How to Deal with Performance Anxiety: Channel Your Energy and Conquer the Stage

Performance AnxietyYou’ve put in hundreds of hours of practice on your program, your dress rehearsal went really well, and this is the best preparation you’ve had for any performance in your life. Why, then, ten minutes before walking on stage, are your hands shaking uncontrollably? How are you going to make it through the whole program without succumbing to the nausea?

Just about every musician at some point in their career has had at least some anxiety about performing. For most performers it is a normal, manageable part of show business. But what do you do if it starts to affect your performance?

Advance Preparations

The first and most obvious thing to do is to take steps to reduce the anxiety to a manageable level. First, I will outline some actions to take well in advance of the performance, then I will offer you my proven four-step plan for calming your nerves on the day of the show.

Plan for Every Contingency

Imagine all of the possible bad scenarios that might be causing your fear, and write them down. Then, for each of these possible scary situations, make a plan to minimize the possibility of it happening and a plan for how to react positively if the feared scenario occurs.

Later, you will want to practice putting yourself in a situation where you can practice reacting in the way that you’ve planned. Be careful to do this in a way that does not rehearse mistakes into your performance. By getting good at dealing with worst-case scenarios, you will gain a great deal of confidence knowing that you’ve got all of the contingencies covered.

Between the Dress Rehearsal and the Performance

Once you have made certain that your ability to perform your selected repertoire under pressure is rock-solid, and you have run through your program multiple times in a variety of pressure situations, turn your attention to setting up a plan that will minimize the physical and psychological stress.

Eliminate Tangential Stress

A key component of getting your stress level down will be anticipating and removing other sources of frustration or difficulty. Have a plan for all of the little details that can sap your attention or energy. This includes making sure to get enough sleep as you approach your concert date and having a plan for eating well, especially right before you go on stage.

Prepare Your Body

In addition to sleep, nutrition, and exercise, your body will respond better to the stress of performing if you establish a routine of physical relaxation before each of your dress rehearsals. Take a moment to stretch briefly, walk around for a few minutes, and take some deep breaths. This will also give your mind a moment to freshen up and prepare for the focused attention to come.

Find the Right Perspective

This part is a little bit tricky. You are performing because it matters to you (or to someone significant to you), so it is important that you take it seriously. At the same time, you must keep in mind that your performance is not a life-or-death matter, and there is no chance that world would remember you in infamy, even if you totally crash and burn.

The right perspective will influence how you prepare and how you approach the performance, so spend a lot of time working on sorting out what parts of your effort on stage matter and what parts don’t. Take the big picture seriously (i.e. the musical ideas that you are trying to convey, the experience of sharing your music-making, etc.), but not the details.

Consider Your Audience

AudienceImagine yourself in the audience listening to a performance by someone you like. How do you react when they slip up or lose their place in the music? Do you cringe? Do you hold your breath for them? Are you happy when they get back on track? If they go on to do really well, how much does it matter to you that there was an imperfection?

Most audiences are like you: they are rooting for you and trying to hear what insights you have to offer instead of your mistakes. If you can’t avoid a mistake, you can still avoid a cringe response in the audience by not drawing attention to the mistake. Audiences generally are not poised to judge you and humiliate you when you mess up. Just about every audience in show business is looking to relate to you and are hoping that you will do well.

Make a plan right now that when the nerves strike, you will remember the two perspective shifts that will set you up for success:

  1. Focus on the big picture, and don’t take the details seriously.
  2. Imagine yourself in the audience, and do what would make you happiest as an audience member.

Backstage and On Stage

Now that you have executed your plans for low-stress preparations on the day before and the day of the performance, it is time to execute your backstage and onstage plans. Here are the four steps to take so that you can focus your energy on your music-making.

Take a Moment to Center Yourself

Chances are good that you will have arrived early and have some time to kill backstage before going on. Take your time as you go through the routine that you established in your dress rehearsals. Take a walk, stretch, take some slow deep breaths. Then take time to remember and think through your perspective shifts and strategies for success. Keep them firmly in mind as you calmly mentally rehearse your way through the performance.

Take a Fear Measurement

You probably will have some physical manifestations of anxiety at this point, perhaps including butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, or trembling of the hands. These are fine and the energy that your body is producing to give you these symptoms is there to help you focus on the job at hand. With all of the preparations that you have made, you will have minimized this fear response as much as possible. Whatever anxiety level you are feeling right before you go on stage is what you will use to your advantage. Here is how.

Redirect Your Energy

Now that you have measured your nervousness and are physically feeling your energy, this is the moment when you can convert it into excitement. Banish all thoughts of what you are afraid of and with all of the anxious energy that you have built up focus intensely on the positive goals that you have for the performance. Why is it important to you? What do you hope to accomplish? Get excited about the fact that this is your opportunity to achieve these goals.

Spend the rest of your time until you walk out on stage working to keep your mind on your loftiest objectives. Use your imagination and picture each of the positive results that this performance could bring. With the right focus, you can channel your energy into achieving your performing goals and convert your feelings into anticipation and enthusiasm.

Your Strategy On Stage

As you walk into the performance space, the number of strategies, priorities, plans, and logistics that you will be able to keep in mind will inevitably drop. That’s okay, because there is only one priority that you need to keep in your mind, and that is to quiet everything else and just make music.

Much of your preparation has involved judging your own performance. It is important to make sure that some of your preparation involved practicing playing without judging yourself. On stage, you have to be able to turn off your ego and self-consciousness and just play. This skill can be practiced.

You don’t have to think so hard to play. You can rely on your preparation to get the job done. Surely there were moments when you played with your mind disengaged in practice. This means that the music is going to happen whether or not you are worrying about the difficult passagework on the third page or mentally patting yourself on the back for executing the cadenza skillfully. In fact, these distracting thoughts will make a slip up more likely.

Instead, just be in the present while playing. Any thoughts of what happened earlier or what needs to happen later need to be quashed. You can do this by vividly hearing in your imagination the music that you are playing now and focusing on making it sound like the mental picture you are conjuring. If any verbal thoughts start to arise again, remember just to go back to singing the music in your mind as you play.

I hope that this approach helps you in your next big gig. Break a leg!

Reference: Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans. (Hack #54, p. 211).

Robert Kelley

About Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a music theorist, composer, pianist, harpsichordist, and Associate Professor of Music at Lander University, in Greenwood, South Carolina.
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