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Performance Anxiety- How Can We Deal With It?

So, we find ourselves at the fourth week of our exploration into Performance Anxiety. So far, we know what Performance Anxiety is, how it can affect us and where it comes from, so it makes sense that week’s question is:

How Can We Deal With Performance Anxiety?

As we discovered last week, Performance Anxiety is the result of a chemical reaction (click here to read last week’s post). We know that this chemical reaction is triggered by a stress/fear response to a stimulus (the stimulus being performing in this instance). It is this initial stress that triggers Performance Anxiety and this can be caused for a variety of different reasons- such as, genetics, our past experiences and our environment (including our personal environment, i.e our bodies). Therefore, there are a variety of different ways we can deal with Performance Anxiety, both before and during the performance.

Now, genetics I can’t really do much about (I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to mess around with that kind of thing anyway), however the other factors I’ve mentioned can be controlled and managed. So here are some tips to help combat these factors!

Viewing Performance

As we established last week, the stress we feel triggers the feelings we associate with Performance Anxiety. So, if we can limit this stress before performing, this can limit the effects of Performance Anxiety.

As a starting point, try and keep these three things in mind in the run up to a performance before you go on stage:

1- The audience is made up of two types of people- those who can play and those who can’t.

Those who can’t play can’t judge: they can’t play and you can- you’re already one up on them.

Those who can play will have had at least one bad performance in their lifetime, so are in no place to judge you.

2- There is no such thing as a bad performance- only good performances and learning opportunities.

Performance didn’t go as well as you hoped? Take what could have been better and implement this in your practise.

3- Whatever mistake you make, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last.

Whether you’re worrying about splitting/missing a note, making a mistake, having a wobble through nerves, dropping a mute, sneezing during a performance, forgetting your glasses, or tripping on stage- we’ve all done it. The world will not end. Also we tend to think the worst about our performances- what you think is a mediocre performance might actually be the best on the day!

Tip: I have these three points written in the notes app on my phone and I’ll read over them on the morning of a performance and whenever I feel a flutter of nerves leading up to a performance. They do help ground me when my head starts spinning from nerves. Feel free to do the same!

Our Past Experiences

Having a negative experience during a past performance can cause negative thought patterns for future performances. For example, say you had a solo performance and ,for some reason, it just didn’t work. There were mistakes, maybe you had to stop and start again and it was all very embarrassing. It makes obvious sense that you worry about this happening again the next time you step out on stage, but this can become a problem.

We can find ourselves visualising a bad performance every time we need to perform, which is an easy habit to get into, but a hard one to get rid of. We start assuming that the performance is going to go wrong in some way, which can turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy– we worry so much about having a bad performance that we end up not concentrating and making mistakes which fuels our negative thought process that every performance is going to go wrong.

Before performing we should visualise what a good performance of the particular piece sounds like. How it sounds. How you need to breathe, articulate or what musical elements you’ve put into your rendition. Visualise this good performance rather than visualising yourself making a truck load of mistakes. See yourself standing with a smile on your face at the end and positive comments people may say about the performance.

One piece of advice I can give that helped me out of my playing rut is to always- ALWAYS– make a note (either physically or mentally) of what went well after EVERY PERFORMANCE. The things that didn’t go so well go on your practise stand ready to work on for your next performance, but always take the time after every performance to pat yourself on the back for the things that went well.

Our Environment

This seems like a strange thing to bring up when talking about anxiety. I’m not talking about recycling or global warming. There are two types of environment I want to talk about:

  1. Our physical environment– what’s surrounding us.

  2. Our personal environment– our bodies.

As both can have an impact on performance anxiety.

Physical Environment

Growing up or playing within a critical environment, for example: having critical parents or playing for a band where the MD/players are more focused on the negatives or criticising each other, can cause us to be critical about ourselves. We can internalise these critical voices and these end up being all we can hear. As we’re practising we may worry that Barry, the fourth man down, will turn round and spew venemous criticism if we don’t nail that semi-quaver run. We may worry that our friends/family will be critical of a performance and we may feel we have to prove ourselves all of the time.

If this is the case, it may be an idea to consider the band you’re playing with. Are you really going to get the most out of your rehearsals if you’re sitting there terrified of making a mistake? At the end of the day, your performance has nothing to do with anybody other than you. Play to make yourself happy and sod everybody else’s opinion.

Before your performance take time in rehearsal to think about how you sit, where your stand is and the position of any mutes. It may sound silly, but even sitting in a position that feels different or your stand being too close/too far than you normally have it in the band room, or worrying if you can reach your mutes in time can cause unnecessary discomfort or stress. Also taking this time to really take in your surroundings can help ground you when the nerves kick in. Do what you need to do to feel comfortable before you play…well, within reason- don’t be wheeling on an armchair and carry a blanket and a brew onto the stage because ‘it makes you feel comfortable’.

Personal Environment

Our body is like a machine- if you want it to perform to the best of its ability, give it a fighting chance by fuelling it correctly:

Hydrate: Two litres of water EVERY DAY for at least TWO WEEKS before your performance. You will need to wee every ten minutes during those two weeks, but you won’t be dry-mouthed if the nerves kick in.

Avoid excessive caffeine: I do find this quite difficult, especially on early contest mornings- have you ever had to be friendly with people at 8am without caffeine? It’s incredibly difficult. However caffeine stimulates our nervous system and increases our heart rate- not good if you’re trying to avoid performance anxiety. A cup in the morning may not do much and you know your body better than I do, but if performance anxiety is becoming an issue, I’d try and avoid it to see if this helps.

Sleep: Being an insomniac, this is another one I struggle with, but I’ve also learned to live on very little sleep over the years- it’s practically become a super power. However, do whatever you can to get a decent amount of sleep running up to a contest. Hot showers and lavender oil on your wrists and/or on a pillow work quite well. I recommend the Deep Sleep Pillow Spray by This Works (you can by 7ml bottles for £6 from M&S)

Breathe: I always try and find a little bit of time to do some breathing exercises before a performance. Just five minutes when you’re getting changed out of your walking outs or sat in the warm-up room can give you chance to calm down any rising nerves. There’s loads of exercises on the internet but the easiest one to remember is the following (this is the one I do):

  1. Exhale all the way out, to the slow count of 4 (so your lungs are completely empty) your lungs should be completely empty by the time you count to 4.

  2. Again, to the count of 4, inhale to the point where there is no room left to fill in your lungs. Your lungs should be full by the time you count to 4.

  3. You can use a watch or metronome at 60bpm to count your 4 beats, but it really doesn’t matter as long as it’s a slow count to 4, the main thing you’re focusing on is your breathing.

Pharmaceutical/Herbal Treatments

I’m by no means a doctor (bloody hell, can you imagine!?) and obviously if performance anxiety or anxiety in general is becoming a problem for you, go and see a professional. There are pharmaceutical ways for keeping symptoms of anxiety under control and there is no shame for seeking these out. I follow all of the steps I’ve outlined in this post, but (due to suffering with panic attacks- they’re a delight) there are days where I need to take my anti-anxiety medication before performing. It doesn’t make me this super confident player, it just helps me to function properly so (coupled with all the other tips and tricks in this post, I can give the best performance I physically can.

There are some brilliant herbal remedies that I use as well for the days when performance anxiety is tripping me up. The Rescue Remedy range of calming herbal products are really good. They are a herbal remedy that contain flower essences which aid stress. Sounds very hippy dippy I know, but some of the products really have helped me. The products I’ve frequently found useful are the Rescue Liquid Melts that are fast dissolving capsules melt on your tongue quickly and the Rescue Remedy Dropper which you mix into water and drink before a performance.

If you want to know more about Rescue click here-

Doing a little bit of research into performance anxiety and how I can cope with it was extremely helpful for me and I hope this advice helps you too!

Next week will be the final installment in this Performance Anxiety series where we’ll be addressing the question:

Is performance anxiety a bad thing?

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