It’s your big moment. So much rests on the next few minutes. You can feel your heart pounding. Your palms sweating. Your legs shaking. Your thoughts racing.
Performance anxiety strikes once again. And it’s not helping…
Huge numbers of musicians find themselves in this situation. Far too many of them react in the wrong way.
This is your body’s standard response to pressure
It’s been developed through millions of years of evolution to help humans deal with challenging situations. It’s often called a “fight or flight” state and, yes, it involves adrenaline but there are all sorts of other hormones in the mix as well.
While the exact details of what’s going on can be interesting, we don’t need to go into them in order to grasp the key point: what we call music performance anxiety is, originally, a normal and healthy reaction to a dangerous situation.
It’s not something you need to be worried about.
So why does this happen in music performance?
All well and good to understand that your body's reaction should kick in if it’s a life or death situation. It’s a bit less obvious that playing music demands such an extreme response, though, even if it’s a high-stakes performance.
And some of us will still get these sorts of feelings even for what should be low-key performances.
The answer is that your brain can only react to your perception of the world. If you view a situation as a threat or a pressure circumstance then your brain reacts accordingly, whether there’s a genuine threat to life and limb or not.
There are things that you can (and should) work on to change your perception of what a pressure situation is. That’s a topic for another day, though. You can still massively improve your experience of performing music without going into that.
For now, just know that it’s totally fine if you get this sort of response. Even though it may feel unsettling and uncomfortable, you can actually see it as a good thing as it shows your body is making the normal, healthy response to the situation.
You're not the only one with performance anxiety
It can seem like the top names in music, sports, etc don’t suffer from this sort of thing, but that’s not really the case – everyone gets it to some extent. While it’s true that the intensity of the feeling varies from person to person, there are plenty of greats who still feel it strongly. The difference is that they see it as normal and don’t worry about it.
For example, the great cellist, Pablo Casals said, “Ever since I began to perform I have lived with stage fright. I suffered when I was a child and I suffer even today when I must give a concert.”
Adele has said, “I puke quite a lot before going on stage, though never actually on the stage.” And even the famous Roman orator, Cicero, said “I turn pale at the outset of a speech and quake in every limb.”
So what are the implications?
The interesting thing about this is that, although the symptoms of performance anxiety can feel strange and uncomfortable for musicians, the majority of them actually don’t have any negative impact on your performance.
In fact, some of the effects of pressure can be distinctly positive and plenty of top performers rely on this to fuel their performances.
For example, David Hemery recalls coming out to defend his Olympic 400m hurdles title in 1972. He was so concerned that he didn’t feel his usual pre-race nerves that he made a desperate bid to gee himself up by digging his nails into his hands.
It was too late – despite being the clear favourite, he came in third.
Is it all good, then?
Most of the physical effects of music performance anxiety don’t cause any problems. There are a couple which can cause an issue for specific instruments, though.
And there is one aspect of the pressure response that’s relevant for any musician. This is the tendency to tense up.
Always remember, though, that the aspects of this response that have a negative impact on performance are few and far between. Way less than the number of different symptoms that we tend to worry about.
What to do?
There are all sorts of possible things to work on around changing your perception of the situation or managing your physical responses. Great though those are, we’ll leave them for another day so that we can concentrate on the first and most important thing to do:
You want to get used to the idea that this sort of response is normal and ok, and nothing to be worried about.
You want to stop trying to change that response, or wishing it was different.
The more that you can accept how you react to pressure, the less it will affect your performance. You may even find that the intensity of that reaction decreases over time once you adopt this attitude.
Sounds easy, right?
And yet you know that it’s one thing to say you’re going to do this now – another to actually feel like that when the heat is on.
Rather than give you a prescription for how to make this work, I’m going to suggest that an easier way to go about it is to learn how to recognise a couple of typical “mistakes”, and how to deal with them.
The first mistake is assuming that there’s something wrong with you.
If you find that happening, just remember that the reality is quite the opposite – all these symptoms of performance anxiety are, in fact, the healthy response. Not showing any symptoms in a pressure situation would probably be more cause for concern.
The second mistake is thinking that you should be able to feel calm.
This is dangerous because it tends to lead in the opposite direction – the more you try to calm yourself down unsuccessfully, the more stressed you make yourself as a result. While there are things you can do to dial down the energy/stress levels you’re typically not going to achieve a state of total calm even with their help.
Now you know that performance anxiety in musicians is really a natural response to pressure. It's not a bad thing so the first and most important step is to accept it rather than worrying about it.
Avoid the temptation to try and fight it, or to wish it wasn’t there.
Being relaxed about this is a great help in itself and will also make any future work on changing your perceptions or adjusting your physical responses much easier.
It’s not the end of the road, though.
When you accept this state of things, you’re accepting that it’s not something that’s ever going to go away completely. That means that if you want to perform at your best you’ll need to learn how to perform in this state.
Again, the key is in what we’ve covered here – realising that being in a “pressure” state is not worse than the state you’re used to when you practice. It’s just different.
As a result, it’s about getting used to playing in this state. And it’s about seeing it in a positive, rather than a negative light. Rather than “pressure”, think “excitement” or “challenge” instead.
What responses do you typically feel in a “pressure” situation and how do you deal with them? Let me know in the comments section below.
Oh and before I go
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It has really helped me to think of the fear as excitement. They have a similar feeling in my stomach.
Absolutely, Shelley. In fact, the physical symptoms of fear and excitement are pretty much exactly the same. What’s different is the emotion on top. When we get those physical feelings alongside positive emotions then we label it as excitement. When we get the same physical feelings, but with negative emotions then we label it as fear or nerves.
At the end of the day, as long as nobody died it’s going to be alright no matter what happens so relax & enjoy the challenge…
Thanks for commenting, TR. And you’re so right! Seeing it as a challenge is a great mindset.
The idea of accepting it as a normal and healthy body response instead of trying to make it go away and expecting myself to be able to get to a calm state is such a relief! Thank you for that !
Really glad you found that useful, Cheryl.
Once you start accepting anxiety as normal then you may find that it decreases naturally. Or you may not. Either is fine.
You probably don’t actually want to get completely calm in performance anyway. A lot of musicians (myself included) find that being really calm ahead of time is usually a sign that it’s not going to be a great performance…
Hello Mark. Thank you for responding so quickly. I’m not sure if you can help me as I am a singer and do not play a musical instrument?
You’re welcome, Michael. And everything I teach in this area applies to singers just as much as to instrumentalists. The general thought processes are the same regardless of which body parts you’re then going to use to produce the physical sound.
I possibly knew this, but needed someone else to point it out. I’ve been in the game for 40 years, and have no problem acting as MC, or playing hand drums, conga’s etc. But on a kit, ( and blues harp ) which are newer projects, lack the confidence to over ride nerves. You’ve given some useful pointers. I shall follow some of your other pointers on issues.
Glad you found this useful, John.
Thanks for the advices; yes I believe I can grow.
I will concentrate on the part I want to develop, and a good suggestion from you; focus before start!
Glad you found it useful, Chris.
After 65 years as a professional drummer and 60 years as a professional bass player I find the thought of performing to a knowledgeable audience quite calming.
I always arrive at the venue early, with well maintained gear complete with spare skins, strings, batteries, leads etc as may be needed.
I play mainly small group jazz with excellent, experienced musicians. Having time to tune up and sound check to my satisfaction then takes away most possibilities for unexpected happenings.
The stage itself becomes an arena where I can then use my musicianship and chops on drums or bass to frame the other musicians performance in the best way possible.
This always makes for a good and satisfying gig that everyone present enjoys.
I would have to work very hard these days to conjer up any form of performance anxiety.
Great to hear, Reg. So glad to hear that you’ve got to a place where you can really enjoy the music (or maybe you’ve even been there from the start).
I have bad social anxiety and respect your influence for change. I want to develop more of a natural feel for playing in front of a group of people. While doing so, I want to become more comfortable about my image in front of other people; it is the one thing I struggle with the most in current life, especially in quarantine. This comment is more of a commitment to myself more than anything; I have always struggled with putting myself out there, and you should be proud that you got me to comment in the first place as I have never commented prior to now. This is new start for me. I am commenting this because I seek change so that I no longer feel regret, the regret caused by the numerous missed opportunities. I know that not many people will see this, but I’m tired of living in regret due to my own personal fears limiting me. For now, this is a good start to become more comfortable with myself in the eyes of others. “I can do it and I will!”
Thank you and I hope you have a great rest of your day!
I love that you’ve stepped up and made this comment, Jake!
Commitments to yourself like this are hugely powerful. And you may find that, as you start putting yourself out there more frequently, pushing outside your comfort zone starts to become addictive. The trick is to keep doing it relentlessly. But always pick things that are just a bit beyond what’s comfortable for you – don’t go for something crazily ambitious (you’ll get there eventually through small steps, though)
I very readily lose my concentration and can enter a state of mind where I feel a bit unreal or unconnected. I then feel anxious that I won’t remember what I’m supposed to be doing. As such, I tend to avoid performing. Practicing a warrior mentality could be very helpful for me.
Warrior mentality will definitely help. Also, start small. Once you get a few wins on something relatively easy (but still slightly uncomfortable) then you’ll have more confidence to tackle bigger challenges.
“I believe I can change whatever is needed.” 🙂
“I believe I already AM constantly changing.” 🙂
Hm I wish I’d had. this insight and been able to the distinctions earlier of my life, rather than now , might have made a lot not difference to how music was played and a life was lived. I have heard parts of many of the ideas offered, but never quite followed the ideas through to the other side. Mark thanks for these insights about anxiety in performance /practice situations
So glad this was helpful, Carol. We’d always like to have had insights earlier. But it’s never too late to use what we learn to make a positive difference!
I completed the “Unlock Your Performance” boot camp in December. Once I realized that my performance anxiety was only a thought that I had in my mind, and performing wasn’t going to cause me any harm, I found that for me it was simply a decision that I had to make to get past the fear. I also had to accept that I am only capable of doing my best. That sounds simple, but for me it worked. I have made that decision and I am committed to it. Thanks Mark. I see this as a life changing event.