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The Science of Performance Anxiety (For Performers and Teachers)

So far, this is the most in-depth article on the internet for understanding the core questions of performance anxiety. We will answer the questions of what happens, who it happens to, and why does it happen to performers.

Also, if you are serious about understanding music performance anxiety, you must read Dr. Dianna Kenny’s The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety. As a performance coach, it is my obligation to read every source out there and she and her team are hands down the leading psychologists on this topic. With that said, let’s begin with her definition of music performance anxiety because defining it as “just getting nervous” is not enough.

 She states: 

“Music performance anxiety is the experience of marked and persistent anxious apprehension related to musical performance that has arisen through underlying biological and or psychological vulnerabilities and or specific anxiety conditioning experiences. It is manifested through combinations of affective (moods feelings attitudes), cognitive (debilitating thoughts), somatic (physical manifestations), and behavioral symptoms (learned responses to performance situations). It may occur in a range of performance settings, but is usually more severe in settings involving high ego investment, evaluative threat, and fear of failure. It may be focal or occur comorbidly (in combination) with other anxiety disorders, in particular, social phobia. It affects musicians across the lifespan and is at least partially independent of years of training, practice, and level of musical accomplishment. It may or may not impair the quality of the musical performance (Kenny 2009b, p 433).” 

 -Dianna Kenny, Professor of Psychology and Music, University of Sydney, PHD. 

 OK. That was a lot. If you didn’t understand some of it, don’t worry. I guarantee as you go through this article, you’ll re-read the definition and everything will become clearer.

 1. WHAT happens when you experience performance anxiety?

Take a moment to reflect on what happens when you experience performance anxiety. You’ll probably list things like self-doubt, muscle tension, increased heart rate, or lack of confidence. Whatever you came up with, is right for you. Let’s also take a look at other symptoms.

 Physical: Increased heart rate, shakiness and trembling, tense muscles, dry mouth, sweatiness 

Cognitive: Moods and feelings, negative self-talk, lack of confidence, self-doubt 

 Notice how the manifestations are divided into two groups; Physical and Cognitive. This is to help organize what is happening to you so we can address each one. This isn’t to say they aren’t related, but for clearer goals, let’s keep them separated.

 Now I want to ask you a question. When you shake, do you see it as a negative thing? Most likely. However, we want to persuade ourselves to see their manifestations as merely DATA. So, when we shake on stage, it is simply DATA telling us we need to adjust our preparation process. Also, when we implement a strategy and experience LESS shaking, it is simply DATA saying that the strategy is helping! This neutral perspective of a negative experience shifts the focus from the problem, to finding a solution.  

 

2.   WHO experiences performance anxiety? 

Turns out...a lot of people.  

Let’s start with a list of celebrities that publicly acknowledge their moderate to severe performance anxiety. This includes Renee Fleming, Pablo Casals, Luciano Pavarotti, Glenn Gould, and Barbara Streisand. 

Those names should already tell you a lot about performance anxiety. If they can get nervous, so can the rest of us, and that’s exactly what has been confirmed through multiple studies. Other top professionals, conservatory students, teenagers, children, and toddlers can all experience performance anxiety.

 What do these studies reveal about performance anxiety? Well, it’s that ALL ages, genders, races, career stages, and other professions besides music may experience performance anxiety. Performance anxiety is a very personal experience and is often neglected and suppressed. However, we must realize we are NOT ALONE and that it is completely NATURAL.  

3.     WHY do we experience performance anxiety? 

Causes can be divided into three categories: Psychological Vulnerability, Specific Anxiety Conditioning Experiences, and Biological Basis of Anxiety. While each is a different cause, you’ll see they overlap and affect each other.  

Psychological vulnerability: 

How you were raised and what environment you grew up in significantly impacts your experience on stage. Take a moment to ask yourself about your childhood...What did your parents teach you about performing? How did they respond to pressure situations and stress? What did your teacher teach you? What did your friends and peers teach you about performing? How did they help form your identity? 

 Alongside how you were raised and what environment you grew up in, another key contributor to psychological vulnerability are anxiety disorders. Below is a list of anxiety disorders and their concise definition. It is important to know the anxiety disorders, but not in depth. Your responsibility as a teacher or performer is not to “cure” anxiety disorders like depression, even though it is part of performance anxiety. For this, either a student is already working with a therapist, or they can be referred to a therapist with a strong and successful artistic background such as Liberated Performer’s Tema Watstein (blatant ad but damn is she good.) 

a.     Depression

Persistent depressed mood or lost interest in activities

“I cannot appreciate the sunset, even though the sun is setting.” 

b.     Social Anxiety

Every day interactions cause anxiety, stress, and self-consciousness

“It doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, I may embarrass myself at any moment” 

c.      General Anxiety

Symptoms similar to other anxiety disorders can be triggered at any time

“Sometimes when I’m alone, I get this wave of anxiety” 

d.     Specific Anxiety

An object or situation that causes fear even though the object or situation is not dangerous. 

I get anxious before I go on stage even though I know I’ll survive no matter what” 

e.     Panic Disorder 

Sudden feelings of terror when there is no danger resulting in panic attacks 

.“I can be walking on the street then all of a sudden a panic attack occurs and my heart is beating really fast” 

f.      Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 

Thoughts and fears that lead to compulsive behaviors 

“Before every performance, I MUST take a shower, wash my hands, and wear clean clothes- otherwise, I cannot perform, at ALL.” 

g.     Comorbity 

           When a person has multiple anxiety disorders 

Specific Anxiety Conditioning Experiences: 

How do we learn about the stage? In particular, how do we learn that the stage is a place to get nervous? We learn through stimulus and association- or, conditioning. There are three types of conditioning: Classical, Observant, and Operant. 

a.     Let’s begin with Classical. You walk on stage, make a mistake, and walk off. You walk on stage, make a mistake, and walk off. You have now learned that a stage is a place to make mistakes, so the next time you go to the stage, you’re already thinking about those mistakes. 

b.     What about the observational way of learning? Let’s say you’re watching a performer ahead of you and they make a mistake. Uh oh...maybe I’ll make one too! Or, what if you heard the panel of judges are particularly detail oriented and tough on students? Uh oh, again right? Before you even walk into the audition room, your heart is pumping.  

c.      Now to my favorite way of learning about the stage. Let’s say you prepare well, walk on stage, and play your best. However, a week later you get a rejection letter. So, then you go back to the practice room, adjust some preparation techniques, go into your next performance or audition and play even BETTER. However, a week later you receive yet another rejection letter. All of a sudden, we are learning that we are NOT good enough. This is the operant way of learning and even the most confident performers start to doubt themselves. But what’s the difference between operant and classical? They both sound similar to each other. Well, one of the big differences is that with operant conditioning, there is usually a reward and punishment involved.  

Similar to the three types of conditioning, we must also look at the Culture of Classical Music, OR, whatever type of field the performer is in. 

Take a moment to ask yourself, how does your performance culture influence your experience on stage? Does it lower or raise your anxiety? Feel free to think about what you learned in both psychological vulnerability and specific anxiety conditioning experiences. List out different aspects that influence a performer. 

Biological Cause of Anxiety: 

There are three levels of understanding the biological basis of anxiety and I’m really excited to share them with you because this knowledge is leading knowledge that is never talked about.  

Let’s begin with the first level of understanding the biological cause of anxiety. Let's say a lion approached you. What would happen? That’s right, your adrenaline would increase and your muscles would get tense to prepare your body for either running away, or fighting it. This activation of your body is due to the sympathetic nervous system and is called the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is our defense mechanism towards PERCEIVED threat. Take a moment to remember WHAT happens when you get performance anxiety. Increased adrenaline, increased muscle tension...Yep, it’s the same thing. Therefore, we may trigger our fight or flight response on stage. Now let’s say the lion loses interest in you and is now miles away from you. The threat is now gone and your body begins to calm down and get back to normal life thanks to your parasympathetic nervous system.  

Great, now that we have a basic understanding, let’s go deeper. With this definition, we think that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the manifestations of anxiety, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for calming you down. But what about those who freeze or faint in the midst of stress? Turns out our parasympathetic nervous system can also be triggered as it leads to immobility. Therefore, we must now say the biological cause of anxiety is due to the fight-flight-freeze-faint response.  

Great, we now have a super solid understanding of our threat response, but let’s take it to the top level. While the sympathetic nervous system stays the same throughout our understanding, the parasympathetic adds one more layer of influence besides the freeze-faint response. In Polyvagal Theory, the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response, the parasympathetic nervous system (dorsal system) is responsible for the freeze faint response, just like we previously learned, and the NEW parasympathetic nervous system (ventral system), or “Social Engagement System”, is responsible for both activation and calming in SAFE environments. Imagine being at home talking to your friend. Your friend tells you some amazing news. You get excited as you feel your heart pump a little faster. You then go back to normal conversation with your heart beating normally. While increased adrenaline is a common manifestation among the fight or flight response and the social engagement system, it is not the same feeling. Both the sympathetic fight or flight and parasympathetic freeze faint response help manage our life-threatening situations while the Social Engagement System manages our human relationships. It’s important to note that the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system takes seconds and the recovery from the stress response (parasympathetic dorsal system) takes 10-20 minutes. However, for the “Social Engagement System”, activation and calming takes milliseconds and does not involve chemical reactions. Biologically speaking, you can flow in and out of activation and calming when you function in the Social Engagement System. Question...which biological state would you want to be in when you perform? 

OK, that was a lot of information, but let’s recap with some more examples to clear up our ultimate understanding of the biological causes. Let’s say a performer walks on stage and is clearly trembling, cold hands, and all. They are probably triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Now let’s say a performer walks on stage and completely freezes in the moment and cannot remember a single thing. They are probably triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (dorsal system). Lastly, let’s say a performer has a great energy about them, excited, focused, and ready to perform. They walk up on stage feeling the audience's energy but downshifts to a great peaceful mind for the opening of a Bach chorale. The feelings of excitement and focus are intense, but they are not of the fight or flight behaviors. The performer feels safe to express themselves. They are probably operating from the Social Engagement System.   

So, there we go. An in-depth understanding of the biological basis of anxiety in three parts. Sympathetic fight or flight response, parasympathetic freeze and faint response, and parasympathetic “social engagement system”.  

With this knowledge, we can challenge common ideas. The first idea is that when you experience performance anxiety, you only trigger the fight or flight response. As we just learned, you actually can trigger the fight-flight-freeze-faint response. In fact, you can fluctuate among all the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses throughout a performance. For example, right before you perform you start getting tense, then during intermission you can calm down, then after intermission, you can feel safe to express yourself. Therefore, you need strategies that help direct you to your desired state of mind. 

The second idea is that popular approaches like breathing techniques and visualization help reduce performance anxiety. They do, and we use them too, but it only addresses the fight flight response. But what about the parasympathetic freeze faint response? How do we get into the Social Engagement System? How much breathing and visualization should we use? 

WOW! I hope you have enjoyed learning about the basics of anxiety. It was dense, but you are well on your way to becoming a more aware teacher or performer. But will we possess the same amount of knowledge as a therapist or someone who has studied anxiety for their career? Probably not. Again, that’s where the team of therapists comes into play. However, will we be better off when it comes to understanding, communicating, and relating to performers when it comes to performance anxiety? Absolutely. Not even professors of music or top-notch performers understand this depth of knowledge when it comes to performance anxiety. I hope this article begins to change that as information gets passed around. We all know the power of overcoming performance anxiety and what it translates to on and off the stage.

 

So now let’s wrap up by revisiting Dr. Dianna Kenny’s definition of performance anxiety.  

“Music performance anxiety is the experience of marked and persistent anxious apprehension related to musical performance that has arisen through underlying biological and or psychological vulnerabilities and or specific anxiety conditioning experiences. It is manifested through combinations of affective (moods feelings attitudes), cognitive (debilitating thoughts), somatic (physical manifestations), and behavioral symptoms (learned responses to performance situations). It may occur in a range of performance settings, but is usually more severe in settings involving high ego investment, evaluative threat, and fear of failure. It may be focal or occur comorbidly (in combination) with other anxiety disorders, in particular, social phobia. It affects musicians across the lifespan and is at least partially independent of years of training, practice, and level of musical accomplishment. It may or may not impair the quality of the musical performance (Kenny 2009b, p 433).” 

 

-Dianna Kenny, Professor of Psychology and Music, University of Sydney, PHD. 

 

Hopefully revisiting this definition gives you a bit more clarity on performance anxiety. Thank you for reading and feel free to reach out with questions.

3 Things I Learned From My First Professional Performance

3 Things I Learned From My First Professional Performance

It was a cold day in New York City and I headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for my first performance as a professional. This was my life now. No school, no safety nets, just real, real consequences. How did I feel? 

Photo Credit: Mark Kingsley

Photo Credit: Mark Kingsley

I felt pressure from every angle. I had to learn new repertoire in a short amount of time, perform with musicians who I had never performed with before, and deal with a new identity.

Let's break down repertoire. We all know the feeling of being underprepared. It isn't peaceful. It's like your brain goes into intense survival mode...Ok...just trying to come in right, play the right notes, and if possible, follow the composers directions to at least appear musical.

This was no good for my confidence.

Then the whole chemistry thing...I just met my colleagues under a week ago and now I have to understand their body language, playing style, and energy. Oh, and they already knew the repertoire so they would know when I messed up.

This was no good for my confidence.

And last but not least, I viewed myself as a student. How does that make me feel among seasoned professionals and critics? Totally inferior. It's time to play pianissimo.

I began unpacking in the green room with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was actually really excited. This has been what I was working for my whole life and the moment was finally here! However, excitement always quickly evaporates in the face of anxiety. Yep, the guy who has been coaching musicians for the past 4 years is getting nervous. Hypocritical? Possibly, but it wasn't my first performance experience so I knew exactly what to do. Here was my breakdown of how I survived and launched into my professional career with success. 

1) Identify emotions immediately

My heart was pumping and I started to retreat into my shell. I quickly told myself that I'm nervous. Now I do this for a couple reasons. The first is the fact that if I lied to myself, I would not allow myself to move on from that emotion. The second is the fact that it's part of my pre-performance routine which involves identifying how I'm truly feeling and proceeding to a mental state of optimal performance level. 

2) I acknowledged I was nervous and then...

I literally started shouting reaffirming statements to myself. For example, I reminded myself that this was NOT my first performance, this was NOT the first time I've had to perform underprepared, they HIRED ME for a reason, and I WILL SURVIVE. Now this may seem ridiculous, but honestly getting nervous is ridiculous. A lot of times to change your state of mind you have to do crazy things that are outside the box. This is why passive techniques aren't always the solution. 

3) CRAM CRAM CRAM

This particular performance was all about survival. I always advocate that you should enjoy the stage but you earn that right through hard work, patience, and experience. Here I was with no previous professional experience, new repertoire, and new colleagues. It wasn't a setup that would allow for complete freedom on stage like at a recital where you have plenty of time to prepare. So I knew in order to walk away satisfied from this performance, I crammed my intonation, rhythm, and musical practice right up until the performance.

Conclusion

From what I wrote, it wasn't my best performance experience. I was not completely free on stage because I was so tied to managing the performance. However, I view this performance as a key point in my career. This was my first professional performance and I played decently. It gave me the confidence to take on the next performance with just a tad more confidence. I was on my way to becoming a master performer and actually identifying myself as a professional musician.

Good luck in your upcoming performance!

-Coach Cory
contact@liberatedperformer.com

 

Overcoming Stage Fright Before Your Carnegie Hall Debut

Overcoming Stage Fright Before Your Carnegie Hall Debut

When I found out I was to perform a solo in Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, I was in true disbelief. At that time I was just a Masters student at Yale and didn't feel like I was ready for the big stage. This was THE Carnegie Hall after all. There is no NEXT LEVEL.

Ok, there are totally next levels, but it was not going to be a typical performance. This is a place where lots of people want to perform. So how did I, a musician with social and music performance anxiety perform my best and enjoy my time on stage? Here is my advice.

coach-cory-liberated-performer-five.jpeg

1) How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice Practice Practice.

The answer to the old question is true. Receiving a great opportunity is a reflection of all our hard work and it takes a lot of practice. But what about the practice we do to prepare for the concert? Well, we need to practice our repertoire enough to master technical facility and have informed and creative musical ideas. Now we have probably heard this before...of course, we need technique and musical ideas, but we are missing a third of our preparation if we just stick to those aspects. We need to value the mental side as equal to technique and musicality because we often learn rather quickly that performing is a whole different skill. So to expand on the answer to the question of how do you get to Carnegie Hall...Practice technique, Practice musicality, Practice performing. 

2) Stick to your pre-performance routine

Coming from years of anxiety-ridden performances where I would be shaking, sweating, and unfocused, I finally invested a large amount of effort to create a pre-performance routine. Through years of research and trial and error, I can now say my routine consistently gets me into the most optimal performance mindset. It began as eating a banana and has developed into a full-fledged process that allows me to enjoy the music even if a family member just passed away. Yeah...that's pretty dark, but you'll have to learn how to perform when tragedy strikes- or relationship problems. Anyway, the concert date was approaching and it triggered the typical stress and anxiety. In these moments I would normally use my pre-performance routine. However, because it was Carnegie Hall, I for some reason went into this hyper research mode where I went looking for the next NEW strategy to improve my routine. Makes sense right?

But here's the thing. I realized I was trying too hard. Why would I risk a new technique at one of the most memorable performances I would ever have? It would be foolish. So I fixed my mindset, relied on what worked for me in the past, and carried out my pre-performance routine. 

P.S. If you don't have a pre-performance routine, you need one.

3) Excitement vs. Anxiety

It's probable your heart may increase before the performance. However, make sure you are using the power of self-talk to convince yourself that it's excitement rather than anxiety! Also, you really should just be excited to perform in Carnegie Hall. The acoustics are amazing. The history of the hall is amazing. The stage is amazing. The dressing rooms are lovely. You won't get many moments like this. It's epic. 

4) It's just another place to play

I began the article placing tremendous value on Carnegie Hall. It's true, the place is stunning and awesome. However, let's look at it from a performance anxiety standpoint. Are you going to be able to play more comfortably in Carnegie Hall or your bedroom? Right. You'll be more comfortable in your bedroom. So we need to alter our perspectives a little bit. You have to begin seeing Carnegie Hall as an amazing place to play, but not let it be your main motivation for playing well. All the seasoned professionals I perform with and learn from always play their best despite the environment. Their goal is not to perform in certain halls but rather to make great music and powerfully communicate to the audience. 

5) A point in the journey

We all have certain markers in our journeys as musicians- like when we are accepted into conservatory/college, graduation, or win a competition or audition. Carnegie Hall or a great opportunity is the same. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed in these moments. Either way we keep going because that's what champions do. One's career is not defined by one moment, performance, or mistake, no matter how visible. We are defined by how we respond to adversity. In fact, I attribute my success at Carnegie Hall to the competition I completely failed. It almost made me quit the violin. If it weren't for that super negative experience and low in my life, I wouldn't of had the leverage to learn how to overcome stage fright and have the career I have today. So no matter what happens, charge forward.

Conclusion

So there's my advice for having a great performance. It takes a lot of work, nothing is guaranteed, and as always, performing tests you to see if you're thinking straight because the stage never lies. With this said, all the hard work pays off and is totally worth it. To be able to thrive and succeed in pressure situations increases your self-esteem and confidence to all time highs which allows you to accomplish anything in life.

Leave a comment below about your preparation process and contact me with any questions!

-Coach Cory
contact@liberatedperformer.com

 

Stage Fright Guide: Imagine Success

Stage Fright Guide: Imagine Success

Developing your imagination is not only crucial for your creativity, but also for your confidence. There is a reason that performers across all fields develop the skill of imagery and visualization. Learn these skills to help you manage a performance and walk on stage with control!

Leave a comment below about your experiences with imagery or opinions and contact me with any questions!

-Coach Cory
contact@liberatedperformer.com