“No matter how much I rehearsed, I never felt ready for the stage. Instead, I felt like a deer stumbling into oncoming traffic on a dark road.”
–Shannon Sexton, singer & writer
The Musician’s Way, p. 140
I expect that every performer knows what it’s like to feel nervous at a show or an audition.
Still, whether we deal with mild uneasiness or debilitating fear, by taking steps to understand the causes of stage fright and acquire countermeasures, all of us can become more capable performers.
In this post, I sum up the three main roots of performance anxiety:
1. The individual person
2. The task at hand
3. The performance situation
See my subsequent article, “Becoming a Confident Performer,” for tactics that empower us to build security as performing artists.
All of these concepts are covered in depth in Part II of The Musician’s Way.
The 3 Roots of Performance Anxiety
Our personalities and beliefs strongly affect our experiences on stage. Self-assured, extroverted people who view performing as a rewarding challenge are generally less jittery than those who dread being the center of attention. Our performance histories then multiply our natural tendencies.
For instance, introverted musicians who have endured repeated episodes of shakiness, dry mouth, and butterflies will probably worry before concerts. By comparison, outgoing musicians who have regularly enjoyed and succeeded at performing have reasons to look forward to sharing music with listeners.
The good news is that, with well-directed effort, even long-anxious musicians can replace negative thoughts and experiences with positive ones.
• Take a moment to consider which of your personal qualities and past experiences enhance or interfere with your ability to perform; list them if you wish.
Needless to say, difficult tasks are more stressful to perform than easy ones. Similarly, insufficient practice can leave us feeling on edge when we step under the lights.
Two less-obvious but important factors that affect our security are our practice and performance skills.
In particular, students who don’t practice their music deeply but depend on automated types of learning will feel their control drain away under pressure. Likewise, when musicians aren’t skilled at basic performance tasks such as speaking to audiences or dealing with adrenaline, then performing can be nerve-racking.
Nonetheless, all musicians can increase their task mastery and their stage power by choosing accessible repertoire, practicing it deeply, and learning performance skills.
• Make note of the task-related actions you’ve taken that have supported or undermined your success on stage. Supportive actions include selecting manageable music and practicing it regularly; conversely, opting for arduous music and avoiding deliberate practice undermine security.
The greater our concern for the outcome of a performance, the greater the potential for stress and anxiety.
An out-of-town audition, for example, exerts far more pressure than a casual gig at a local coffee shop. Correspondingly, a recording session at a pricey studio comes with higher stakes than a laid-back session at home. Unfamiliar or poorly run venues can also increase a performer’s discomfort.
Added to that, public scrutiny can unsettle some musicians, especially when numerous people hear us perform and then tweet, blog, and otherwise publish their reactions.
Whatever the performance situation, though, when we know how to prepare and then present ourselves, we can deliver thrilling and personally satisfying performances.
• Recall performance situations that have enhanced your creativity and ones that have fueled your nerves.
* * *
If your practice and performance skills need an upgrade, Parts I & II of The Musician’s Way provide research-based strategies that have been praised by musicians, researchers, and educators worldwide.
Read “Becoming a Confident Performer” and related posts in the Performance Anxiety category on The Musician’s Way Blog.
© 2012 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Jose Reyes, licensed from Shutterstock.com
Hi Nick – thanks so much for contributing.
Your case highlights how distinctive people’s physical reactions can be in performance situations.
Still, excessive perspiration represents one of the classic responses to fight-or-flight activation, even though some people experience it and others don’t.
Be encouraged: even if this has proven to be a stubborn problem you can triumph over it.
For starters, I invite you to study Part II of The Musician’s Way as well as my posts in the Performance Anxiety category.
I’ve also found that for some adult musicians, a combination of performance coaching and temporary use of a low-dose beta-blocker prior to performing enables them to overcome similar impediments – more info in my post “Musicians and Beta-Blockers”.
I hope that’s helpful, Nick. Thanks again for your comment.
My specific problem relates to the classical guitar, an instrument I have played for over 40 years, but only in the last 10 years or so have taken up really seriously. I have given quite a few recitals, and don’t suffer from dreadful performance anxiety. However, my specific problem is that my playing in concert, especially before a large audience, is that fingers perspire to the extent that it mars the performance and indeed the sound of the guitar. It’s like playing with a thin layer of goose fat on your fingers. Accuracy is diminished, fast runs collapse in dissarray, although all this is OK in practice sessions
I have long been convinced that performance anxiety is most prevalent in classical musicians, because of the relentless expectation of perfection based on a prescribed model: the music score. Musicians who routinely improvise – albeit within a highly demanding discipline such as jazz – don’t seem to be quite so affected. A “wrong note” here & there (assuming the appropriate training and mastery of the instrument in general) is OK – maybe even a creative element at the moment. The psychological perspective that one is “choosing” the notes is radically different from the concept of “having to get it right.”
For this reason, – and also because of the improvisation / arranging models of baroque music – I’m a strong advocate of including – indeed requiring – some form of improvising in the training of classical musicians. In my own case, I took lessons with both jazz & piano pros a number of years ago. Did not make the commitment to these styles, but the experience contributed enormous insights into the whole music-making process. Still overcoming some personal heebie-jeebies, as I began classic guitar as an adult, but wanted to share some thoughts.
Terrific insights, Mary Jo – thanks for sharing!