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A Heart to Heart - Coping With Performance Anxiety

Updated: Apr 12

Let Your Creativity Guide You

Irene on stage_crop out left white wall

Why do you sing / play music? 

Why do you perform? 

This time of year is particularly exciting in University music faculties and departments. The hallways of Concordia, where I teach, are buzzing with activity. I hear the sounds of a jazz combo, repeated passages from a piano sonata, jazz scales on a sax, a singer singing vocal exercises, and paradiddles from the drum room. I can say without exaggeration that I LOVE this environment. 

There is great excitement but for some it is mired by fear and anxiety. Performance anxiety holds some students captive as they prepare for their “jury exams” or “performance juries”. Let me begin by stating that I personally dislike the term “jury” or when I am referred to as one of the “judges”. When I listen to performance exams, I prefer to think of myself as a guide or mentor. After many years of adjudicating (another word that makes me squirm) performers of all levels, I have developed along with my listening skills, a sensitivity for what each person who gets up there might be going through. Even for a very experienced player, an exam is a very different setting than performing for people who just love what you do. One thing remains the same, we are all sharing music, and our love for music, the player and the compassionate examiner, or even better, witness. 

When the performer being adjudicated can perceive those who are watching, listening and writing comments as fellow musicians and people with their own stories, hopes and dreams, it becomes a shared musical experience. Members of the panel have their wealth of experience and wisdom to offer. Sometimes their comments are cutting, perhaps this is how they learned to communicate and teach. Most understand how hard it is to get up there and perform an exam, that’s because once upon a time they did it too. Most just want the absolute best for you.  

Performance anxiety is real, and it can be debilitating. It is important for students and teachers to understand the causes, symptoms, and potential long term outcomes if it’s not properly dealt with. Perfectionism, imposter syndrome, self-doubt, attention deficit disorders, or life circumstances can all be contributing factors. I strive to maintain open communication between myself and my students so I can help them, and if the need arises, guide them to people more specialized than me in the field of performance psychology.  

The environment can also be a contributing factor. A student may not have the support of friends and family. I have also come to understand that some college and professional musical environments can be toxic, or there may be one or two toxic people in the mix. It’s pretty hard to believe that can happen in the field of music, but it is sadly the case. If one has experienced even a tiny bit of that toxicity and doesn't know how to deal with it, and has no support network in place, one can easily develop performance anxiety, and it can be a slippery slope. 

I would like to share some of the practices I engage in to help me cope with my performance anxiety, things that I have also shared with my students, and that they have found helpful. 

I will begin with this quote from the psychologist Albert Bandura:

Even the most talented people are beset by self-doubts from time to time because no one ever experiences unceasing ever-rising accomplishments.”

Share Stories

We learn from every experience. I encourage you to talk to other people who play music. Ask them if they have ever been scared, and they will likely be happy to share their fears. Sharing our stories helps us understand what we are going through, and when we don’t feel alone, we feel we can learn to cope. I wish I had done so during my doctoral studies. I did everything I could to always put my best foot forward. I wanted to show that I was in control, that I was capable, hard working, and determined. Underneath it all, I was suffering from imposter syndrome and perfectionism. My imposter syndrome was so strong that I actually disconnected from a very important part of my musical  life and being - my passion for singing pop/rock music. 

My final doctoral recital stands as one of the lowest points of my musical life. I was so paralyzed by perfectionism and imposter syndrome that I actually blacked out on stage. I was so stiff that I did not even collapse onto the floor. I remained standing like a statue literally scared stiff of being found out! It’s an event I will never forget. What blows my mind today was how unforgiving I was to myself afterwards. My teachers were compassionate, but they didn’t know how to console me. My personal recovery since then is the achievement I prize most! 

Engage in Mindfulness Practices

Long walks, meditation, Alexander Technique, yoga, tai chi or qi gong are wonderful ways to develop focus and self awareness. The more we become aware of ourselves, the more we can learn to take care of ourselves and do the things we need to do to take care of ourselves and prepare for performances. 

Learn How to Practice

Pushing oneself for hours and finding the same mistakes coming up means that something in the approach needs to be changed. This is a time to communicate with your teacher or mentors, and to look for creative ways of breaking old patterns.

Use the Time You Have

Don’t wait till 2 weeks before your exam performance to practice. Procrastination is a manifestation of self doubt and fear. Telling yourself over and over “I should be practicing” can induce stress. Practice for 20 minutes a day, and see how you feel. One can never regret time spent practicing what they love. Your 20-minutes may turn into 2 hours before you know it. 

Develop Mental Stamina

Focus takes time to develop. Eliminate distractions when you go to practice  Include time in each practice session to imagine yourself preparing for a performance. Play or sing through your pieces as though you are performing them. 

Cultivate Effortless Mastery

The author Kenny Werner offers meditations and approaches to practice that are incredibly valuable. If one passage of a song or piece bothers you, you have to slow it down, sing/play it with love and attention at the speed that you are able to sing/play it. Break it down, improvise on it, sing/play it in different ways, imagine yourself singing/playing it with ease. Stick with it until you get it, it may take some time but it will eventually gel. 

Be Patient With Yourself

Beating yourself up or giving up on yourself saying that you are not good enough is a sure roadblock. 

My favorite - Improvise 

If you are feeling stuck, stop! Improvise! There are several ways to approach it:

  • Play/sing out your fears and concerns. I do that - I’ll sit at the piano or sing to myself about what is bothering me about a song I’m working on, or my worries about an upcoming performance. Giving voice to my fears and concerns helps me face them and overcome them. I’ve done this with my students accompanying them at the piano, and often I hear sounds coming from them that I have never heard before. More often than not, they surprise themselves with what they are capable of expressing. 

  • Take a deep breath and sing/play something soothing to yourself. Let it be incredibly simple. Repeat it, slightly modify it, let it soothe your spirit. 

  • Play/sing a familiar piece, or sing your song/aria in a different place on your instrument. I learned this from Music for People. Start with a short passage, play or sing it as you learned it several times, then play it in a different place, that doesn’t mean transpose it, just let your fingers fall on a different place and play it in the rhythm as written. If you are singing, you may change the range you are singing the passage in, let the notes be guided by the text. Don’t worry if you are not singing in a particular tonality. Let the words guide your singing. It can be helpful to do this slowly. 

Ask yourself the 2 opening questions:

Why do you sing / play music? 

Why do you perform? 

I will close with a quote by John Lennon:

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

Video of a Self-Soothing Improvisation!


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