threatening situation which calls for us to either fight or run away. Yet, our old instincts re-surface and blood rushes to our big muscle groups readying us for flight right in the moment when what we need is complete control over our fine motor skills! Yet, that adrenaline can help us make our performances more electric, more vibrant.
4. Are some performances better than others?
The difference in performance happens because anxiety is made up of both the physical and the mental aspect. While too much or too little physical arousal may not be helpful to performance, the more cognitive anxiety you experience, the worse your performance is likely to be. While on a good day your physical arousal may be at a moderate level and your cognitive arousal very low, on a bad day you might be experiencing the same level of physical arousal, but cognitively your arousal might be at a high level.
5. How can I improve performance?
There are various strategies that one can adopt to cope with performance anxiety and improve performance. One of these is the use of pre-performance routines. I define pre-performance routines as a series of task-related thoughts and actions which a performer engages in systematically prior to performance. Research suggests that pre-performance routines are associated with optimising performance by, for example, shifting our attention to important task-relevant details before performing a skill. Pre-performance routines also prevent us from exerting too much conscious control over motor movements and facilitating more automatic control. What this means is that if you were to adopt a pre-performance routine before your performance, that routine would stop you from overthinking an upcoming slide or shift, which otherwise you might mess up. Instead, a pre-performance routine would help you focus on more important things like phrasing, facilitating automatic control over motor skills. After all, this is what we do when we practise - we don’t worry too much over shifts and slides – we play them automatically.
6. Is the strength within us?
You can’t just adopt a pre-performance routine prior to performance. You have to practise it day in and day out as part of your daily practice. Only then will it become a strength. Let’s take deep breathing as an example of a pre-performance routine. What is so surprising about deep breathing is that it is more of an effective tool to manage stress responses than you might think! The way we breathe in a stressful situation, in fact, can lower our anxiety in a pretty meaningful way. Research has shown that there are neurons in our system that monitor our breathing. They keep tabs on our breathing patterns and they use these to send signals to the brain on whether the body should tense up or relax. So if you can train yourself to take slow, deep breaths when you’re feeling anxious, this will trick your brain into thinking that you are relaxed, which will automatically reduce your anxiety.
7. Is it a mental game?
Performance anxiety happens to everyone. Some suffer more and others suffer less. For some it is facilitative, enhancing performance, while for others it is debilitative, making performance worse. But for those who suffer from debilitative performance, there are ways of coping with it and of turning it around even, making it work for themselves, owning it. One thing that you can do if you suffer from debilitative performance anxiety is imagine yourself a superhero! Some great performers nowadays imagine donning their superhero costume while in their room backstage, transitioning into their character and acquiring their superpowers before they hit the stage. That feeling of empowerment that this image transmits to you is exactly what should stay with you on stage. Because you truly are a superhero! You have spent hours on end perfecting your craft. People have come to enjoy your music, not to criticise you. Of course, there will be one or two expert ears but you own the stage right now. The stage is yours. This is the moment that YOU have chosen to connect with the audience. This is the time you have chosen to let people connect to the inner you, your music, your craft, your creation.
8. How can I compete?
Music students need to be better prepared for a career in music. They face continuous judgement in the form of examinations, auditions and competitions, yet they are not being prepared in how to deal with all these stressors. They need to be told that performance anxiety is a common phenomenon, that it is OK to suffer from it, but that there are strategies that they can adopt which can help them deal with it and which can help them perform better under pressure. At the moment, the situation is a little like being thrown into the sea when you have only ever practised swimming in the pool, so you have no clue as to how to handle the current and the waves. Conservatoires need to invest in packages or modules where students are introduced to coping strategies. If you don’t know that there are coping strategies out there, and you are not being taught what these are, how can you choose which one to try and decide on the one that works best for you?
9. Is it OK to make mistakes?
Musicians don’t tend to distinguish between them the person versus them the musician. When a performance doesn’t go well, or when we fail an audition or don’t win a competition, we tend to feel that we have failed as a musician and as a person. This is because we have invested so much of our time to our craft so early on in life. We have tirelessly worked at being the best version of ourselves for years and years and we become unable to distinguish between who we are and what we do. But we must. Our mental health depends on this too. As much as you don’t like being separated from your craft, a little distancing does a world of good.
10. Am I a superhero?
Perfect performances do not exist – for that we have recordings! The performer is a breathing human being, living and creating his or her own experiences. Their strengths as well as their mistakes are what make the performance interesting. When you bring yourself down because of a few mistakes during performance, think again. The probability is that most people in the audience won’t realise your mistakes. For all you know, others might think of them as personal interpretation. What’s important is that during performance you are in the present moment. During performance, you are interpreting and communicating emotion to the audience. The audience is living the experience you are shaping for them. So yes, you are a superhero. The audience depends on you. You are the one in charge of delivering the best experience the audience will live that evening. So embrace everything that you are and what you have given them, including your mistakes.
Berenice Beverley Zammit is a performance consultant and a professional violinist. She is a graduate teaching assistant for Healthy Musician, Music Performance Psychology I and II, and Performing Arts in Health and Wellbeing at the Centre for Performance Science, Royal College of Music (RCM). Berenice is also a PhD candidate investigating performance optimisation through pre-performance routines in professional classical musicians. Her particular area of interest lies in physical fitness and physical exercise, and the implications these carry on professional classical musicians’ performance, general health and wellbeing.