MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
Dealing with Performance Anxiety
This article is also available in French and German.
Many surveys rank public speaking as the number 1 fear, even greater than the fear of death. Performance anxiety or stage fright can be a terrorizing and traumatic experience for those who have experienced it. Even though speaking is one of the easiest and most natural things a person can do, such is the power of stage fright that a person can be reduced to being unable to utter a single word. For musicians performance anxiety is a far more serious problem than it is for people speaking in public. We are not trying to do an easy natural human act but rather a learned behaviour that is very complex and requires concentration, coordination and fine motor skills. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of music is to share and enjoy it with others so being able to perform in public is a skill that a musician needs to master.
Performance anxiety can manifest itself in a number of symptoms including sweating, losing concentration, memory lapses and being unable to move your fingers with the precision required to play properly. These symptoms are generally caused by an adrenaline rush that occurs either before or when you start playing. This type of nervousness is particularly difficult to control because it is a physical event that occurs in your body that you can not stop through willpower. The extra adrenaline in the body makes it very difficult to control your fine motor skills and concentrate your mind. There is a parallel with allergies in the sense that in allergies your body is reacting falsely to a harmless substance and triggering an immune system attack mode. In stage fright, what should be a harmless experience is triggering a fight/flight response from your body. Playing the guitar requires very fine motor skills and control of small muscles and movements. Placing a finger a half a milimeter in the wrong position can cause a major mistake. Yet at this very time your body is more suited for a bar room brawl than playing and remembering thousands of notes that require extreme precision!
The solution to performance anxiety is to minimize the intensity of the adrenaline rush but also to be able to deal with it when it occurs. Medical science has developed drugs to fight many normal, non-medical human conditions and stage fright is no exception. Beta Blockers, also known as Adrenergic Blocking Agents, reduce the symptoms of stage fright by inhibiting the adrenaline flow and stopping the fight/flight response. In other words they are relaxants and prevent psychological stress from triggering a physical reaction in the body. I have never taken Beta Blockers and do not recommend their use. There are obvious health issues and dangers associated with Beta Blockers and many musicians report that while they allow you to play the notes without the mistakes caused by the adrenaline rush, they also take away the excitement which the same adrenaline can provide to live performance. Beta blocker performances are often characterized as dull and boring. Adrenaline is actually a good thing for performance and it is only when it is excessive that it causes problems. Beta Blockers are basically masking the problem not curing it, taking away the symptoms but not fixing the problem. It is my opinion that performance anxiety is a natural and normal human condition that can be dealt with far more effectively and safely through natural means than through masking its underlying causes with medication.
The key to fixing stage fright problems is to understand that they are caused by deeply rooted subconscious elements in the brain that are to a certain extent hardwired into the brain. The brain is programmed to react in a certain manner to scary events so it is necessary to make performing a non-scary event. How you react to a scary event is most likely hardwired and unchangeable but what consitutes a scary event is changeable though it usually can not be changed instantly or easily. A great deal has been written about dealing with stage fright by changing your thinking or attitude towards performance. While many of these “inner-game” and holistic approach writings make valid points and may help to some extent if they can change your way of thinking, the problem many of them have is that they deal with the intellectual and conscious part of the mind which is not where the underlying problem exists. Every person can intellectually understand that having stage fright is ridiculous and there is no reason for it yet despite this understanding it still occurs. When you are on-stage in front of 100 people and that adrenaline rush hits, the information and maxims in those books don’t seem to help very much in getting through that particular performance. It is all fine and good when I go onstage to think that everyone in the audience is supportive of me and wants me to suceed but that is not necessarily going to stop my hands from shaking uncontrollably.
The most important way to cure stage fright is to change how your sub-conscious mind views performance. The sub-conscious mind must view performance as a postitive, enjoyable event that you succeed in not a horrible event that leads to shame, humiliation, failure and anger. The reason that the self-help maxims don’t work (when not used in conjunction with other methods) is they try to convince your conscious mind of this. In a sense you are lying to your conscious mind but even if your conscious mind believes the lie, your sub-conscious will not. If performing is not an enjoyable and successful experience for you, no amount of trying to convince yourself otherwise is going to convince that part of the brain that you don’t have complete control over. In order to convince your sub-conscious brain that performing is an enjoyable, non-scary event, it has to actually become an enjoyable, non-scary event.
How do you make performing an enjoyble, non-scary event?
1) PERFORM REGULARLY. The more you do something, the more normal and less scary it becomes. Most people are terrified of their first kiss yet kissing soon becomes a very enjoyable experience. It is a natural thing which is relatively easy to perform well and is enjoyable so the mind does not usually associate it with negative connotations. However, even something as simple as kissing can become scary when you haven’t done it for a long time. When I am between concerts, I will sometimes play some gigs that otherwise wouldn’t interest me just to keep playing on stage regularly. I do this so that when I do play an important concert, I am still used to performing in public and am not entering a high pressure situation with any of the insecurity that a layoff from performing can produce. After a certain number of successful performances, a performer’s confidence will be high but if he takes a break from performing, over time his subconscience will forget the successful performances and his confidence level will gradually lower.
2) The most important thing is to PERFORM SUCCESSFULLY. It doesn’t matter how often you perform if each performance is a failure, if anything you are making things worse. Thus, you have to have a strategy to make your performances successes. Here are some tips for doing so:
-Pick low pressure situations at first. Play for a local seniors group, hospital patients, family, friends, etc. Don’t start the process by playing a master class with a famous virtuoso, a competition, a concert attended by lots of accomplished guitarists, etc.
-Pick repertoire that you can handle easily. Playing pieces in public that are near the borderline of your abilities is not the way to develop confidence in your playing abilities. Play pieces that you can play well under adverse situations. If stage fright is your main problem then you need to work on that problem in isolation for a period of time. What is the use of getting to the next level of technical proficiency if you fall apart every time you play in public? Get to the point where you can play relatively easy pieces in public and then start increasing the difficulty.
-Play long programs. One of the good things about the adrenaline rush is that its duration is short. The body can only produce and process adrenaline for a certain period of time. Thus, after a certain number of minutes the adrenaline will subside, your body will calm down and you will be able to play better. If you are playing a 60 minute program, only the first 5 to 10 minutes will be effected by the adrenaline and even if you play poorly during these minutes your playing should improve as you go on so that the overall experience of the concert will be enjoyable. However, if you are only playing 5 to 10 minutes an adrenaline rush will ruin the whole performance and result in an overall negative experience. This is why masterclasses are so hard to play in and often are poor preparation for players who are not yet confident public performers. At a certain point in developing your public performance skills it can be good to play in situations where you only can play one piece but this is only after you are more comfortable playing in public and are able increase the challenge and difficulty of the situation.
-Learn to deal as best you can with the initial adrenaline rush. One of the hardest things to predict is whether you will get an adrenaline rush or not. I can play 10 concerts without a problem but on the 11th it can hit me for no apparent reason. You have to deal with it as best you can because you never know when it will strike. There are some tricks that can help you, the most important being time. As stated earlier the adrenaline rush can only last so long so the longer you delay starting to play the more you can minimize the effect. Spend a little bit longer tuning, talk to the audience, adjust your footstool. At the same time try to do things that will relax you, take deep breaths, relax your muscles, think about something else other than the performance. One of the best things I find is to simply smile before playing. Smiling is something that naturally relaxes your body. If the adrenaline rush starts in the dressing room you can start to deal with it before hand. Stretching, mild exercise and other relaxation techniques can help your body process the adrenaline before you go out on stage. I often find it is better when I experience some nervousness before the concert than when I don’t. When the nervousness starts backstage I can start dealing with it backstage, the worst situation is when I go on stage feeling good and then get a sudden adrenaline rush moments before I am about to play. There are many stories of performers who suffered intense backstage stage fright but yet consistently performed well. Some famous performers would vomit before a concert and then go out and play a great concert. I think this is because they already had the bodily reaction to the stage fright backstage and once they went out on stage they were beyond the point where the stage fright adrenaline was adversly effecting their performance. Large body movements also tend to deal with the adrenalin effects better than small movements, which is what makes guitar one of the most difficult instruments to play when stage fright is an issue. Playing the guitar involves moving only a few small muscles while most of the body is not involved in the playing process. Having also studied voice, I never found that stage fright effected me the same way when singing because once I started the whole body was so involved that the adrenalin quickly dissipated. The movements I was required to make when singing were also not so finite and isolated as in the guitar and thus not effected to such an extreme by loss of fine motor skills. The effect of large movements on the processing of adrenaline is the reason that stretching back stage can help reduce some of the adrenaline and even things such as rotating your shoulders onstage can help.
-Program well. If you have problems with stage fright do not program difficult or complex pieces at the beginning of the concert or at the start of the second half. Program pieces that you have played for a long time, are technically well within your ability and do not require a great deal of complex memorization. There is a reason that virtuoso pieces are usually performed at the end of concerts or in the encore. A piece that is more dependent on musical sensitivity than technical virtuosity will not only set the mood of the concert better but will allow you to get over the initial nervousness and start the concert on a successful path.
-Be prepared. There is nothing that will destroy your confidence more than not being adequately prepared. How to adequately prepare is another article in itself but use whatever methods you can to increase your knowledge and memorization of the pieces you are playing. The university in Canada I attended had a very demanding academic program and unlike many institutions made little allowance for the amount of time performance students had to practice nor did they lower their performance requirements. Thus, the performance students had to complete the same academic courses as the history, theory and composition students who did not have to spend hours each day practicing. While I do appreciate the knowledge I attained in music history and theory at this university, the result was that I often had inadequate time to prepare concerts as well as I would have liked. I went in to each concert knowing there were some weak spots and hoping I could smooth them over. Later, when I studied in a European system in which performance was given priority and the academic requirements were relatively light, I was amazed at how much better I could perform given adequate practice time. Needless to say my stage fright was significantly reduced and my positive concert experiences greatly increased my confidence in my playing.
-Have the correct attitude. Do not think of stage fright as an unusual condition, it is very common and natural. Do not judge yourself on your performance, a bad performance does not make you a bad person or a failure. Do not put undue pressure on yourself, a poor performance is not the end of the world. As artists we often think each mistake is a tragedy but the majority of the audience doesn’t notice our mistakes and even if they do, most of them have forgotten our performance within a week whether or not it was good or bad. Remember sharing music is a wonderful thing and should be a positive experience for both the performer and the audience. Despite this there is also a certain amount of healthy apathy that I find increases the more confident I get in my performing abilities. This is basically the atitude that if I don’t play a certain piece well tonight I will play it better in the next concert. In other words, even though I want to perform well every evening, if a piece or a concert does not go as well as I would like it is not going to ruin my confidence. If a performer plays 10 good concerts then a poor concert on the 11th try should not ruin his confidence. If you look at the good penalty shot takers in soccer (or any other high pressure situation in sport), the best shooters are those that have had success in the past and are thus confident but who also don’t exert extra pressure on themselves by thinking the world will end if they miss. Even the best player will miss occasionally but they succeed so often because they are confident and remain calm under pressure.
-Remember that replacing your negative sub-conscious feelings about performing will take time. A good yardstick is that for each poor performance you have had in the past, you will probably need 3 or 4 good performances in the future to replace the negative impression gained from the poor performance with a positive impression that will boost your confidence.
Dealing with stage fright and becoming a successful performer is a long-term project that takes time and the correct approach. However, if approached in the correct manner, stage fright can definitely be defeated or at the very least significantly reduced. Performing successful concerts is the most enjoyable experience a musician can have and it is a shame that so many musicians spend years attaining a good playing level yet are not able to share their ability with others. Despite this a woefully inadequate amount of time is spent preparing musicians to perform in public. Consider that the amount of time spent practicing scales often far exceeds the amount of time spent practicing public performance. Stage performance should be considered an aspect of musical training every bit as important as developing technique and musicality, both of which are useless if they can not be expressed on stage.