In a recent TMEA convention, I asked;“How many of you have ever felt nervous while performing?” You can see the reaction above. So I asked,“Nobody?”
That got a laugh.
I find laughter and a sense of common humanity to be very helpful in approaching this uncomfortable topic. The focus of that clinic was to help music teachers cultivate confidence in their students. Teachers and conductors have a unique challenge when it comes to performance anxiety in the ensemble. Musicians are diverse in privilege (race, class, gender, ability), familial upbringing, and stories of struggle. With this diversity comes a wide range of confidence levels, from those who have a strong sense worthiness to those who don’t. Many teachers work to cultivate confidence through pedagogy and preparation, building connection and trust between students through fun social activities, and by keeping rehearsals focused, enjoyable, and rewarding. What should a teacher do when students still struggle with performance anxiety?
In order to combat the varying ways in which performance anxiety manifests in musicians, teachers must make themselves aware of the origins of the problem and be equipped with strategies for alleviating symptoms.
Performance anxiety is a physiological response to varying stressors that may create a barrier between a musician and the intended musical product. Performance anxiety is identified by the physical reactions from the “fight-or-flight” response. This can include shaking, increased heart rate, muscle tension, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, dry mouth, hearing loss, and tunnel vision.1 There are cognitive elements as well, including: increased attention to undesirable sounds (stimuli), negative perceptions toward uncertainty,2 and perceived control.3
I theorize that there are three main causes for musicians’ performance anxiety:
- Adrenaline (Thrill Seeking): excitement, bringing with it a rush of adrenaline.
- Instability: a removal from habit caused by unforeseen events, setting off the fight-or-flight response.4
- Shame: the fear of disconnection, setting off the fight-or-flight response.
Everyone is familiar with the shakes that come from excitement or added pressure. Adrenaline-based performance anxiety is relatively the most gentle because there is a belief in one’s abilities, a positive outlook.
Instability-based performance anxiety is a little harder to deal with as unforeseen events tend to remove the ground from beneath the musician. There is a subtle awareness surrounding the temporary obstruction of a moment of instability, like recently being in a car accident, dealing with a breakup, recovering from injury, or having an unexpected death in the family. Sometimes musicians react to these events with added pressure or desperation to play well.
Shame-based performance anxiety is the least discussed. According to renowned shame researcher, Brené Brown, shame is the deeply held belief that one is “not good enough,” the idea that one is unworthy of love and belonging. “Shame lives and thrives in secrecy, silence, and judgment.” Musicians who are not resilient to shame will either over-function or under-function in response to it.5
Examples of over/under-functioning in response to shame include:
- Negative self-talk/self-imagery
- Unfair expectation
- Self-sacrifice or lack of self-care
- Over-practice, obsession
- Mistrust, faithlessness, evidence seeking, constant surveillance
- Scarcity mindset, “never enough,” hustling in response
- Upward or downward social comparison
- Perfectionism, fear of disapproval
- Social inauthenticity, fitting in, adjacency, or alienation
- Imposter syndrome
- Procrastination, apathy
Musicians who are susceptible to shame may have an unhealthy relationship with failure, which is a problem seeing as how we need error in order to learn. For musicians with a deep sense of love and belonging, error (or failure) feels like learning. For those who struggle with shame, error feels like disconnection.
If a student struggles with shame, they may also struggle with:
- Unsuccessful auditions
- Inactivity in freelancing
- Playing simpler music than colleagues of the same age (or younger)
- Loss of ability/technique, especially because of over-identification as a musician (this is a huge issue for aging musicians who experience changes in their bodies after a life of earning their living as professional musicians)
- Traumatic performance experiences
- Working hard to no avail
If a student’s’ worth is coming from their ability to perform, they are in trouble. It is possible to move from being locked down by shame to performing with worthiness, difficult as the process may be. Performing with worthiness requires authenticity and a realignment of motivation.
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.
Whether caused by adrenaline, instability, or shame, the following are examples of short-term and long-term strategies that may help your students 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.6 Encourage students to stay aware of how they 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.7
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.
Guide students to imagine there is a pinhole in their back, behind where their heart is. From there, have them imagine breathing in through the pinhole, through the heart, and imagine breathing out through wherever they feel tension. As they breathe in, encourage them to think pleasant thoughts. This slows down the heart rate and alleviates unhelpful muscle tension.
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.8
- 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.9 Write down or say out loud:
- “I am struggling with _____________________ (name symptoms, i.e. tense, shaky, short of breath, unable to focus, etc.)
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. Suggest that students speak their gratitude out loud, write it down in a journal, or record it in a voice memo. Have them list everything for which they are grateful.. The state of gratitude may fade, so daily practice is necessary in order to embrace uncertainty.10 This strategy works well in the short-term and works even better as a habit in the long-term.
Encourage your students to believe in themselves. 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.11
Helping students to Move Through Shame
- Have them acknowledge what they are feeling (“I am feeling shame”). Ask them what is the shame ‘tape’ is saying. (i.e. “You’re not good enough” or “Who do you think you are?”) Ask when was the first time they heard this message? From who? What was the frequency of hearing this message? Did they hear this from more than one person?
- Reality-check the message. Practice self-compassion, have them speak to themself like they would to someone they love.
- Have students share their story of struggle with someone they trust. Encourage them to seek empathy. Find someone who will hear what they’re saying and respond, “That’s so hard. I know how you feel. I’m with you.” Shame cannot survive empathy.12
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.”13
Mental Health Issues
There are exceptions to the rule when it comes to strategizing one’s way out of performance anxiety symptoms. If a musician is dealing with unresolved trauma or PTSD, mental health issues (clinical depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa/bulimia, etc), any shame associated with disability (chronic pain, dyslexia), addiction (substance abuse or codependency), depending on one’s story, strategies for performance anxiety may help but may be weakened in effectiveness.
In the midst of mental health struggles, a musician’s priority is not to be as flawless as possible (although one may certainly continue work toward goals). A musician’s number one priority is to love oneself, to work toward self-acceptance, and to participate in any necessary therapy or support groups. At that point, a musician’s number one priority is to do whatever it takes to cultivate worthiness of love and belonging even if feeling unworthy. If a musician is performing, and the performance is suffering because of mental health issues or stress, it will always be more productive to let the performance suffer temporarily as feelings are acknowledged. If that musician’s first thought is “I can’t sound like this”, that is on par with telling oneself “I am not allowed to feel this way.” That is a recipe for compounding anxiety.
This is significant for today’s generation of young musicians who have been raised on certain kinds of reality television and social media, where comparison, shame, and validation seeking run amuck. When fear underpins motivation, though going through the same motions as learning, a musician will not absorb information or newfound skill in the same way. For those who struggle with feeling as though they are not enough, confidence is the absence of anxiety. For those who have a strong sense of lovability, confidence is audacity.
The height of bravery when facing the urge to be everything to everyone is to ask, “What do I need?” If a musician is bold and brave enough to answer and act on that question, to be ordinary and empowered (vs chasing the extraordinary or creating the façade of extraordinary and feeling powerless), then music may be made from a place of love, curiosity, enthusiasm, and experiment. This is the place of love and acceptance from which we are connected to the music in our souls.
When in fear, addressing one’s feelings and needs creates a sense of agency that allows the brain to slow down the stress response. If self-deprivation or self-denial is a habit, the brain and body have no reason to expect any sense of agency and the stress response may continue.14
Performance anxiety is not an enemy to be rid of. Sometimes it is a demand from the body and mind for authenticity, self-love, and empathy. As musicians, how do we respond to this demand? We have a golden opportunity to lessen the grip these struggles have on musicians through awareness/literacy, conversation, empathy, and connection.
- Henry Gleitman, Alan J. Fridlund and Daniel Reisberg (2004). Psychology(6 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97767-6.
- Reid, Sophie C.; Salmon, Karen; Peter F. Lovibond (October 2006). “Cognitive Biases in Childhood Anxiety, Depression, and Aggression: Are They Pervasive or Specific?”. Cognitive Therapy and Research. 30 (5): 531-549.
- A. Wallston, Kenneth; Strudler Wallston, Barbara; Smith, Shelton; J. Dobbins, Carolyn (March 1987). “Perceived Control and Health” Current Psychology. 6 (1): 5-25.
- Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage. 2012.
- Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response – Harvard Health. Harvard Health Publications, January 2015.
- The Breathing Technique a Navy SEAL Uses to Stay Calm and Focused. Motto: Words to Live By – From the Editors of TIME, May 2016.
- Cuddy, Amy. Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. TEDGlobal, June 2012.
- Neff, Kristin.Self-compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: William Morrow, 2011. Print.
- Brown, Brené.The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage. 2012.
- Puddicombe, Andi. Mindfulness and Mental Toughness. Headspace: Mind/Mind Science.
- 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.
- Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability. TEDxHouston, June 2010.
- Madhumita Murgia. How Stress Affects Your Brain, TED-Ed.