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Overcoming Performance Anxiety: A Personal Perspective

I’ve spent much of my violin-playing life struggling with performance anxiety. Despite longing for a life performing the violin for others, I often felt incapacitated by tension, loss of fine motor control, and racing thoughts at auditions, juries, masterclasses, and solo recitals.


Fortunately, all of this is finally changing. I recently played a recital where I felt so good while I was performing, I was genuinely inspired afterwards to write the following reflection:


My practice allows me to spend time each day getting to know myself and my violin, finding sounds and gestures that delight and move me, trying to imagine what a composer wanted to communicate, and finding just the right tonal colors, dynamic shapes, and pacing to bring those intentions to life. My private violin practice is, in its own right, a deeply fulfilling artistic and meditative practice. But what happens in the moment of performance, when we finally get to share the fruits of our practice with an audience? There’s an energy that we can only create communally. There’s more electricity in the air, more magic. We’re forced to put aside our perfectionism and surrender to the moment. 


My 18-year-old self would have trouble believing a solo recital could ever feel that way.

If you already experience performances as magical moments of communal energy, congratulations! But if you feel, as my younger self felt, like the presence of an audience ruins all of your hard work, like you struggle to maintain control of your mind and body, then maybe my older and wiser self can help.


How I got from there to here

Because I’ve been trying so many strategies for so long, it’s hard to point to one magic bullet that changed everything. I’ve played informal concerts in living rooms and nursing homes with supportive mentors by my side (highly recommended), I’ve taken beta blockers (more on that later), and I’ve done biofeedback with electrodes stuck to my head (mmmm… maybe not.) I believe that for me it has been the accumulation of experiences, ideas, and mindsets that have come together gradually to allow me to finally get out of my own way, trust the hard work, give in to the excitement, and enjoy the magic of sharing with an audience. So try out as many of these ideas as you can and see what works for you!


Preparation

There’s no way around the need for really solid, thorough preparation. Sometimes we’re scared of messing up because deep down we know that actually… we’re pretty likely to mess up. What does it take to be fully prepared for performance? 


I could write a whole book (and many have!) about practice techniques and strategies, so I’ll save that for a separate post. A few general suggestions: space it out over time, come at it from as many angles as possible, use everything as an opportunity to gather more information and learn from your mistakes.


In terms of planning my preparation, I have found it helpful to “reverse engineer” for performances and auditions, which means starting with the date of performance and working backwards to make a plan for when you want to achieve certain milestones in your preparation (I got this idea from Renee-Paule Gauthier! Thanks, Renee!) If there are technical issues that arise as I learn the piece, I need to have fully worked through those issues well before the performance date. When do I want to have all of the notes learned, fingerings and bowings and phrases planned? Memorized? Up to tempo? Able to play a run-through without stops? (Hint: NOT the night before!) I know I need to schedule mock performances for family and friends, because the only way to know what will happen in performance is to practice performing. I make sure to include plenty of recording in my practice so that I always have an honest, objective view of how it’s going. 


I know I will probably have to revise my plan along the way, but that’s fine! The constant assessment and reassessment of what I need to do to reach my goal is a large part of the value of the exercise of “reverse engineering.” 


What if it’s almost performance time and we realize we’re not ready? 

Well, it depends. If it’s possible to reschedule or postpone, that might be the best choice! I have certainly decided not to take certain auditions because I just did not feel well enough prepared. We don’t want to walk into a high-stakes performance situation knowing we simply haven’t done the work required, full of doubts and misgivings, compounding any negative associations we already have around performing. At the same time, if we wait for 100% perfection, we’ll never perform. We’re people, not machines! 


If we’re not quite as well prepared as we had hoped but have reason to believe we can still create a meaningful performance, I think it’s fine to go ahead with it, but we need to examine our mindset and expectations first. We must accept where we are, know that this performance is just one step in a life-long journey, and commit to playing from the heart, despite the inevitable imperfections. Even the most dedicated preparation and planning cannot guarantee flawless performance anyways, so this attitude of self-compassion is really necessary, no matter how awesome our preparation has been. 


More on mindset

We can either experience a performance as a challenge (ok, this is going to be hard, but I have what it takes to meet the demand) or a threat (this is hard and I’m not sure I’m up to the task). This distinction has been shown to have a huge effect on how our bodies respond to the situation, so we want to make a conscious decision to frame the upcoming performance in our minds as a challenging but surmountable task. If it feels like you’re lying to yourself, just repeating some kind of empty affirmation, it won’t work. You need to find a way of thinking about this that really works for you, and is based on reality.


Find a goal, intention, or purpose that works in your favor: if your goal is to “not mess up” or “not embarrass myself” or “avoid failure,” you’re setting yourself up to mess up, embarrass yourself, and fail. Instead of a fear-based goal, find a positive and fulfilling goal. Can you think of your music as a gift that you want to share from the heart, being fully present in the moment of giving? Or maybe get involved in telling a story through the music, and focus on taking your audience on a dramatic and emotional adventure? See yourself as an empty vessel through which the music you love so much can flow. Find one of these goals (or make up your own) that makes sense to you and keeps your focus continually attached to the next positive action you need to take.


Working with, not against, the butterflies

When we perform under pressure, our autonomic nervous system IS aroused, or activated. Some level of activation/arousal actually enhances our performance; that’s where the magic happens! However, sometimes when we feel butterflies in our stomachs or shaky arms or legs or a rapid heart beat, we label it as nervousness and freak out about freaking out, escalating the problem. Expect and accept that some activation will occur, and it’s much more likely to stay at a level that enhances, rather than sabotages, your performance. That activation is just a sign that you’re about to do something you care about, that you’re excited about! 


There are certain physiological responses that you can expect, but they differ slightly from person to person. Some people (me!) experience digestive issues, so maybe it’s going to be a ginger tea and rice cakes kind of day. That’s manageable when you have a plan to deal with it. Most people fall EITHER into the cold hands or sweaty palms category. If cold hands (me!), dress warmly and be prepared with hand warmers, hot tea, etc. If you’re a sweaty palms person, be ready with a soft clean cloth with a little baby powder sprinkled on it to wipe your hands as needed. If your heart is racing, long, slow exhales should bring it back to a manageable tempo.


So, what about beta-blockers?

I mentioned that I have tried beta-blockers in the past. I don’t use them any more. Beta-blockers won’t fix your psychology, but they can stop the physical effects (increased heart-rate, shaky boy arm) of the adrenaline that floods your system in the moment of performance. My feeling is that if you’re taking a really high-stakes audition where 100% control is necessary and the judges are going to decide in the first 30 seconds whether to keep listening, it might be the right choice. I haven’t been taking this kind of audition lately. For a recital, I prefer not to use beta-blockers because while they block the shakes, they also can block some of the positive effects of adrenaline: the excitement! I also didn’t want to become too dependent on them, so I decided I needed to work through my relationship with performing unmedicated.


One last thought: self-worth 

Aside from all of these tools directly aimed at improving your performance, there’s one critical factor that can’t be ignored. As long as our sense of self-worth is completely wrapped up in how the performance is going, we’re in for an uphill battle. For me, becoming a mom helped put things into perspective, and generally getting more comfortable in my skin as I got older, but we all can start working on self-acceptance, self-compassion, and seeing ourselves as whole people worthy of love and respect today, no matter our current stage of life.


Resources

Online Resources: There are many people doing great work on the subject of performance psychology and preparing for performance.  Here are a few recommendations:


  • Renee-Paule Gauthier has helped me so much; she’s incredibly dedicated to her clients and has an enormous wealth of information and strategies that she actually uses in her life as a world-class performer and performance coach. 

  • Noa Kageyama is at the forefront of performance psychology for musicians. Check out his podcast, courses, and blog “The Bulletproof Musician.”

  • Don Greene is the original peak-performance psychologist and has trained thousands of musicians to win auditions.

  • Lisa Chisolm’s workshop “Master Performing” was super-informative, and she also does private coachings and has a book coming out soon.

  • Molly Gebrian has lots of science-backed strategies for effective practice and better performance outcomes.

Books: Some of these went way over my head the first time I read them, but there’s a lot of wisdom here when you’re ready to absorb it. 


If you’re suffering from music performance anxiety, I hope this was helpful. I would love to hear from you in the comments below.


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rjtallon
Feb 20

What a helpful post!!!!! I love that..... "Work with the butterflies!" I also love the idea of realizing that you should not put your self-worth on the line for every performance. Thanks, Emily! Looking forward to future posts... great teacher and now, great blogger!

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