I really enjoyed reading a Guardian article this week entitled “It’ll be alright on the night: how musicians cope with performance stress” - not least of all because it highlighted a number of points that I’m constantly reiterating, and it’s always nice to hear someone agreeing with you!
It’ll be alright on the night...
One thing that didn’t excite me so much was the title but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that “It’ll be alright on the night” is an example of a maladaptive way musicians deal with performance stress; the article certainly doesn't purport this as a successful technique but it does highlight an underlying cultural issue with our approach to performance anxiety: the ‘just get on with it and it will all work out’ approach. (hint: it doesn’t work!)
Overall I think the article highlights the genesis of my message - you don't have to put up with performance anxiety wreaking havoc on your performances!
Here are some of the key messages from the article:
Even the super-famous suffer from performance anxiety
This is something I emphasise at every workshop I give, and I can always see some doubting faces in the audience. The article cites the likes of Maria Callas, Jonas Kauffmann, Barbara Streisand and Frederic Chopin (and this list is far from exhaustive!) but somehow there is still a little voice in so many performers’ heads that says, ‘if only I were a better performer I wouldn't feel this way’ or ‘maybe I just need to practice more’. Performance anxiety can afflict any performer, of any level or ‘talent’ at any stage in their career! In fact, as was the case for Kaufmann, often performers have already reached substantial levels of achievement before their anxiety gets the better of them. (I would love to know whether Kaufmann, aged 26, sought help for his mental challenges after the reported performance of Parsifal as well as his technical challenges; I find it hard to believe that it wasn't his mental preparation lacking on this occasion!)
You shouldn’t just be able to deal with it!
As Aaron Williamon says in the article “It’s not a natural thing to do… No matter how highly skilled a person is, the body’s preprogrammed stress responses mean they can enter a different physical state and sometimes even a different psychological state”. We all have a preprogrammed stress response, based on our genetics or previous experiences, but the article failed to highlight a third reason, which I often see: Most performers have not been taught the necessary skills to manage their anxiety; they don't understand what anxiety is, and even if they do, they are at a loss as to what to do next! Given this lack of understanding, performance anxiety becomes a dirty little secret, or perhaps even worse, something they just have to put up with, regardless of how detrimental it has become.
It’s all just arousal
The article also refers to Jane Ginsborg’s comparison of love and fear. At first glance these two emotions couldn’t seem further apart, but on closer appraisal they share a lot in common. They both make our heart race, they both create butterflies in our stomach, they both leave us unable to think clearly or concentrate. The physical and mental experiences are very similar. Another way of seeing it is that they are both just varying levels of arousal: a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It is the interpretation we give to these sensations that makes all the difference.
It’s all in the interpretation
Just as with love and fear, how you interpret your feelings of arousal during performance can determine your performance anxiety. If you view your nerves as evidence that you aren’t ready, or that something is going to go wrong, then your experience will be coloured by these negative interpretations. If you see them as preparing you to perform at your best and energising your body for peak performance then you’re much more likely to enjoy a positive performing experience. As Professor Williamon said “It’s the way you interpret that different physical state which makes all the difference. Instead of seeing it as a signal that something’s going to go wrong, they should treat the symptoms as a sign that your body is ready to perform.” Next time you are feeling nervous, welcome your nerves, thank them for turning up and preparing you to perform at your best!
Everyone can develop coping mechanisms!!
The most important message to take away from this article is that everyone can develop ways of dealing with their performance anxiety. These methods may indeed be different for different people, and in my work, I certainly see clients benefiting from different approaches, but there are hundreds of different techniques that can be tailored to your individual needs so that you don’t have to continue to ‘suffer’ with your nerves and anxiety.
I hope you enjoy the article!
Note: if you don't have your own virtual concert hall (it’s alright for some!) you can use your own internal virtual simulator. Using your imagination, and visualising performances, with all the usual anxiety inducing stimuli is a great way to induce performance situations on a much smaller budget!
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