As we conclude the last week of the Performance Anxiety Series, I’d like to conclude with a discussion about finding the right place to start. Like I’ve stated before, performance anxiety is so personal and no two have the same experience with anxiety. This can make it difficult to find a place to start. A teacher can recommend meditation, but this technique is not guaranteed to be the one that will help you. So how do I find what’s right for me specifically?
Take a minute to jot a few things down as we go. Ready?
First, analyze your symptoms. Are they physical? Do you get shaky hands, or does your heart race? Do you sweat profusely? Or are your symptoms more psychological or emotional? Do you feel like you need to run and hide? Are you irritable or overemotional? Do you have a hard time focusing or do you make countless mistakes during performances? Write these down and see where you stand. Take a minute and then number each from 1-5 in severity. A one would mean that you have the symptom(s), but it’s not that prominent or bothersome and a five would mean this symptom(s) is severe and it makes it near impossible to perform well. Two to four are the ranges in between the two.
Ex. Racing heartbeat- 5
Upset stomach- 2
Worrying about messing up- 4
Lack of focus- 2
Dry Mouth- 4
To help you out, the following is a list of the most common symptoms of performance anxiety:
Physical Symptoms: shaking or tremors, racing heart beat, upset stomach/nausea or vomiting, sweating, dry mouth, elevated blood pressure
Psychological Symptoms: negative thoughts, avoidance, irritability, brain fog or forgetfulness, excessive worrying, caring too much about the opinions of the audience members, or worrying about what they think, increased amount of musical errors
Once you have your list numbered 1-5, you will have a better idea of what you really need to learn to manage first. Now, let's get into some more personal details about yourself. Ask yourself the follow questions and identify:
Do you like to learn with movement or are you more content quietly sitting while doing an activity or learning?
Do you have health concerns or are you in good or better physical condition?
Do you have strong spiritual beliefs or do you consider yourself non-religious and/or not spiritual?
These questions help us understand how we focus and learn best.
So now, let's make a chart.
Now we have an idea of what we should look for. For this example, I need a technique which will primarily manage a racing heart beat, excessive worry about messing up, and dry mouth. I am a visual and auditory learner, I have some health concerns*, and some spiritual beliefs.
*A note about health concerns. These can include various conditions such as chronic illnesses, being overweight, heart conditions and more. They include any concern relating to health, exercise, and performance anxiety
Let us look at the list of the most recommended performance anxiety relief methods. I’ve mentioned and reviewed these throughout this series:
-Don Greene Performance Success & Fight Your Fear and Win
-Tim Gallwey The Inner Game of Tennis
-Other Sports Psychology books
-Natural Beta Blockers such as Bananas
Using the example above, methods that may work best for our sample would include adequate preparation, meditation/visualization, breathing techniques, sports psychology books, and beta blockers. Using these techniques, a person is able to listen and follow along to recordings that can take them through a guided meditation or visualization. Those with some level of spiritual beliefs have the best success with meditation since this is a practice that came from and is associated with many religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and other Eastern religions. Sports psychology books are great and insightful as they can offer a lot of that information that can be incorporated into practice sessions. Don Greene has two great books, Performance Success, and Fight Your Fear and Win, both which help to further identify performance problems and offer training examples and practices which can advance your performance capabilities. I would recommend the use of breathing techniques to anyone, but they’re especially helpful for those who need to slow their heart rate or have medical concerns which maybe won’t allow them to do something like Yoga.
I would suggest the use of beta blockers as a last resort. While I do believe however, that they’re a great resource, I think that if you try a natural method and it works for you, then it is not necessary to medicate with beta blockers. If you don’t need medication, you shouldn’t take it. There are cases however, where natural methods do not work. This could be linked to an underlying condition or maybe the specific symptom, such as an increased heart rate is just so severe that it cannot be managed without medication. Always try a natural method for a good period of time first. If you then believe that beta blockers might be the best choice, contact your physician to get a prescription.
This brings us back to our sample person and where to start. Any one of these choices, sports psychology books, breathing techniques, meditation/visualization, and adequate preparation, could be an initial place to start. Keep in mind that each of these methods must be practiced for them to be effective. If they aren’t, you may not see any changes in your performance anxiety or performance ability. Practice, practice, practice, and give yourself opportunities to become nervous. Play for people, record yourself, or pretty much do anything that may trigger your performance anxiety so you can really put these techniques to the test. Practicing, studying, and testing them are the only ways you can find out if they really work for you.
Take your time to do your research on these methods. Then, help yourself by making this chart to narrow down some of your options, and take a close look at which symptoms are the most debilitating for you. After you’ve done both and considered the options, practice, study, and test. Then go from there. You might need to work a combination of methods, or you might be successful with one. Regardless of what combination is right for you, don’t give up, keep fighting your performance anxiety. It takes time, but being able to manage your performance anxiety is so worth it!
Please welcome my final featured guest for this series, Claire Worsey! A California native, Claire Worsey grew up and started to play piano at the age of 6, and then took a band class and the French horn in the 7th grade to avoid taking gym class! She received two degrees from Bard College for her undergrad; one in music and the other in French. She then went on to study at the Mannes School of Music for her Masters degree which she completed this past Spring.
Have you ever struggled with performance anxiety? If so, what were your most debilitating symptoms?
I think my most debilitating experience of performance anxiety was my senior recital in college. I way overworked myself. I was practicing all of my material for my graduate auditions like my life depended on it. I put way too much pressure on myself to get into graduate school and I was just practicing the same rep over and over, but not in a productive way. I was stress practicing. During my recital I played Mozart 4 all the way through, it was pretty okay, but my anxiety was gradually building through that piece. Then I came on to play my next piece, which was really soft and in the C-G at the top of the staff register. I had missed entrances and I got really anxious, and at intermission I just couldn’t go back on. My private teacher was there and she came back and did a bit of breathing with me but I was still freaking out. I was barely able to get myself on stage to play my next piece. It felt like a really bad panic attack and afterwards, for a while I carried around the anxiety. A lot of times it would manifest generally in shortness of breath, in anxiety, lack of focus, and just feeling like I had my flight sense triggered.
Do you believe that there’s a stigma that surrounds the use of beta blockers in a performance scenario? If so, do you side with the stigma?
I do not side with the stigma. For me, the stigma was mostly perpetrated by a close friend at the time who was really judgmental. He was like, “anyone who takes beta blockers is cheating”. It’s like the old school mentality of, “You get stressed? Deal with it. Figure it out. That’s your problem. You’re weak.”So seeing beta blockers as you’re cheating, or you’re so weak that you need to do this. I think the biggest part of the stigma about beta blockers is not understanding, or not fully really taking the whole, and the weight and the devastating effects that performance anxiety can have seriously. I think it is a kin to mental health being like, “Don’t take antidepressants. You’re weak. You just need to power through it.” I don't side with that stigma around beta blockers because I think that performance anxiety is a really serious thing that everybody experiences and it's really debilitating for people who love music and who want to do this, but can’t handle their performance anxiety. The other reason is that it's a tool. Like it or not it's a tool that a lot of people are using and it's a tool that’s helping a lot of people. And I think you can use it to build up more positive experiences in performance so over time you have more of a positive recall of what performance is based on past experiences. You won’t have as much of a stress response because in the past when you performed it hasn’t been terrible, you haven’t had a panic attack, you haven’t run away, and nobody died. It's about building up those good feelings towards performance and this thing that’s really scary. There are a lot of other ways to deal with performance anxiety. For me I was really interested by Cynthia Reynolds for using Alexander Technique as a way to handle performance anxiety, because up until then I had just kind of used Alexander Technique as more of an abstract thing. I would do it once a week, similar to going to a yoga class. But what I gained most from her was to be able to anticipate your brain being busy, and more aware. Your brain wants something to do, so just give it something to do. One of the things I’ve used is she’s like, “feel the space between your head and the ceiling. Feel the space between your head and the walls'”, or “between you and objects which one gives you more of the feeling of groundedness”. Because you feel more connected to things that are solid. You feel more secure when you’re connected to things that are solid. It's easier for your body to feel more expansive when you’re able to get out of the tightness in your body, and remind your body, “Oh I can be a lot bigger. That wall over there is not that far away especially if I’m able to feel the space between myself and this wall next to me”. But to anticipate the symptoms of performance anxiety and to be able to give yourself a coping mechanism is really helpful.
What relief methods have you tried, and which have worked for you?
Sometimes getting too meditative, like focusing internally like counting your breaths or doing more meditative work while performing tends to take me out of the moment. It tends to make me too focused on my inner state and takes me out of the music. I think that doing some meditative work before you perform is helpful. I really like alternate nostril breathing, which is a yoga technique, and grounding yourself and going internal before you perform is helpful, but while you perform, for me, is not helpful. I've done some visualization. I think that it's not yet that helpful for me. I listened to a study done by Noa Kageyama, the Bulletproof Musician, about visualization. He said that different people have different natural tendencies to visualize. So for some people visualization is not a helpful technique, but it is a technique that can be learned and improved upon over time. So I would put myself in the camp of needs to build up visualization. But I have tried visualization in the past and have not found it to be that effective for me personally, but I do think it does have the potential to be effective if I continue to work on it. Beta blockers are effective. I’ve been using beta blockers more recently pretty consistently for any high stakes performances like auditions. I think they have to be coupled with mental preparation, because for the International Horn Competition of America last summer I used a beta blocker for my round and I felt really disconnected from my body. I feel like it kinda numbed me like I didn’t freak out but I wasn’t present. So it calmed the nervous side of me but I wasn’t engaging enough with physical techniques to keep me present to have a really spectacular round. Dealing with nervous anxiety and also finding a way to engage with what is happening in every moment.
How did you hear about these relief methods?
The man that I’m marrying said, “take some beta blockers, it will help you”. So that’s that. For visualization, my old teacher, Julie Pilant encouraged me to use visualization which I know she used a lot. She told me that at her last round at the MET before she won her job , she would lay on her back and put her headphones on and listen to all her excerpts and visualize them. That's all she did to prepare for her super final round at the MET. Alexander Technique is something I’ve done for a really long time. I did it all 5 years of undergrad, and I did it during my masters and I didn’t understand that it was that useful to use for performance anxiety until Cynthia brought it up. I thought of it more as a mental relaxing thing, but not something that could be used for a performance practice.
What have you found to be the most effective?
Alexander Technique because for me that is the best way to stay present in the music and give my brain something to do. I throw my anxiety a bone and give it something to focus on and engage with, And that engagement in turn is able to be present. My biggest issue with performance anxiety is 1. Anxiety, and 2. Just checking out completely and that's more recently been an issue for me. So finding a way to stay present and to be able to have awareness that keeps me in every moment of the performance.
How have the methods you've mentioned impacted your performance anxiety?
I'm not nearly as scared of performing. I was really really scared to perform. I was demoralized, and I was really hard on myself. So one of my biggest impacts of working on performance anxiety has been confidence and being able to say, “ I can do this.” Not being afraid of putting myself out there and not being afraid of doing terribly and embarrassing myself. It’s helped quell the fear of putting myself out there in a performance space. It’s scary and it’s really hard to be able to express it. And you could have a totally different experience than the person sitting next to you. It's really hard to tell somebody “I'm really embarrassed. I’m really ashamed. I'm really scared of performing”, when the person sitting next to you is like, “I just played a great concert”. It puts you in a really vulnerable place when there’s so much emphasis on performing. I think there’s a stigma around saying you have performance anxiety. Especially among your peers who didn’t have that same experience.
Would you recommend these methods?
I think one of the most important things about performance anxiety and dealing with it is to understand the personableness of it. I think that Alexander Technique could benefit everyone positively. I think that beta blockers can have positive experiences and meditation can have positive experiences. But your own experience of performance anxiety is known to nobody but you and there are general things that you can do but I think that it's also important that you understand what it is and how it manifests. Respect the individuality of your performance anxiety and what you need to do to be able to deal with it.
If you could offer a piece of advice about performance anxiety or one of the methods you mentioned, what would it be?
I think what I just said honestly. It's individual and it takes a long time to not feel like you’re a failure just because you haven’t figured out how to perform yet. To be able to take a negative experience and learn from it, and to not be afraid of performance anxiety; to be able to look at it head on and say, “I’m going to take this negative experience as a way to perform better next time and better understand myself and my needs”.
That's a wrap on the Performance Anxiety Series! Thank you to all my guests for coming and sharing your stories and experiences. Also thank you for all the amazing advice you've given us! It's been great to have you all.
Anyone who's interested in contacting me for advice, questions, and any help they may need while they're going through their performance anxiety journey, please don't hesitate to reach out! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on instagram @mindoverpractice. See you all next week for a new entry of Mind Over Practice!