When I present my Fearless Performance workshop for musicians, I typically begin with an exercise that I dub, “How To Be a Nervous Performer.”
I ask the participants to tell me what sorts of things they’d recommend that musicians do prior to a performance if, for some reason, they want to be nervous on stage.
Here’s a sampling of some favorites:
Top Ten Ways to Be Nervous On Stage
10. Don’t practice.
9. Drink lots of coffee.
8. Arrive late.
7. Choose repertoire that’s over your head.
6. Bring the wrong wardrobe.
5. Don’t warm up.
4. Forget your music.
3. Break a string and be without a spare.
2. Tell yourself that any mistake will ruin your performance.
1. Moments before going on stage, accidentally drop your glasses and step on them.
I always get a kick from hearing what the participants come up with. But the true value of this exercise is that it helps people realize that although performance anxiety may appear mysterious, they actually know a great deal about the basic causes of stage nerves.
And that opens the door for us to examine those causes and map out routes to on-stage security.
Knowledge Brings Power
As with my workshops, in The Musician’s Way, I tackle the subject of performance anxiety using an approach that emphasizes the acquisition of knowledge and skills.
My view is that because anxiety stems from understandable causes, even if those causes seem hidden, by gaining knowledge and skills, we become empowered to take charge.
Therefore, Part II of the book presents 5 chapters that detail how musicians can get a grip on stage nerves and become adept performers. Here, I highlight the content of the first of those chapters, “Unmasking Performance Anxiety.”
The Fight-or-Flight Response
I begin that chapter with an exposé of the fight-or-flight response, pointing out that the fight-or-flight response is primeval and fires automatically when we feel fear.
It’s a plus if we’re crossing a street and we see a speeding car heading our way: adrenaline surges, and we bolt for the sidewalk. But if we’re about to perform a concert and we feel a comparable sense of alarm, then a flood of adrenaline might not be so helpful.
Of course, some adrenaline aids us on stage – a small jolt focuses the mind and fires the imagination. Excessive fight-or-flight activation, though, can incite tremor, butterflies, dry mouth, confusion, and the like.
So, to differentiate the types of arousal that undermine performance from those that support it, I define performance anxiety as “nervousness or distress that interferes with performing.” Performance excitement is the label I give to arousal that energizes performing.
The Many Faces of Anxiety
Nonetheless, the fight-or-flight response is only one of many anxiety characteristics, so the chapter next looks at how the effects of anxiety manifest across three phases: preperformance, at-performance, and postperformance.
Insomnia, for instance, is one manifestation of anxiety that can come calling pre- or postperformance. A racing heartbeat is a classic at-performance effect triggered by adrenaline.
I’ve found that when musicians acknowledge the effects that they face, they’re better able to initiate action plans.
The Roots of Stage Fright
With the effects out in open, I then dig into the causes of performance anxiety using a three-part framework: Person, Task, and Situation.
For example, the conviction that any glitch will wreck a performance represents a cause rooted in personal belief (and a false belief at that). The choosing of overly difficult repertoire is a task-related cause. Not bringing a spare string or the right clothes to a concert arises from ignorance of how to prepare for performance situations.
The Musician’s Way depicts 12 prevalent causes and illustrates how selected causes and effects play out in musicians’ lives.
The chapter culminates with “Crafting Confidence,” which outlines 12 anxiety-busting strategies that get fleshed out in the chapters to come.
Those strategies include ways to develop positive responses to stress, affirm meaning in performing, acclimate to performance settings, and otherwise prepare for shows.
In sum, by becoming knowledgeable about the nature of performance anxiety and acquiring tools to counteract it, musicians can conquer nervousness and lift their music making to new heights.
© 2009 Gerald Klickstein