We’ve all been forced off the road since the pandemic paused the live music industry so it’s natural to feel anxious at the prospect of gigging again as the tourbus grinds slowly back into gear.
In this article we will examine various types of music performance anxiety (MPA) and examine strategies for reducing or eliminating its negative impact on performance and mental health.
Despite the fact that musicians have spent countless hours practicing their craft because it’s what they love to do, many will paradoxically be filled with a sense of fear and dread when they know they have to finally take the stage in front of an audience. And it’s because the quality of the performance means so much to them (and is so inextricably linked in their mind to their own self-worth) that musicians are susceptible to feelings of stress and anxiety when they stand before an audience. Here, we cover the followng:
- Definitions of performance anxiety and stage fright.
- Methods of mitigating performance-related anxiety.
Performance anxiety and stage fright
Whether you call it performance anxiety, stage fright or just plain nerves, the anxious feeling that many musicians feel in anticipation of a performance can manifest itself in symptoms that relatively minor (which can sometimes be channelled into positive energy) to those that are completely paralysing. Anxiety, regardless of the cause, is a physical, emotional and cognitive experience, with the potential for all three of these areas to feed and exacerbate each other. When an anxious state occurs, it can manifest in symptoms such as:
- Rapid heart rate
- Muscular tension
- Bad digestion
- Shallow breathing
While these are some of the symptoms, there are many more depending on where you fall on the anxiety spectrum. Defining where the boundaries fall between a state that could be considered clinical and one that is a ‘normal’ nervous reaction to circumstances is not always straightforward. Regardless of how you define it, the important thing is that you understand how it MPA affects you and what you can do to mitigate its impact on the quality of your performance and mental health.
Strategies for mitigating MPA
While it may not always be possible (or even beneficial) to completely remove any nerves or anxiety before a performance, it does not necessarily mean that this will result in a negative outcome. In fact, it may be far more realistic and useful to find your own Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). The IZOF concept, as explained by noted psychologist Dr Ellis Pecen, is one that is different for every individual and identifies the state of emotions and arousal that produces optimum performances. Performers are then encouraged to experiment with emotion regulation techniques with the goal of developing this optimised state of mind before each performance  (Jones and Heyman, 2021).
Central to the concept of IZOF is the balance between arousal (or anxiety) and performance. For example, if a performer has no investment in the quality of the performance and no anxiety, this may not produce optimum results. However, the excitement and adrenalin rush caused by a modicum of anxiety may produce a performance that is focussed and well-executed. Where this balance falls is down to each individual and may require a concerted effort in the form of self-observation (and documenting these outcomes) to find out what events, feelings or actions preceded good or bad performances. Also, the ability to reframe anxiety to moderate its impact may be crucial. For example, if pre-performance nerves are unavoidable, it may be possible to change your reaction to this from one of fear to one that is in full acceptance of the heightened state of arousal, knowing that it will trigger optimum concentration, energy and excitement in the performance.
Not unrelated to the identification of an individual’s IZOF is the balance of thinking and intuition. Both are important in performance and must be balanced as needed according to one’s technical ability and familiarity with the material to be performed. For example, no matter how good your technical ability might be, if you feel unfamiliar with the repertoire that you are performing then it’s likely you will need to have a high-level of concentration (or thinking) on the music. This singular mindset might manifest in intensive listening, reading of notation or following direction from a musical director. However, excessive thinking within a performance or ‘trying too hard’ might result in an outcome that might be perceived as lacking soulfulness and expression. Conversely, a performance dominated by an intuitive approach might have moments of magic but lack accuracy in execution. Ideally, a performance should aim to find the balance between these two mindsets and result in a state of relaxed concentration, and this balance will probably vary to some extent in all of your performances. The ability to balance a laser-like concentration on the requirements of the music and being able to react ‘in the moment’ should be the goal any musician when aiming for their OZOF.
Additional strategies for reducing MPA include:
- Practice and preparation – while it may sound obvious and by itself may not eliminate MPA, you will undoubtedly increase your confidence and self-belief going into a performance if you have practiced your instrument (or task) accordingly. Additionally, there may be a number of additional actions such as arranging your music into the correct order, changing your strings or making a list of your equipment needs that will help to set your mind at ease and allow you to relax a bit more for your performance.
- Mental (or situational) rehearsal – How many times have you (or someone that you know) say that they were playing a song perfectly in the practice room but wound up making unexpected errors in the actual performance? The reason for this is that much of our stress or anxiety is situational and starts to emerge when we find ourselves in a different or intimidating environment. Your entire perception of what you play may change due to the sound, lighting, size or shape of the venue, so try to rehearse as much as possible picturing yourself in this environment in front an audience in order to reduce the potential negative effects of being there.
- Creating a pre–performance routine – wherever you are, knowing that you have a pattern or routine that you can follow prior to a performance will help to settle your nerves and make you feel more comfortable and in control. This might incorporate a warm-up on your instrument, meditation, deep breathing (there are many different techniques for this) arranging your music or any number of activities that simultaneously make you feel prepared and reduce the potential anxiety of waiting.
- Expect mistakes – while it may be an aspiration to execute a flawless performance, the reality is there will be imperfections. When these happen, practice the philosophy of ‘instant forgiveness’ – i.e., move on as quickly as you can after the mistake and stay focussed on the rest of your performance. Your career is not over if you make an error and chances are no one else even heard it but you. Also, it’s possible that a mistake can be embraced as a positive and actually turned into a musical idea that might sounds fresh.
While it may not be possible to completely eliminate performance anxiety, there are a number of things that can be done to reduce its potentially negative effects. Document the traits and feelings that you have before a performance and begin to notice the patterns. You’ll see that you are able to take back control through using one or more of the techniques mentioned in this article, learning what works best for you in the process.
 Heyman, Lucy and Jones, Rhian (2021) Sound Advice: The Ultimate Guide to a Successful and Healthy Career in Music. Pp 290-310. Shoreditch Press, London