by Dr. Klondike Steadman
Two weeks ago I was playing a concert of guitar music composed by my good friend Dr. Robert Bowen at his college in Southern California in front of all of his colleagues and students. I knew this concert meant a lot to him and I wanted to do well for the both of us.
The opening piece started just fine (though I was aware of some underlying nervousness), but then I hit a little quick passage that would normally be a breeze and surprisingly it didn’t come out the way I had intended. In the next movement I completely derailed on another fast part and suddenly my face flushed, my heart accelerated and my hands started to shake: My worst nightmare was coming true! “How can I possibly get through the rest of this concert like this?” I thought.
Like many professional musicians, I have had a history of struggling with performance anxiety. One recent survey reported that 70% of orchestral musicians reported performance anxiety has affected their performance, and another survey showed that as many as 16% of professional musicians said their stage fright had a negative impact on their careers. How many years, how often and at what level you perform seems to have little to do with how nervous you will feel. Some people are simply much more susceptible to feelings of intense fear and anxiety when they have to perform than others.
However, one of the advantages of suffering from a common problem with such severe and negative consequences is that a great deal of research, thought, and practice has gone into the solution. After experiencing several debilitating and embarrassing performance “meltdowns” in college, I decided to devote myself to studying and solving this possibly career-ending problem. I read many books, sought out the best advice and used every performance as a kind of testing ground for what works and what doesn’t. Through this process I was able to build a set of techniques that, while not curing me of stage fright, have allowed me the confidence to deal with it when it arises, minimize its effects and even, sometimes, use it to my advantage.
My research and the advice of others helped me to understand that performance anxiety is a complicated combination of normal physical and mental responses to performing that get amplified to abnormal levels for a variety of reasons – reasons that we can control. Here are a few:
These symptoms occur for a variety of reasons and are completely natural and, as I said, can be controlled. First of all, it is important to simply accept the fact that being nervous is natural and even appropriate to the situation: if you don’t care enough about the outcome of your performance to be at least a little nervous, you probably shouldn’t be a musician. It is only when these symptoms become amplified to unhealthy levels then there is a problem.
One way we tend to amplify the problem is taking each performance too seriously. Take a moment to think about the real consequences of your performance. Besides your own self-inflicted embarrassment, are you likely to lose your job, be kicked out of school, lose friends or anything else? Conversely, will you really be given a parade down Main Street, proclaimed the world’s greatest musician and be given a million dollars if you play your best? Most times, the difference in real life consequences between our best and our worst performance is probably extremely small. In my performance two weeks ago I perhaps had unconsciously built up the real-life consequences of my performance to unrealistic levels. No matter how I played that night, there was nothing going to be changed regarding our jobs, our friendship or even our reputations among the students and professors were unlikely to be seriously changed either.
Another common mistake is misjudging our own performance. In the moment, with an audience staring at us, the slightest mistake can seem like a complete disaster, which, in turn, can lead us to panic and despair. Some of the best advice ever given to me by my first guitar teacher was something he attributed to the great cellist Pablo Casals (said to a student) “The wrong notes are none of your business… your job is only to pay attention to the beautiful notes.” Since you cannot accurately judge your own performance while you are playing and since only the beautiful notes can help you play more beautifully, why not just give up judging yourself altogether (to whatever degree you can).
So I highly recommend sitting yourself down well ahead of the concert and having this little talk (maybe several times): “Self, we have prepared well. We love this music and know others will love it as too. When it comes time to perform we will certainly make some mistakes, but that’s OK and won’t really affect the outcome of our performance or anything in our life. Anyway, we can’t really tell what other people are going to enjoy, so why not just have some fun with it?”
Once the concert starts, we may still have some of the physical and mental symptoms of nervousness listed above, but they likely won’t be as out of control. There are literally hundreds of great techniques for dealing with these symptoms, but I will just list the few that I used the other night to get my performance back on track:
One final note: these techniques work for me, but they are just a few of the many I had to try out in performance situations before I found what works. If you don’t want to suffer from stage fright anymore, I encourage you to dedicate yourself to trying out a variety of techniques in many performance situations until you perfect your own routine that you can rely upon to work for you.