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Performance Anxiety- What does it mean?

Performance Anxiety, Stage Fright, Nerves (whatever you want to call it) can be quite an unpleasant side-effect of performing. It’s incredibly common and most people have experienced it to some degree, including myself- I’ve spoken so often about it now that I’m practically the poster girl for it.

As with most things, knowledge is power and knowing exactly what Performance Anxiety is, where it comes from and how/why it affects us, can, hopefully, help us to deal with it more effectively.

So, I’ve put together a series of blog posts that are going to attempt to answer five of the most Googled questions on Performance Anxiety.

So this week’s question is:

What does Performance Anxiety actually mean?

It seems an obvious question, but knowing exactly what it is can help us tackle it. I mean, when you go to a doctor, they don’t just say you have a disease without explaining what it is, do they? If you answered yes to that question, I suggest you look into changing your doctor.

The dictionary describes it as ‘extreme nervousness experienced before/during participation in an activity taking place in front of an audience.’

I wouldn’t necessary use the word ‘extreme’ to describe performance anxiety as it’s more of a spectrum than just a black and white issue. Not everyone who experiences Performance Anxiety suffers symptoms that most people would regard as ‘extreme’. I mean can you imagine the carnage in contest warm up rooms if everybody who suffered with Performance Anxiety experienced ‘extreme’ symptoms?

Just like regular anxiety, people can experience varying levels of symptoms, from butterflies and sweaty palms to full on panicking, shortness of breath and the shakes. It’s not necessarily the performance itself that causes the anxiety, after all ‘performing’ in the practise room or the bandroom is still performing yet we’re likely to feel less nervous than we do on stage. It is the impact of having an audience, the performance in front of this audience and what could potentially be witnessed by this audience, that causes this fear/anxiety.

For example, you may be able to confidently play the flugel solos from Riverdance, when practising alone in your bedroom. You even get all of those irritating little grace notes in the right place. However, put an audience in front of you, your breathing pattern changes, you may get the shakes and your brain stops working, which results in split notes, miss-timing of those grace notes and it ends up sounding like a messy St Paddy’s night out rather than a refined and rhythmical Riverdance. It’s got nothing to do with your competence as a player or your capability to play the piece, it’s simply the impact of playing it in front of an audience.

This issue isn’t solely related to performing in musical situations. You can get performance anxiety in many scenarios including sport, public speaking or simply addressing a group of people at a party. Even something as simple as trying to drive or park a car, when you have other people with you, can cause Performance Anxiety. It’s a shame I can’t blame my poor parking skills on Performance Anxiety, it’s terrible even when I’m on my own.

The audience doesn’t need to be a mass of people either. Most people feel overwhelmed when confronted with a large group of people, but you can feel performance anxiety in front of any amount of people, even if it’s just your mum listening to you practise. You can even feel it when there are no physical people watching you, such as if you have to film yourself playing. The size or type of audience doesn’t matter, it’s the fact you have somebody or something witnessing your performance which causes the fear and results in symptoms we associate with performance anxiety.

It’s a common myth that getting nervous on stage means you have under-practised. After all, if you know the piece and have practised it properly there shouldn’t be anything to worry about because you can play it, right? Nope! At the end of the day, the symptoms we associate with Performance Anxiety are part of a biological response that the body fires off when it deems necessary. It doesn’t care how many hours you’ve put into practising and you can experience it no matter how prepared you are. You could play Slavische Fantasie standing on your head whilst twirling a hula hoop, and still be affected by performance anxiety. Obviously putting a substantial amount of practise into the piece you need to perform is always important and you’re naturally going to feel more nervous about a piece you haven’t even perfected in the practise room, but dealing with Performance Anxiety itself is not a question of skill or competence, it is a question of handling and control.

There are many, many ways of keeping it under control and avoiding it affecting our performance. Once you’ve established what it feels like, when it happens and how it affects your playing, you have a good basis on which to learn how to deal with it- which is something we’ll look at during the other posts in this series.

In short, Performance Anxiety doesn’t make you any less of a performer or any less talented and it doesn’t have to be debilitating, in fact, it’s perfectly normal! I wish someone had told me that when I was severely suffering with it, which is why I wanted to make this series. Some of the best performers in the world, such as Barbra Streisand, have suffered with Performance Anxiety and it hasn’t done them any harm!

If Babs can deal with it, so can we!

Make sure you keep an eye out for next week’s post where we’ll be answering the question: ‘How Does Performance Anxiety Feel?’ We’ll be looking at the mental and physical symtoms of Performance Anxiety, including how my own Performance Anxiety makes me feel and the potential damage it can do to you as a player, if you don’t address it- it won’t be quite as morbid as this description suggests, promise!

If you enjoyed this, check out these tips on performance prep!

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