How to get to grips with performance anxiety

Yes, some performers absolutely love to be in the centre of attention. You will be surprised to learn though (or maybe not) that for a lot of professional musicians and performers, it is not always that easy. Pre-performance nerves can show in different ways: From mild to so severe that you actually cannot perform.

If you feel nervous before your first gig, audition or exam, rest assured: Most professional musicians know exactly how you feel, we’ve all been there – some more, some less.

So what can you do to overcome nerves, or at least don’t let them cripple your performance?

Like with most things, practice makes perfect. You cannot expect yourself to deal well with all aspects of a situation you have never encountered, and neither should you. Allow yourself to make mistakes – performance anxiety is usually worst in people who think the audience will expect them to be superhuman and flawless. Nobody is, and whilst you can improve technically, there is no such thing as “knowing everything” and “being perfect”. At the end of the day, it actually doesn’t matter what other people think about you. This is a really common stressor for all performing artists – we want to be liked, and we put far too much emphasis on the idea that our careers might be wrecked if we make one tiny mistake, or that people might think badly of us. This is a very vicious cycle, and the reason a lot of people suffer from stage fright.

The first and most important thing to avoid crippling stage fright is to be prepared. You might find this odd because it should really go without saying, but you will take an awful lot of stress off yourself if you make sure your songs are well prepared, you know your lyrics, and you don’t have any major technical problems to worry about. A very simple rule to adhere to is: If you can’t sing it well in a relaxed rehearsal situation (record it!), don’t sing it on stage/in a concert.

The next step is to perform in front of someone before you have your first gig, even if it is just a few family members or friends. You will be surprised how nervous you can get performing ‘just’ in front of your partner, but it is an important step into the right direction. Always avoiding an audience will just make it worse when the really important day approaches. The more you get used to other people listening and watching, the better. At the start, you should not care too much about their opinions, you should really just get used to the idea of singing in front of someone. If you feel ready for it, get honest feedback though (sometimes not easy when friends and family are involved) on what they think you could improve: Again, being prepared is key. Avoid fretting over things which “don’t work that well” though. If you belong to that group, better don’t ask for too much feedback.

Once on stage/in a concert situation, it is important to get the right balance between audience involvement and ignoring them. Sounds like a contradiction? It actually isn’t. You want the audience involved, and you want to connect. You don’t want to focus on one person however – something a lot of rookie singers do if they know there is a ‘friendly face’ (e.g. mum/dad, boyfriend/girlfriend etc) out there. Whilst it can feel re-assuring to see someone smile at you, it also shuts out the rest of the audience. So try not to sing to just one person/a handful of people you know, at least not in a very noticeable way – you can of course do it in your head if it helps. This is different of course if your performance requires you to do so (let’s say you are playing a role), but this is an entirely different performance situation.

The same applies to constantly having your eyes closed whilst singing. It is okay to do it occasionally, but if you do it all the time, you lose out on the very important connection with your audience. They will feel left out if you mainly sing to/for yourself – apart from that, you will also be quite astonished to learn that it actually tends to change the tone of your voice. Whilst this is okay for stylistic reasons, it can become a problem if it just happens at random.

The best trick for nervous first-time performers (and even the more experienced ones) is to let your eyes wander around the venue a bit – back to front, left to right and so on. If it suits your performance, it is also a good idea to move around, so you can address different ‘sections’ of the auditorium. If you can see people’s faces, try to avoid staring at them – rather look slightly over their heads. If you can’t see them because the room it quite big, or you have spotlights on you, you will maybe (!) find it easier: I always found that the more intimate a venue was, the more nervous I felt. Singing in front of 500 people – not a problem. Singing in front of 5 – oh dear 😉

If you are completely crippled with anxiety, to the extent that your performance falls apart completely, you need to have a closer look at it and get help. There are many strategies out there: from (self-)hypnosis to NLP, from exercise to burn off excess adrenaline to meditation to calm your mind, from counselling sessions to medication. None of them work for everyone, and none of them are advisable in any given case. Performance anxiety is a very personal thing, and I would recommend to tackle it with professional help if it gets too severe to handle. There is no shame in it, and neither should you feel embarrassed. It is very common, and you are not alone.

© Petra Raspel 2011

3 thoughts on “How to get to grips with performance anxiety

  1. Hi Petra, nice post!

    You’re absolutely right about being properly prepared. But the problem is that at home (or in rehearsal) you can THINK you’re fully prepared only for it all to fall apart in front of an audience! So performing in front of someone as you suggest is a great idea. But that still might not be enough. There is no way to practice performing in front of an audience other than performing in front of an audience!!!

    One secret is to focus OUTWARDS. Not on whether you remember the song, or if you’re standing correctly, or if you’ll hit that high note, … pick a focus of attention outside yourself such as the people on the back row, what you’re actually communicating, the other harmonies (if you’re singing in a group), etc. Works wonders!

    Chris
    (From the Front of the Choir: http://blog.chrisrowbury.com)

    Like

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your comment!

      You are completely right – you actually need to do it to get used to it.

      You are also right about the outwards aspect, although that’s already a trickier one. Too much focus on the self (or ego ;)) is an almost surefire way to fall apart if you are a nervous performer. That’s the aspect of “wanting to be liked and perfect” I talked about. So focusing on sharing music/the story with your audience is very good advice. The only thing we need to watch is that the outward focus isn’t a hidden “ego pleaser” – when we THINK we are focusing on the audience, but we are actually just looking into a mirror: The frown we see turns into “Oh my God, they don’t like it”, the yawning audience member turns into “I must be so boring” etc. It is sometimes very hard to draw a line, and that’s where we get back to your original point:

      Do it, get used to it, and learn from it.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s