Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Stage Fright/ Performance Anxiety- Got Yours?

Great Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a Proponent of Yoga

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

"Relax. RELAX. JUST RELAX, YOU'LL PLAY SOOOO MUCH BETTER?" Ever had such sage advice thrown your way? Yes, most musicians have. And it doesn't help. But learning to relax and focus on your performance truly will help you play better. But how do you do it when every part of your being is telling you just the opposite?

Though perhaps to different extents, every musician understands the stomach-turning restlessness that precedes a performance, not to mention the heart-racing blur of the performance itself. For some musicians, the feeling becomes manageable with time, as confidence in their technique grows and the player gains more experience with public performances. For others, performance anxiety can become a serious issue preventing them from pursuing music more seriously. 

In this time of the Pandemic, it doesn't seem like in-person performances will return anytime soon. But, eventually, they will. Much of the discussion below applies to video performances on social media. We hope that live performances return very, very soon!

Performance anxiety or stage fright is one example of the “flight or fight response” and symptoms can range from elevated heart rate and nausea to tremors and dry mouth. [1] It’s a natural reaction to what is a very unnatural situation- performing music in front of a crowd. When players are just starting out, the unfamiliarity of this situation and lack of confidence in their ability and technique tend to be the main contributors of anxiety. [2] In older players and more severe cases, the causes can be more complex. For example, these cases could be caused by bad past performances or a deeper issue with social anxiety that should be treated with therapy and medical attention. Performance anxiety can’t be completely cured, but it is possible to mitigate it.

Pablo Casals is considered one of the greatest cellists of all time, but he talked about experiencing stage fright throughout his career. (We have mentioned him and his cellos several times on the blog)

The most important factor is gaining experience. Performing in front of crowds, again and again, will acclimate your mind to performing. This doesn’t mean you need to perform in front of a crowd of thousands every week, but making performances a regular part of your musical life can help a big performance go more smoothly. For example, volunteering to perform at a nursing home can be a good low-stakes way to practice performing. (Sidenote: I’ve (Ivana) personally done this and not only is it a great way to improve your public performance, but the residents and staff are always so excited and supportive. They’re always looking for volunteers, so reach out to your local nursing home!)

Joshua Bell tries busking 

Another great option is performing for friends and family, playing coffee shops on weekend mornings, or busking.  I (Andy) did quite a lot of busking (playing on a street corner or sidewalk with an open case for "donations") in my younger days and I highly recommend it for classical musicians! You'll learn how to put yourself out there with no control over the audience, how to engage an audience quickly and keep them engaged, how to pick a time and place for your performance, and (if you get good at it!) earn some money quickly. When I was a violin making student I used to go out to a ritzy nightlife area of Chicago with a few friends on Friday and Saturday nights between about 11 PM and 2 AM and earn enough to pay my monthly rent in one session! In the video above Joshua Bell tries busking in the subway. In this type of venue, he, errr, bombed on the first try.

The violinist Midori gives her advice on stage fright- “It’s better to learn to perform under pressure than try to take away the pressure.”

In terms of tips for individual performances, plan to arrive early. Not just a few minutes early. Plan on arriving early enough so that even if your plane, train, or car ride has unexpected delays, you won't arrive at your performance venue already in a panic. A trick I learned from many soloists is to plan on arriving 30 minutes to an hour earlier than you'd think you'd like to arrive. The worse that can happen is that you have a little more prep time before your performance.

It’s pretty obvious that you should give yourself enough time to warm-up on your instrument, but also try to do some sort of physical warm-up. This could be yoga or exercises within the Feldenkrais or Alexander methods (More on these methods here). This will clear your mind and loosen your muscles, helping you avoid any unwanted tensions caused by nervousness that could affect both your playing and your health in the long term. If possible, you should also try to run through your piece on stage or wherever you are performing. (You can also go to the venue on a different day if this won’t be possible the day of the performance) Try to make this run through as close as possible to the actual performance. For example, if you won’t have sheet music on stage, don’t use sheet music in your run-through or go on stage when they have the spotlights on, so you can actually feel the brightness and heat of the lights while you play. 

Musicians taking an Alexander Technique class- you can apply exercises from the Feldenkrais/Alexander technique to warm up before a performance

© FGOpera/ Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

A technique that is often utilized in sports to help combat performance anxiety is visualization. For musicians, this means that each time before you play a piece (even when practicing), you picture yourself playing the first few lines. You imagine the pressure of your finger on the string, the movement of your bow, and the people in the crowd. Visualizing actions in detail- that is, imagining how the action will affect the environment and your own body- activates your brain in a way that is very similar to actually performing it. One theory about why this technique works is that as this visualization unfolds, your brain can fine-tune that motor action that you’re imagining to improve the execution of the action. [3] This sounds strange, but while the neurophysiological workings of this technique are not understood well, it has consistently been shown to improve performance.

Another tip to help during a performance is to focus on the musicality and flow of the passages in the piece(s) rather than the individual notes. Personally, I find that during a performance, I can make one mistake and then overthink and get caught up on it, leading to more mistakes or panicking and forgetting the next part. Focusing on the flow of each passage and what kind of image you are trying to convey to the audience will help take the pressure off of individual notes and shift your focus to the bigger picture. 

Of course, we all know we should eat right and sleep well the night before a performance! Similarly, try to limit sugar and caffeine right before you go on stage. 

©BennyG3255/ Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

And try to remember that the audience is there to enjoy a performance. Nobody wants anybody on stage to fail and nobody is attending to pick apart performers. It’s also important to remember that musicians are often overly self-critical. You would be surprised how often a horrible performance to the musician is perceived by the audience as completely passable. Competitions, recitals, and auditions are a reality for musicians, but they often overshadow the real reason all of us play music. Music should bring you joy and performance should just be a way of sharing that. Be forgiving of yourself, try some of these tips, and play some fun music!

One last thing. Being scared you're going to bomb your performance can be mitigated by one very important thing- PRACTICE! The better you know your piece, the more confident you'll be in your performance. Don't just practice the piece until you think you have every note right. Practice it until you can hear every note in your head, play every note in your sleep, have fallen in love with the piece and the composer, and have it memorized. Even if you are planning to have the music in front of you on performance day, memorize the piece. Go forth with CONFIDENCE!
Having a better instrument or bow never hurt anyone's performance!
Check our fine violins, violas, cellos, and bows at fineviolins.com

  1. Performance Anxiety: Treatment Options for Stage Fright by Allison Maerker Garner
  2. How Kinesthetic Motor Imagery works: A predictive-processing theory of visualization in sports and motor expertise; K. Richard Ridderinkhof, Marcel Brassc
  3. The musician's way: a guide to practice, performance, and wellness; Part II Fearless Performance; Gerald Klickstein

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