By Carolyn Walter
While speaking with a friend several years ago, I mentioned that like so many other people, I wished I was never anxious while performing. Insecure about my ability to do well at high-pressure performances and auditions, I yearned for a magic bullet that would make me supremely confident and impervious to self-doubt. I will always remember my colleague’s response: A dancer and classical bassist by trade, she shrugged her elegant shoulders and replied, “Yes, but I am always a little bit glad when I am nervous at a performance, because it means that I actually care.”
In that moment, I began to realize that performance anxiety is a natural part of the artistic process, something to be managed and channeled rather than eradicated or deadened. For most of us, it will never go away completely, so long as we continue to do things which challenge us and as long as we remain invested in the outcome. If at all possible, the goal is to have FUN while performing, relish the challenge, and remember why we became performers in the first place! Coexisting with this natural anxiety in such a way that it does not interfere with your enjoyment of your own performance is discussed in depth in “The Inner Game of Music,” a classic music-psychology book co-written by Barry Green, a former principal bassist with the Cincinnatti Symphony and Timothy Gallway, a former professional athlete.
A first step to anxiety management would be, of course, being as prepared as possible before the actual performance. While many musicians are already obsessively thorough during this phase, it would be good to mention that “practicing performing” should be a goal throughout all stages of learning the music. Rather than waiting until dress rehearsal or the night of the performance, it is beneficial to get into the mindset of being received by the listener/audience as soon as one begins learning the material. Inviting supportive fellow musicians, friends and family members to listen in at various stages during your learning process is often quite helpful.
Once you’ve made it to the actual performance, it is time to be mindful of your feelings - admitting that you are nervous and observing that fact with compassion is crucial, and will likely allow you to move on without becoming paralyzed. Acknowledge that you have done the very best to prepare for this moment given your own unique circumstances; of course, any performance could always be better, but you are as ready as you can be. If you happen to make a technical mistake during the performance and your negative inner monologue starts rolling, clear your mind and focus on something fundamental like breathing or tone quality — whether you are a conductor, singer, string player, wind player or percussionist, remember to breathe!
While Sheet Music Plus is primarily an online marketplace for printed music and related accessories, there are quite a few books in the catalog on the subject of performance anxiety. A few of the products listed below discuss the sources of performance-related-stress or “stage fright,” along with offering exercises and techniques to manage it:
To those reading: what helps you keep performance anxiety manageable? What was your most memorable memorable stressful performance and how did you handle it?
Carolyn Walter holds a degree in clarinet performance from San Francisco State University, and is an active music educator and multi-genre performer around the Bay Area.