Performance Anxiety in Musicians: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Stage-Fright

Performing is a funny thing. It can be very intense. I’m going to take a chance here and say that most performers feel nervous at some stage of their life, no matter if they are amateur or pro. Many players get used to it. Some players hate it. Some don’t perform because of it. Some go ahead but still don’t perform well. But there are some players who seem to love it. It’s almost like they actually use it.

Everything is cool. Your about to go on. No big deal. Then your heart starts pumping a little harder as you realize your time is coming soon. “Everything’s cool. Take a breath.” Breath. “My breath feels funny, kinda shallow. Stretch the back a little. Take your hands out of your pockets, you look silly. But what do I do with them? Clasp them behind the back? No, this is a rock show. I can’t stand like a Presbyterian minister.”

Meanwhile, as you fold your arms, there’s a little squirm high up in the top of your stomach and your neck is getting hot. “Man, it’s hot in here. I need something to drink. My mouth’s kinda dry anyway. But I need to rewrite the setlist with a bigger marker. Oh, and I need to buy a backup battery. Gotta find a store really close. Is there time?”

You’re slightly aware that you’re rubbing your hands on your pants a lot and seem to be yawning, for some reason. “What’s the first phrase in the third line of the new one again? If I get that first line the rest will fall into place. What is it? Why can’t I… Oh, what is it? And where’s my new picks? All I have in my pockets are these old worn things and I just can’t”

“What? Now? OK. Let me hit the bathroom and I’ll be right up there!”

Then you step onstage and right into that hour-long moment; the moment when your sense perceptions are glaring and thoughts are so loud; energy seems to be let loose and zooming around through your muscles and skin; your fingers turn into claws; your heart is pumping like it’s a separate creature inside of your chest; your peripheral vision gets kind of gray and you can only see what you’re looking right at; everything is so loud so you can’t hear; your breathing gets deep and shallow at the same time, and every breath makes you feel as if you are hollow, as if inside of you is just empty space.

And then you’re done.

“Those lights were so bright I couldn’t see. That monitor was so loud I couldn’t really hear anything. I don’t know what I said to those people. That’s so weird: I was aware of every second but it went by like a flash.”

There is nothing like performing. It puts you right into a microwave of awareness with all of the contradictions that come with it.

Many people might describe this character as having some degree of “nervousness” or “stage fright”. Many of the experiences he/she had were physical and can be dealt with easily. Dry mouth? Drink lots of water throughout the day before you perform; bite your tongue; eat candy before you sing. Hand sweats? Avoid iodine, stock up on Zinc and keep a towel close. That’s what Louis Armstrong did. Do you tend to chatter on between songs because you feel like you should talk but don’t know what to say? Write and memorize what you are going to say and stick to it. There are many practical solutions to practical problems and they are absolutely worth using. I highly recommend them but they don’t address the nervousness itself. When you think about it, we often view the nervousness itself as a problem, lumping it in with its physical “symptoms”, if you will, as if nervousness were an illness.

But is nervousness an illness? Is stage fright a phobia, a psychological disorder that needs to be cured? Now, I’m sure that a few folks have extreme symptoms that may need to be addressed in a medical fashion but for most of us, it’s not such a matter of health, is it? And is it really our nervousness that’s throwing us off? We have a bad show because our pulse quickens and our knees weaken and all of that? Is that some sort of disease?

Is it really a problem when our senses seem to be more keen? Do we want to get rid of these sensations? I don’t. Unless they’re very extreme, all of the sensations that we describe when we talk about being nervous just sound like a heightened sense of being alive. Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s energy that can be used.

Re-read the description of the player on stage (reprinted below) from the point of view of someone who loves this experience.

Then you step onstage and right into that hour-long moment; the moment when your sense perceptions are glaring and thoughts are so loud; energy seems to be let loose and zooming around through your muscles and skin; your fingers turn into claws; your heart is pumping like it’s a separate creature inside of your chest; your peripheral vision gets kind of gray and you can only see what you’re looking right at; everything is so loud so you can’t hear; your breathing gets deep and shallow at the same time, and every breath makes you feel as if you are hollow, as if inside of you is just empty space. And then you’re done.

We really feel alive when we’re up there on stage. We know that our heart beats and that it’s a constant tether to our time on this planet. It’s a rush! We just don’t want to be freaked out by its energy! The only things in the passage that seem to be a problem are: “your thoughts are so loud”, “your fingers turn into claws”, and “everything is so loud so you can’t hear”. Maybe we should be concerned with addressing those things rather than trying to snuff out our physical sensations. Sensitivity is exactly what an artist needs. We don’t want to get rid of it but we don’t want to be overwhelmed by it either. Maybe we could channel it, or ride it like a surfer.

The truth is, these sensations connect us to the present moment like nothing else can. If we welcome these sensations instead of hoping that they leave, they can actually be used to ground us when we get distracted, when our “thoughts are so loud”. Physical sensations can remind us to relax when our “fingers turn into claws”. They can help us feel our way through the music when “everything is so loud so you can’t hear”. Performers who can handle that experience can perform with a presence that is palpable. They command attention in a very real way. They play instrumental music that we listen to is if someone were speaking directly to us in our own language. A singer who can perform with such heightened sensitivity can make us feel like she is talking directly to us, personally. In great performances there is something very real happening; something other than technique, showmanship, style, or even stage presence. There is some sort of depth occurring.I have read that many great performers experience very intense nervousness and stage fright before and during performances. They don’t seem to need to get rid of it. They can work with it, somehow. Maybe they even use it.

To actually work with this idea, try this exercise:

Music Practicing Tip 1:  Start With Your Body

I developed my daily music warm-up into a tool that uses the physical sensations of “nervousness” to cut through mental distraction and right into the pure experience of music making. This website is a forum to spread this practice and discuss it among those who practice it and those who are simply interested in the subject. Check in frequently for video and audio guided practices, links to resources, community discussion and support and many other offerings. Seeyasoon!

Bryan

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