Performance anxiety is an issue for numerous musicians, from beginner to veteran. With symptoms ranging from the shakes to a full blown disappearance of skill, once that ball is rolling how do you stop it? Classical Music Indy asked Dr. Miranda George, a trumpet player, vocalist, and teacher who has lectured and written about performance anxiety, to write a three part series on the topic. In this second article of her three part series, Dr. George explains key strategies that sufferers from stage fright can implement to keep them on track. You can find Part 1 of this series here.
Antidotes for Performance Anxiety, Part 2: Strategies
Applause. A soloist walks onto the stage with her pianist. She connects to her audience right away, acknowledging them with a smile that conveys her gratitude for their presence. After a bow, she looks to her collaborator. Together they take a breath to begin. The music flows from them, captivating their listeners. There is no doubt that the piece has been internalized, that this soloist commits to fundamental study in a way that allows for unbridled expression, bringing compositions to life in a beautiful way that is unique to her. With vulnerability and daring, she tells a story, and she loves every minute.
While this is a familiar experience for some musicians, for others, joyful, connected music making remains a dream, a goal yet to be attained, and that is okay. Countless musicians experience performance anxiety. This struggle is normal. Whether met with the turbulence of adrenaline, the discomfort of instability, or the shutdown of shame, many musicians have strategies they employ to be able to perform. They do the best they can to make it happen. Musicians are past due for a more helpful perspective concerning the challenges of performance anxiety.
Though disruptive, performance anxiety may help steer musicians toward a healthier approach to music making. Consider the soloist above: No doubt this musician has talent. Does she have a positive attitude? Does she set reasonable attainable goals, have kind intentions, and fair expectations? Is she authentic? Does she prioritize self-care? Does she believe in herself, does she trust her preparation? Does she practice gratitude? Is she self-compassionate when she makes mistakes? More than likely, all answers point to yes.
Whether caused by adrenaline, instability, or shame, the following are examples of short-term and long-term strategies that may help musicians move through performance anxiety into relaxation, focus, and flow.
Breathing in and out very slowly is a short-term strategy that helps calm the body and increase focus.1 Stay aware of how you feel and pause between repetitions if feeling faint or dizzy.
Box Breathing Exercise
- Start by breathing out all of the air in the lungs, and keep the lungs empty for a slow four count hold.
- Then, inhale for 4 counts through the nose.
- Suspend/hold the breath for 4 counts (maintain an open feeling or a feeling of “surprise”).
- Release the suspension and exhale for 4 counts.2
Repeat all four steps.
Optional: Increase the count for each step from 5 to 8 seconds. If breathing slowly at larger counts is too difficult, try breathing in through rounded lips (as if saying ‘ooh’) and breathing out on an ‘s’ sound.
If experiencing shakiness within the performance of a piece, slowly breathe in before the next phrase. Instead of breathing in the preceding beat, slowly breathe in for the preceding one measure or two. This must be practiced in order to be effectively utilized.
Another short-term strategy is described in Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. Cuddy explains that holding a posture of confidence may help boost feelings of confidence, even if plagued with feelings of doubt. Power posing chemically changes your body (lowers cortisol, raises testosterone), and may alleviate symptoms of the fight or flight response.3
- Stand like Superman or Wonder Woman, feet shoulder width apart, hands on hips, chest up, shoulders back, chin level.
- Hold this pose for two minutes (or up to five minutes).
For many musicians who experience performance anxiety, their first instinct is to attempt to run away from it. Responding to performance anxiety with panic will only make things worse. Self-compassion is a short-term solution that helps dissipate uncomfortable symptoms by treating oneself like a dear friend would be treated in the same situation.4 Write down or say out loud:
- “I am struggling with _____________________ (name symptoms, i.e. tense, shaky, short of breath, unable to focus, etc.) That is because I feel __________________ (name emotion, i.e. excited, scared, uncomfortable, doubtful, etc.).”
- “It is okay that I feel this way.”
- “I’m not alone. I’m not the only one who experiences this.”
- “This feeling is temporary.” (be sure not to over-identify with emotions, symptoms)
- “I am doing the best I can with what I have.”
Some musicians experience performance anxiety out of a fear of uncertainty. The antidote to this fear is gratitude. Speak gratitude out loud, write it down in a journal, or record it in a voice memo. List everything you may possibly think of. The state of gratitude may fade, so daily practice is necessary in order to embrace uncertainty.5 This strategy works well in the short-term and works even better as a habit in the long-term.
Believe in yourself. Musicians who approach practice and performance with faith that diligent work will bear fruit, are more likely to experience their best music making than those who wait for evidence that the work will work. Many musicians are highly capable just by virtue of being human. With dedication, human beings have been able to accomplish incredible things. When it comes to confidence, having faith in oneself is paramount.
Meditation is an acquired skill, and training the mind to be present and focused requires time and patience, but this is one of the greatest tools there are for managing thoughts and feelings.6
Moving Through Shame
- Acknowledge what you are feeling (“I am feeling shame”). What is the shame ‘tape’ saying? (i.e. “You’re not good enough” or “Who do you think you are?”) When was the first time you heard this message? From who? What was the frequency of hearing this message? Did you hear this from more than one person?
- Reality check the message. Practice self-compassion, speak to yourself like you would to someone you love.
- Share your story of struggle with someone you trust. Seek empathy. Find someone who will hear what you’re saying and respond, “That’s so hard. I know how you feel. I’m with you.” Shame cannot survive empathy.7
Working through shame takes time and involves the examination of painful memories. What makes this process difficult is that the origin of shame may be the words of beloved family members, friends, or teachers. This process may require reexamining traumatic experiences such as bullying or abuse. In the case of trauma, enlisting the help of mental health professionals or counselors is invaluable for working through shame to owning the irrefutable truth: “You are imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging…you are enough.”8
Part three of this series will discuss environmental solutions that teachers may employ in order to foster performance confidence as a culture in their classrooms. In addition to helpful actions that create nurturing in teacher to student and student to student relationships, a teacher/student self-inventory will help highlight a path to resilience. Begin a conversation with fellow musicians, teachers, and students, “How may we help each other build confidence in the classroom?” A willingness to change is often the spark for the hope and personal power to step toward freedom in music making.
Read Antidotes for Performance Anxiety Part 3: Environment, here.
1. [Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response – Harvard Health. Harvard Health Publications, January 2015. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response.]↩
2. [The Breathing Technique a Navy SEAL Uses to Stay Calm and Focused. Motto: Words to Live By – From the Editors of TIME, May 2016. http://motto.time.com/4316151/breathing-technique-navy-seal-calm-focused/.]↩
3. [Cuddy, Amy. Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. TEDGlobal, June 2012.]↩
4. [Neff, Kristin.Self-compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow, 2011. Print.]↩
5. [Brown, Brené.The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage. 2012.  Headspace.]↩
6. [Puddicombe, Andi. Mindfulness and Mental Toughness. Headspace: Mind/Mind Science. https://www.headspace.com/
7. [Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY : Gotham Books, 2012.]↩
8. [Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability. TEDxHouston, June 2010.]↩
Dr. Miranda George is an active writer and lecturer on the topic of performance anxiety in musicians. She has received invitations to speak in public schools, universities, and in conferences such as the Texas Music Educators Association Convention and the Midwest Clinic. Dr. George recently finished her fifth year on the music faculty of the University of Texas at Arlington, and she is a private trumpet and voice teacher for Coppell Middle School East. To learn more about Dr. Miranda George and to read more of her writing, visit her Facebook Page here.