On Performance Related Anxiety
...And how we might avoid it altogether in our students!
Stage-fright, nerves, performance anxiety - call it what you will, it's a frustrating and sometimes paralyzing obstacle to making music in front of people, sometimes even your music teacher! We've all experienced it in some form, at some time, and while it's certainly no fun, a certain level of anxiety about performing can be a tool for motivating us to practice. But we all, as students, parents, teachers and performers, need to develop strategies to deal with it, and sometimes, to avoid inadvertently creating it.
As performance opportunities arise, like festivals, recitals, jam sessions and so on, I often hear parents asking their kids: "Are you nervous about the recital (or whatever)?" Most people, if asked in that language, will respond in the affirmative: "A little," "Yes," etc. I try to coach parents into asking more neutral questions, like "There's a recital coming up! How are you feeling about that?" ...Often, this sort of question will elicit a response that doesn't include any anxiety. The student is excited, but not nervous, because s/he doesn't know that this type of thing is "supposed" to be scary.
We all want to protect our children/students/selves from things that seem stressful. But for some people, making music isn't inherently a nervewracking thing! We get to share what we've been working on all term with people who love us and want us to succeed... and that doesn't have to be scary at all!
Of course, there are kids/adults who have already developed anxiety about performing. We're worried that something will go horribly wrong, or we'll forget the song, and we'll be humiliated and laughed at. And no amount of reassurance from someone else feels like enough. It seems easier to avoid the situation altogether, and thus avoid the anxiety. But remember, if you feel that way, you actually need more practice at this situation, not less. When a child is nervous about going to school, do we tell them they can just stay home? Not usually. Usually, we get them to go every day until they realize that they had nothing to be worried about after all. The same is true of performing. The more times you do it, the less you have to fear. And you realize that even if something does go wrong - if you forget the words or trip on your way up to the stage, it's not actually world-ending.
This is not meant to minimize the feelings that accompany performance anxiety. They are real, and I know they can seem debilitating. There are lots of accomplished performers I know who take anti-anxiety medication (natural or pharmacological), or who have a calming/centering routine that they engage in before every performance. The theater world is filled with superstitions that help minimize anxiety. If you experience feelings of panic every time you try to sing in front of anyone, there are many techniques, up to and including therapy and medications, to help you get past them.
But so many of us inadvertently create these fears in others by passing on our own anxieties in well meaning questions like the above "Are you nervous about..." (we do it to ourselves, too!) Try to rephrase and reframe those questions to things we can control: "Do you feel like you have practiced your songs enough? No? Well, there's still time... why don't you play them for me now?" or even "Which shoes will make you feel best at the concert? Remember, you have to stand up for a long time!"
...And finally, even (maybe even especially) when you're nervous about performing, take advantage of every opportunity to do it, so that it becomes less mysterious and terrifying. (and this comes from someone who fell down on stage numerous times, and accidentally set her costume on fire once!)
It's simple, but it's not easy: the audience wants to love you. You just have to let them.