Playing Music and Fighting Performance Anxiety
You know the feeling of standing up in a crowded room, and you’re not entirely sure how many eyes are on you – but you know it’s a lot? That might be one of the most easily relatable feelings in the world. Performance anxiety, stage fright, and even test anxiety are incredibly common among people of all ages. Performers and musicians in particular often struggle against the prospect of playing for audiences – often, even the famous ones we idolize are working to calm themselves shortly before a live show. Even though it has never been easier to create and publish music, performance anxiety often gets in the way. Understanding how to get over performance anxiety in music can go a long way towards helping to maintain your passion for the craft.
What Am I So Nervous About?
If you’ve experienced performance anxiety, you already know that it goes beyond simple shyness. Being the focus of attention for enough people can make the brain feel threatened, causing symptoms like shaking, sweating, or feeling faint.1 If these physical symptoms weren’t distracting or distressing enough, playing music is largely about control. Unsteady fingers can lead to unwanted vibrato, shaky voices, difficulty playing arpeggios, and similar challenges. You might also become afraid that you could forget a note or lyric, or freeze onstage. These kinds of concerns are completely normal, but thinking about them is never conducive to a productive performance. Unfortunately, they can be a bit hard to ignore too; stress can negatively impact working memory and impair attentional control in the performer.2
The comforting truth is that there are world-class musicians for whom performance anxiety and music are still closely related. Steve Aoki, for example, is one of the highest-paid DJs in the world, and regularly performs hundreds of shows per year for huge numbers of excited fans – and even there, pre-show nerves continue to exist in some form. Speaking to Queen’s Journal in 2010, he commented that “once you’re in the swing of things you can do anything, but first you have to get there,” and explained that the prospect of equipment malfunctions stresses him out greatly.3 More recently, he spoke about the virtual Tomorrowland festival in 2020, and about how preparing for it was less stressful than for an offline show – but “you always know the broadcast has more eyeballs than ever, so I still get nervous.”4 Even at the highest level, pre-show nerves are normal and expected by many.
How to “Get Over” Performance Anxiety in Music Performance
When the combination of personal pressure to perform “perfectly” and perceived pressure from the audience come together, the results can be overwhelming. “Paralysis by analysis” is a slippery slope that has led many students of music to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms that impede their careers.5 Fortunately, there are many ways to get over your performance anxiety for musical performance.
- Practice, and practice again. Internalize your own performance as best as you can, teach yourself your role so well that your can play the piece reflexively. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the more confidence you’ll have leading up to your performance.
- Get plenty of sleep. Your brain works at its best when you’re getting plenty of sleep. Prepare for pre-performance day nerves and go to bed early – give yourself plenty of time to lie awake nervous! Being well-rested will help you to be more in control of your own body, and will keep your thoughts alert and your mind clear.
- Focus on the positives. The idea of “changing your internal channel” – of focusing on what has gone well instead of what has gone wrong – has a strong neuroscientific basis.6 Your brain is less likely react as though threatened if you’re feeding it positive reinforcement. Make this a part of your routine of practice and remember why you’re performing in the first place.
Remember that performance anxiety in music and performance is perfectly normal, and that the more you perform, the more you can learn from your experiences and improve.
Mindfulness and Stage Fright
Another way to tackle the issue of performance anxiety in music is to adopt mindfulness practices to help you to maintain a calm and clear head. In a 2018 study, researchers determined that, "when holding mindfulness disposition and perfectionist traits constant, those participants who meditated at least weekly tended to report less performance anxiety."7 Whether you make a regular habit of meditation, or take long walks to enjoy some fresh air, these are practices that will help you to overcome your nerves. If you need an extra push, you can also consider using Cognitive Boost Technology™, which is designed to help you get in the zone faster and stay in the zone longer, potentially offsetting some of the effects of performance anxiety.
The most important things you can do are to practice and take care of yourself. Healthy life choices and meditation practices can go a long way to helping you reconnect with the arts you love and overcome performance anxiety. Never forget that music is meant to be enjoyed by the performer too!
2. Angelidis, A., E. S., Lautenbach, F., van der Does, W., & Putman, P. (2019). I’m going to fail! acute cognitive performance anxiety increases threat-interference and impairs WM performance. PLoS One, 14(2) doi:http://dx.doi.org.library.sheridanc.on.ca/10.1371/journal.pone.0210824
5. Studer, R., Gomez, P., Hildebrandt, H. et al. Stage fright: its experience as a problem and coping with it. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 84, 761–771 (2011). https://doi-org.library.sheridanc.on.ca/10.1007/s00420-010-0608-1
7. Diaz, F. M. (2018). Relationships Among Meditation, Perfectionism, Mindfulness, and Performance Anxiety Among Collegiate Music Students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 66(2), 150–167. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429418765447