How to manage Music Performance Anxiety (and anxiety in general)

Roisin Whyte and the Murphy Sisters performing at the Sofa Sessions (photo by Jonathan Ryder)

[I was invited to contribute a piece on managing Music Performance Anxiety for the Help Musicians UK blog, for World Mental Health Day. This is a longer version.]

My clearest memory of being gripped by performance anxiety was a solo during a jazz concert in Belfast. I was 17 and was performing an end-of-week concert for parents and friends, and had a 16-bar tenor sax solo in Summertime. All was well until the leader suggested that we soloists stand up when it was our turn to play. Having played in orchestras and sung in choirs all my life, this was the first time I was so visible, and the anxiety and self-consciousness were almost overwhelming. My teeth were rattling off the mouthpiece of the sax, I felt dizzy and clammy, and the feelings didn’t subside until I was finished and anonymously seated once more in the middle of the orchestra.

Many years later I began playing contemporary music publicly for the first time. I’d abandoned classical music after school, and I’d come to realise, after a crisis of acute depression, that a lack of musical activity was contributing to my poor mental health. I’d begun working on my issues, recognising and dealing with a history of social anxiety disorder and building my self-esteem— a path which led me to launch my coaching and training company, Soul Ambition. I started working with musicians and other performer clients, and began performing myself in numerous music projects. In 2014 I moved to Finland to study an MA in Music, Mind and Technology and began researching music and wellbeing in adults. From my studies and my coaching work, I have learned much about music performance anxiety and strategies for coping with it, which I’d like to share in this post.

Music Performance Anxiety (MPA)

Some level of stress or anxiety is normal and to be expected when performing in public. At healthy levels, stress can help us give an optimal performance – think of sportspeople ‘psyching themselves up’ for a competition in order to perform at their peak. When it becomes extreme, however, it is classed as an anxiety disorder or social phobia, with Music Performance Anxiety (MPA) being a recognised disorder amongst musicians.

State versus Trait anxiety & anxiety disorders

MPA can be experienced on its own, or alongside more general anxiety disorders. Social Anxiety Disorder primarily concerns acute worry about what others think of us and fear of being negatively judged. Generalised Anxiety Disorder is broader, encompassing a range of topics. Anxiety can also be viewed in terms of state versus trait anxiety. State anxiety refers to temporary feelings of anxiety that arise in response to a specific situation, such as a music performance. Trait anxiety is more general and long-lasting; an individual with trait anxiety feels intensely anxious for a longer period of time, in a wider range of situations.

There are genetic components to trait anxiety, and our childhood experiences can play a huge part in whether or not we develop this trait. Whilst personality traits are thought to be relatively un-changing over our lifespan, we are learning that it is possible to rewire the brain as adults, with an understanding of how we were wired the way we were and effective strategies for change.

Symptoms of MPA

MPA – or “stage fright” – symptoms can fall into three broad categories; physiological, cognitive and behavioural. Physiological symptoms include increased heart rate, sweating, ‘butterflies’, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, tics, tense muscles, trembling hands, lips and knees, distorted vision and rapid, shallow breathing. These occur when the body releases adrenaline into the blood stream, activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – the system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response which we rely on for dealing with dangerous situations.

Cognitive symptoms include negative thoughts about the performance (“I’m going to mess this up”) and its consequences (“people won’t come back to my shows”), negative thoughts about the self (“I’m useless”), worries and assumptions about other people’s opinions (“people will think I’m a terrible musician”). Such thoughts often create a vicious circle, when they affect performance and thereby strengthen negative beliefs about the self, about musical performance, about audiences and so on.

Performers can also display behavioural symptoms such as stressed or anxious facial expressions, tense/nervous bodily movements, performance errors, poor sleep and self-medication through alcohol and other drugs.

All of these symptoms can contribute to impaired performance and poor mental health, but thankfully there are many things we can try in order to manage them and improve our performance.

Causes of MPA

To manage MPA, it’s important to understand what causes it. There are many factors at play; the performance context, the piece(s) being played and the performer’s ability to perform it, the culture or social grouping the performer belongs to, the performer’s personality and, crucially, the performer’s interpretation of the situation. As a coach, my work with clients almost always centres around exploring how our stories about our situations affect our experience. It’s not what happens to us that directly affects our experiences so much as how we interpret what happens to us. Emotions are a result of our cognitive appraisal – i.e. story – about our experience, and are shaped by our existing beliefs and biases. Cognitive behavioural work focuses on exploring our stories about ourselves and the world and modifying those to bring about positive behavioural changes – and even personality changes – and vice versa.

So, what can you do about it?

The first step in managing your MPA is to understand which of the causes above apply to you. Is your anxiety limited to musical performances? Certain types of performances? Do you have underlying fears about your abilities – or your self-worth? Have your fears always been there or has there been a change somewhere along the way? What would be the ideal outcome(s) for you – are you working towards a ‘task goal’ (e.g. a particular performance opportunity) or a ‘process goal’ (becoming a better musician)? Whilst ‘task goals’ are often exciting and motivating, focusing just on these can lead to burnout and a loss of love for your craft; a combination is usually more meaningful and motivational in the long-term. Once you’ve got a clear picture of your situation and what you’d like to experience and achieve, you can start selecting and trying out coping strategies for improvement.

1. Change your story, change your experience

This is the foundational strategy, and one that can help in all areas of your life. If you feel you have deep-seated issues that need a therapeutic intervention, cognitive behavioural therapy could be useful for you. Ask your GP for a referral, find someone privately or, if you’d rather not speak to someone in person (or are faced with a long wait for an appointment) check out a book called Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think* by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. (Remember that local libraries can often order in books for you if they don’t already have it on the shelves.) The client version of the book includes photocopiable worksheets you can use to work through issues as they arise.

If you don’t think you need clinical support, cognitive behavioural coaching follows the same approach for non-clinical settings. The basic technique is called ‘reframing’; just as you choose what to focus on when you take a photograph or recreate something in a drawing or painting, you also choose what to focus on when you think or talk about a situation in your life. Focusing too much on what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right can be debilitating. Focusing on imagined thoughts other people may or may not be having can increase anxiety. Choosing to focus on something more helpful shifts your energy.

One simple reframing technique I frequently use with clients is to reframe your nerves as ‘excitement’. Both are states of arousal, but ‘excitement’ conveys ideas of positive anticipation, hopefulness and confidence, instead of doubt and fear. Try saying ‘I feel excited!’ instead of ‘I feel nervous!’ One Harvard study involving a karaoke task found that participants who were told to say they were excited before the task scored higher (an 80% average) in areas of pitch, rhythm and volume than those who were told to say they were calm, angry or sad (69%) or anxious (53%). They also reported feeling more excited and confident in their singing ability. Your words have power!

Taking it further, write down your most prevalent anxious thoughts about performing and, one by one, ask yourself ‘Is this really true? Is it partly true? Is it only true in some situations? Is it not true any more?’ Also ask ‘If it is true – so what? How much does it matter? What’s the worst that could happen? What’s a more helpful thought?’ Some things of course do matter, but unhealthy anxiety is all about exaggerated or perceived threats – a simple exercise of capturing the fears that flutter around our heads and challenging them on paper can help us regain a sense of perspective. With my career coaching clients, I often have them create and maintain a ‘record of achievement’ to help boost confidence and overcome imposter syndrome (as well as identifying real skills gaps); do this on paper or in a digital document, and keep updating it with your achievements.

2. Build self-esteem

For the above strategies to work, underlying self-esteem or self-worth needs to be healthy. We can all think of someone who might be great at what they do but doesn’t have high self-esteem. Most of us have some kind of baggage from childhood that has affected our self-esteem – messages from parents, other family members, teachers and others in positions of influence can take root in childhood and become buried, only surfacing in times of crisis or opportunity. The most common, harmful messages are ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not loveable’, whether we’re aware of those messages or not. Ask yourself where those ideas started. What did 5-year-old you need most? 13-year-old you? Where were your needs not met? This isn’t about blame or feeling like a victim – it’s about recognising which needs weren’t met in childhood (acceptance, unconditional love, positive regard) and acknowledging that that hurt – then you’ll be more able to move on. You could try some creative techniques like writing a letter to your younger self, or to a person you have unresolved hurt or anger for – you can burn the letter to symbolise letting go, or you might choose to have a follow-up conversation; trust your instincts.

Think about what you think a person has to do or be in order to be ‘good enough’ or ‘loveable’. We tend to hold ourselves to higher standards than we would our friends, judging ourselves harshly and using negative self-talk that we’d never dream of saying to a loved one. Pay attention to how you speak about yourself, and promise yourself to be kind and compassionate to yourself.

Positive psychology focuses a lot on strengths work – identifying your personal strengths or values and working on expressing those in your life. Two of the main strengths ‘inventories’ used can be found online – the VIA (Values in Action) Character Strengths Inventory and Gallup’s StrengthsFinder (note Gallup’s is a paid one). For clients who find it hard to identify their strengths, I often ask them what their closest friends and family appreciate about them – it’s sometimes be easier to report others’ positive opinions of us than to be positive about ourselves. You might consider asking people you trust to tell you what they think your biggest strengths are, and what they appreciate about you (and do the same for them).

3. Know yourself

MPA has been linked to certain personality traits such as neuroticism, introversion, trait anxiety and perfectionism. Neuroticism and introversion (as the other end of a continuum from extraversion) are both measured by the most respected measure of personality in academic circles, the Big 5. You can test yourself for free online at http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive/. The advice above on building self-esteem can help greatly with with neuroticism and trait anxiety – I used to score very highly on neuroticism, but once I learned how to rebuild my self-esteem my score dropped to a negligible level. People can change!

Introversion often gets confused with social anxiety, or shyness, but people tending more towards introversion aren’t necessarily socially anxious or shy. They get drained rather more quickly by social interactions than do more extroverted people; if you tend towards introversion, managing your level of interaction pre- and post-performance – and managing the expectations of co-performers about that – can help.

Perfectionism is also an obvious personality trait that is linked to MPA. It is a common belief in creative professions that perfectionism is necessary for a state of mastery – think of the documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, for example. Perfectionism is, however, linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health disorders. Some psychologists differentiate between ‘adaptive’ (healthy) and ‘maladaptive’ (unhealthy) perfectionism; others argue there’s no such thing as healthy perfectionism.

For some people, it can be helpful to separate the idea of ‘perfection’ from ‘excellence’; striving to be excellent might feel more achievable and healthy than striving to be perfect. Also, deciding what is ‘good enough’ is useful, for when our resources are stretched and we can’t be as excellent as we’d like. Or perhaps aiming for perfection is healthy if it’s seen as a journey and not a destination. It’s up to each of us to decide what our standards are and what kind of balance we want in our lives. Being aware of your feelings and beliefs about perfection/excellence/being good enough can help you decide on a healthy path for yourself.

4. Consider context 

Who you’re playing for can affect your anxiety about the performance – do you perceive them as supportive fans, open-minded newcomers, educated critics? If you’re sharing a bill, are they there to see you or someone else on the line-up – and how do you feel about the other acts? Again, pay attention to your thoughts and beliefs and challenge them, replacing harmful thoughts with more helpful or positive thoughts. Once you’ve got a more objective view of the situation you’re better placed to decide if you need to take any action. If you’re the ‘unknown’ on the bill, for example, you might choose to connect with fans of the other performers or the venue with a message/sample of your work on social media.

One common anxiety is around value for money – ‘what if people feel they were ripped off?’ If you can hand on heart say you’re putting your all into your performance and your preparation, you could argue that that’s all that can be expected of you. If you can’t, then it’s a useful question that can prompt you to commit to raising your standards. When you’re just starting out or returning to the scene, you could try focusing on free or charitable gigs at first, which removes that particular pricing-related anxiety.

Likewise, if you feel like you’re falling out of love with performing, or feeling jaded by the commercial aspects of your work, creating or seeking out performance (and teaching or mentoring) opportunities that are personally meaningful to you could help reconnect you to your craft and reignite your passion.

If you’ve already done the ‘inner work’ required to cope with the environmental causes of MPA, perhaps making changes to the types of performances you do, the ensembles or bands you play in and even the genre or instrument you play will give you some relief. Is there some type of performance or experience you want to start saying ‘no’ to?

The culture a performer belongs to can greatly influence their experience – the performance approach of, say, a punk musician, sambista, choir member, acoustic singer-songwriter and classical musician could be very different, despite their common goal of performing music for an audience. A 2014 study exploring differences in MPA between classical and non-classical performers found that classical performers were significantly less people-oriented and more self-oriented than non-classical performers, and experienced significantly fewer positive, and more negative, emotions in relation to their performance than their counterparts. How does that correspond to your experience? Take time to reflect on how your identity as a musician and your experience of performing is shaped by your cultural environment, and get the conversation going with others in your group and outside it. Talking about your experience can itself be massively powerful in alleviating MPA.

5. Build your abilities 

When I coach or deliver training on self-confidence, I talk about a combination of ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘self-esteem’. Self-efficacy is the belief in your own ability to perform a task; anxiety can spike if you don’t trust your ability to (consistently) perform a piece well. More generally, imposter syndrome refers to a persistent belief that others see you as more capable than you are, with an accompanying fear of being exposed as a fraud. Self-efficacy can be built through developing effective strategies for practice and for learning in general.

‘Deliberate practice’ is what separates mediocre performers from excellent performers, and includes strategies such as isolating weaker passages, practicing with a metronome, practicing mentally as well as physically, working with ‘models’ (recorded performances or midi files) and recording and reflecting on practice sessions to gauge progress. Developing supportive habits are critical – learning involves the strengthening of neural pathways, a process which is consolidated by sleep; this is why shorter, regular practice sessions are more effective than less frequent, longer sessions. (I wrote about making habits stick here and here.)

If you feel as though you’re backsliding, getting stale, or getting stuck, consider what you could do to develop your skills. There are so many fantastic resources online these days, much of it free, as well as opportunities to learn from masters of the craft all around the world via Skype lessons. Think about what you need, who can provide it and how you can afford it – skill swapping is worth considering when money is tight. (I’m about to start an ‘upskilling’ series of articles on this site, if you’d like to follow my own efforts to improve my musical and other skills.)

In terms of the performance itself, careful planning of the repertoire or setlist is important; as is allowing enough time for rehearsal before a performance.

And to give you a bit of counter-wisdom to the ‘play to your strengths’ advice above (because nothing in life is black and white!), I once interviewed world-class guitarist Greg Howe, and he talked about how some of his signature techniques were actually workarounds for things he wasn’t able to do. So your so-called weaknesses or failures can themselves be part of what makes you unique and interesting!

6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. Trying to shrink our world to a safe bubble in which we feel comfortable only robs us of enriching experiences, and holds back our learning and development. Life will always find ways to throw you out of your comfort zone; practicing putting yourself out of it makes you stronger and more able to cope when it does. Moreover, trying to avoid or push down feelings of anxiety and other negative emotions doesn’t work as a long-term strategy.  Make your peace with the fact that negative emotions exist, are normal and are helpful at the right level – get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and ask for help when you need it.

7. Other strategies

Mindfulness meditation can be hugely beneficial for managing difficult emotions and situations. It is a simple, powerful practice that involves picking a focus for your attention, and gently returning your attention to that object of focus when you notice your mind wandering. (If you’re new to it, read this quick guide to mindfulness.) A major foundation of mindfulness is non-judgement – observing the thoughts and feelings that arise without judging them as positive or negative. When you notice that a thought or feeling has arisen, you just label it and return to the focus of your attention. This practice of non-judgement can help greatly with building self-esteem and with disengaging from anxious feelings. Some people like the handiness and flexibility of using a free mindfulness app such as Headspace (initially free) or Mindfulness (completely free); others prefer to go to a mindfulness class with an experienced teacher in case problematic feelings come up during practice.

Any activity can be made ‘mindful’ by deliberately and repeatedly guiding your awareness to the activity; I often have clients practice brushing their teeth mindfully, or doing the dishes mindfully – when you feel you don’t have time for meditation (a sure sign that you could benefit from it!) this is an easy way to develop a practice without adding much extra time. Just engage all of your senses in the activity, and observe what’s there. Musical activities such as playing scales or arpeggios or practicing paradiddles are a great focus for mindfulness practice.

Deep or slow breathing exercises are also helpful before a rehearsal and as a general practice for maintaining equilibrium and peace of mind. Muscle relaxation techniques can help with different types of anxiety; a simple progressive muscle relaxation exercise is to systematically tense and then relax muscle groups throughout the body, holding the tension for about 5 seconds. YouTube is a good source for free exercises to try.

Research has also highlighted the Alexander Technique, biofeedback training and hypnotherapy as possibly beneficial for MPA, and of course talking to your GP about possible medication could be helpful. As with any challenge in life, gathering good information and taking time to make quality decisions is key.

Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity

Taking your MPA as an opportunity to deepen your self-awareness and learn new coping strategies can have positive, knock-on effects in other areas of your life. Keep trying new techniques, keep talking about it, and keep making music!

Be well,
Tracy

[Image credit: Jonathan Ryder Photography, captured at Sofa Sessions #8]

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