stage fright

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.

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