Rethinking Music Performance Anxiety

Music performance anxiety can creep up on us before an important performance or even a weekly music lesson. Most musicians have experienced music performance anxiety at some point during their careers.

How can teachers help students cope with performance anxiety? Should we focus on helping students to get rid of stress symptoms, or is there another way to look at the issue?

Put yourself in your student’s place and remember what it’s like to be anxious.

It can sometimes be all too easy to forget what it’s like to be a music student. As music teachers, we are privileged to share our experiences and knowledge. However, this can often make it hard for us to directly relate to our students.

Remembering what it’s like to be brand new to your instrument and the musical concepts that you take for granted can impact how you approach your students’ anxiety and concerns.

I like to share experiences from early on in my musical career with my students. If I can think of an example that parallels my student’s anxiety, such as a quickly-approaching concert solo or being asked to play a difficult passage for my instructor, I’ll take the time to talk about the common ground in our experiences.

Help your student reframe symptoms of stress and anxiety.

I am a big proponent of practicing coping strategies to manage music performance anxiety and like to approach coping by assessing my anxious situations and changing the way I think about the way I feel when anxious. My process is similar to what the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire recommends.

Remember, too, that all of these tips can be applied to ‘mini performances’, too. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious before a solo in a jazz band rehearsal or a demonstration for your music teacher in a private lesson.

1. Reflect on yourself and your goals for your music-making to better understand what can trigger your anxiety.

Though the cause of each person’s music performance anxiety will vary, UWEC suggests these tips to better understand yourself:

  • “What are your personal motives for performing?
  • “What are your capabilities and limitations as a performer?
  • “Ask yourself: ‘What am I really afraid of?’”

Keeping your music-making goals in mind and understanding how your performances can help will put your anxiety in perspective. It’s perfectly normal and expected to feel anxious about a performance that can help you reach your goals! Instead of letting yourself get swept up by worrying that a botched audition will lead to complete career failure, make a practical plan that can help you succeed.

For example, one of my personal motives for continuing to study upright bass is to become a better classical musician. This goal, however, comes part and parcel with anxiety about performing this kind of music. I often catch myself thinking that the audience, who (in my head) knows this music intimately, will hear every error I make and that I won’t be taken seriously if I fail.

To combat this, I remind myself that performing classical music will help me become more comfortable with this kind of music and, most importantly, help me achieve my musical goals. If I make mistakes, the only way audience members will really know is if I get flustered and stop playing.

2. Practice exposing yourself to smaller amounts of stress.

UWEC recommends:

  • “Practice performances” in front of friends and family
  • “Dress rehearsals”
  • “Taping yourself and playing back”

These scenarios allow you to practice your repertoire in a low-risk performance setting and, ideally, have success with managing your anxiety. And if you have any kind of pre-, during, or post-performance ritual, you can practice them then, too!

I’m a big fan of practice performances in front of people I know. Playing in front of a very supportive audience helps me feel more confident. In turn, having a successful performance under my belt helps me look forward to the actual performance rather than dread it.

3. Remember that anxiety symptoms may actually help you succeed!

In addition to rethinking the way you feel before and during a performance, notice how you are physically manifesting your anxiety. I usually feel my heart rate pick up, my eyes widen slightly, and an almost shaky feeling all over. Once I realize this, I have two options: fixate on the stress and how it will get in the way of my performance, or change the way I think about it.

In “Before Happiness”, Shawn Achor describes how he and other researchers found that “if we could change someone’s perception of the stress they were under, we could actually change how stress affected them physically.” They shared these true facts about stress:

  • “Hormones released in the stress response actually boost performance on cognitive tasks and memory.
  • “The narrowing of perspective recruits attentional resources and can actually increase the speed at which the brain processes information.

Participants who learned these facts were able to “use it to their advantage at work.”

So, instead of thinking, “I’m so anxious; I can barely concentrate on this performance and it’s going to go so badly!” I try to remind myself that symptoms of stress and anxiety can actually help me with my performance!

4. Now… repeat!

After your performance is over, repeat the process once it’s time to begin for the next one! Start by reflecting on how your last performance went, the techniques you used and how successful they were, and what you can do to improve the next one.

Performances can be a stressful part of your musical journey, but they can also help you feel more confident in your skill, share your music with friends and family, and master coping strategies that you can use in other parts of your life.

How do you prepare for a performance? How do you cope with music performance anxiety? Let me know by leaving a comment!

For more information about about how stress can be good for you, click here. And for more information on why teachers should “get in touch with their inner beginner,” click here.

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