I used to experience performance anxiety every single time I was on stage or on the spot. I thought it meant many horrible things for my character as a musician. That I wasn’t cut out for this career path or worse – that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.
My hands would go numb. I’d sweat through my shirt. My blood pressure would drop, my vision would narrow and I would hardly be aware of the song I was up there to sing.
90% of my friends and colleagues didn’t have a problem with this. So I thought it was just me. And I thought it was something that was out of my control.
Musicians perform. Either onstage or offstage (as a composer.) Performance is part of the package – and a large one at that.
For most musicians, experiencing performance anxiety is an absolute nightmare. You work so damn hard to showcase your work – all to struggle in the moment of actually sharing it.
I fought immensely with the shame of this. I even briefly allowed this crisis to become part of my identity. I was the composer afraid of hearing my work. I was the singer afraid of singing on stage. And even worse, these thoughts engrained and ran deep. “If I was terrified of performing – why was I in music? Wasn’t I wasting my time on something I couldn’t change? If my successful colleagues didn’t struggle with it – how could I expect to become successful?”
Performance anxiety is a common reaction to being in a vulnerable position. Meaning that this behavior can be analyzed and unlearned and replaced with new behavior such as performance enjoyment and stage confidence.
You can enjoy playing or composing, be amazing at it, and still experience performance anxiety. It doesn’t make you any less of a musician.
Need convincing? Check out world renowned opera singer Renée Fleming’s autobiography The Inner Voice. She used to call her sister with a panic attack before every performance years into her highly successful career. YEARS.
It sounds simple to just unlearn the behavior and replace it, but the truth is it involves a lot of work. The first step needed is to recognize it. Then you can find a solution that works for you.
Somewhere into my second or third year of studying voice I was lucky enough to bomb a voice jury. Never thought I would say I was lucky to bomb an exam. My voice teacher spotted my performance anxiety and the next lesson he asked me, “what happened?”
I told him everything.
How afraid I was to mess it up, how nervous I would feel, how my body reacted to the stress, and how my mind would become impossible to navigate mid-panic attack on stage. How my hands would go numb.
“You know you can work on this, right? I can give you some tools and tricks to help you navigate this panic. It’s just performance anxiety”
JUST PERFORMANCE ANXIETY.
I remember staring at him with a blank, “WHAT?!” The castle of fear that I had built and would hide behind crumbled. This narrative didn’t have to be part of my identity. I didn’t have to be the terrified composer or the terrified singer. I could rewrite the script.
He recommended meditation, contemplation, and visualization.
Meditation to clear the mind, contemplation to focus on the music, and visualization to imagine the performance in its entirety. These actions would train the memory for every moment, literally leaving no more room in the brain for anxiety. My teacher explained that if I could get my brain to so focus on so many other things during the performance, there would literally be no more room left for me to panic.
And over the years I found that he was right.
I dove headfirst in to each of these practices. Mediation, contemplation and visualization. I didn’t entirely know what I was doing back then, but I started doing the research and fumbled my way into a practice. And this set the foundation for taking care of my mental health in music.
I’m a singer that enjoys singing. I’ve enjoyed dozens of performances since then singing solos, with small ensembles and in larger groups. And as for the composition part – I am making great strides with progress and know that I’ll get to where I want to be with time.
So to any one that casually brushes off your anxiety as something your “not cut out for” – I’m calling bullshit. None of my accomplishments would’ve even been possible if I “wasn’t cut out for it.” You can and will transform your performance anxiety. You just need the right tools.
The last performance I had –
Earlier this year (pre-pandemic) I sang in the chorale for a performance of Mozart’s requiem with the Billings Symphony Orchestra.
Before the performance, idling backstage, a fellow chorister asked if I felt nervous.
I thought about it for a second: I visualized this performance already. The joy of expressing the music, the feel of the lights on stage, the intensity of the work. On the drive over, I meditated to clear my mind and had been contemplating the work with every rehearsal.
I answered honestly and with a smile of my face, “Not even a little bit. I’m ready to enjoy this.”