Managing Performance Anxiety
by Dave Belcher
In this article we’re going to talk about managing performance anxiety and I’ll share a story with you from one of our members that I think will bring you a great deal of inspiration.
I’m not afraid to admit that I have struggled for decades with performance anxiety. And you might be surprised to learn that this is true of many professional musicians. Stage fright is pretty universal, affecting the adult amateur to professionals and everyone in between.
We all just want to perform the music we’ve poured so much practice time into. But actually doing it is another story. Everything goes so well in the practice room. But the moment we play in front of someone else mistakes start to crop up. Our hands shake and we may even forget huge passages of music we thought were secure.
The good news, though, is that we can learn to manage this (at times debilitating) problem.
Let me tell you the story of PJ
PJ has been a member at CGC Academy for several years now. She has steadily advanced through the grades. Along the way she has picked up not only musical knowledge but also the skills to tackle advanced music. But PJ has always struggled with stage fright, even just when the camera was on for grade exam recordings.
So PJ started coming to our Open Mics and performing in front of others as often as she could. She also joined a study group where fellow members started to learn how to deal with performance anxiety together (the group met together for many weeks). Slowly but surely she built up more confidence in her performance and then, at our 2023 Summer School Open Mic, she successfully performed in front of a live audience for the first time. And she did great!
PJ’s story is significant because it shows that, while performance anxiety may not be “cured” necessarily, it can be managed and significantly reduced.
Learning to manage nerves
Having the opportunity to perform in front of others often can help your body get used to the nerves that crop up when you perform. But if you have a support system in the audience who not only share your struggles but who are also there to cheer you on, then you have an atmosphere that can actually help you learn to manage those nerves.
This is a big reason we host regular Open Mics at CGC Academy. The Open Mics allow our members to play something, no matter how small and at every level, in a safe environment. CGC Faculty member Nicoletta “Niki” Todesco is our Open Mic MC and she always opens up a beautiful space so that members feel confident when performing.
Winning the battle against performance anxiety
After PJ’s performance at the 2023 CGC Summer School, she shared an update in her Progress Journal about the experience. I’ll let her share the final word:
So what happened – how did I get through and play well after that nervous meltdown? I don’t know for sure, but I know some things that definitely helped.
Focusing on the feeling of performing in a familiar place – playing in front of people, but playing in a place I knew, with people I knew, definitely helped. And the truth is I WAS playing in a place I knew (we’d been on that stage a lot that week already in rehearsals), and in front of people I knew – I had met everyone in the audience already, and I knew everyone wanted me to succeed, just the same way I wanted everyone I was watching to succeed when I was part of the audience. I just had to remind myself of that and get into a headspace that I’d been in before. I’ve heard this kind of thing referred to as ‘centering’. So – practicing performing on Zoom helped, even though it didn’t help that initial panic (this time).
Being prepared definitely helped. Birds Flew Over the Spire is the piece I know best. I’ve played it relatively regularly for over 2 years now. Once the shaking and panic was quieted to a tolerable level, and I got INTO the piece, my autopilot kicked in (thank goodness), and carried me through. In places where I stumbled a bit, and the shakes tried to break through, I remembered the visualization and memorization exercises helping – thinking “ah – jump to the G# here on this string” or some such. The visualization/memorization preparation gave me a good sense of knowing where to go in case of a pause and helped me get back into the autopilot flow. So… the Birds Flew Over the Spire on Autopilot. But they flew, darn it.
I’ve read/studied Don Greene’s book “Performance Success” and found the ideas helpful, but obviously I need to take another read through and do some more work. What I clearly need to work on most are those pre-performance jitters. The dreaded Shakes. That, and blanking entirely on how to start the piece (or how it ends). I put so much work into memorizing and visualizing every last detail of that opening sequence, but in the panic onstage – poof – gone. [Fellow Academy member] Helen has become a convert to the “20 minutes of deep breathing before a performance” school of wisdom as it worked smashingly well for her this past open mic, and I will see if I can try that for one of our practice sessions to see if it works as magically for me as it did for her.
However it happened, I fought a pretty epic public battle with performance anxiety on that stage, and I won. It’s not like I won the war. I’m still going to have to fight another battle every time I do this, but this time I’m very happy to take the victory. I got up there and I played my piece darn it! The whole experience was utterly cathartic – and I think the word was invented for precisely situations like these. Catharsis is a moment where you work through and release negative emotions – it just happened to occur in front of a theater full of people this time. I’m pretty sure most moments of catharsis aren’t also accompanied by a cheering crowd. I hope someday to play this piece better on stage, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever give a performance that will be better received.
Whether you gather a group of friends in your area or join a community like CGC Academy to find these kinds of opportunities, performing regularly in a supportive environment can go a long way to help you manage performance anxiety. You may not win the war, but you’ll definitely win some battles and go on to fight another day. I hope you’ll give it a try. Many thanks to PJ and everyone like her who have the courage to put themselves out there and share their stories. Hopefully hers can be an inspiration to you.