Coping With Performance Anxiety

This page, along with other pages in the `Classical Music Resources' series, was previously maintained by Sandy Nicholson. As he can no longer do so he has passed them on to be included on the Musicians & Injuries web site. I will not be adding more material to this page as I am posting similar stories on the M&I page. - PMx 10/96

Performance anxiety - why do we perform?

The following comments on performance anxiety and our motivation for performing come from Les Taylor <Les_Taylor@com.gulfaero>.

I am a baritone soloist and have performed serious music, in public, for some thirty years. The first time was for my entire high school class at graduation where I did the Coronation scene from Boris Goudonov.

For the first fifteen years, it was not always a pleasant experience. I got nauseous and shook like a leaf before, during and after nearly every performance. At one point, during a Messiah performance in the middle of `But Who May Abide', I asked myself why I was doing this. Even though scared half to death, my heart in my throat, blood pounding in my ears, I continued, almost compulsively, to seize every opportunity to perform that I could. I was determined to overcome the problem.

It was always worst when I tried to achieve perfection. This was usually in front of other students at weekly recitals in graduate school, when I just knew that they were taking exquisite note of my every mistake.

I pondered over the solution for years and the realization slowly dawned that the degree of nervousness was directly related to why I was doing what I was doing.

If I tried to achieve perfection, I was scared to death and a poor performance followed. If, on the other hand, I concentrated on the message or feeling that the composer intended the music to convey, I was someimes transported into realms of ecstasy. Inevitably, the audience was quite pleased as well.

If I tried to impose my (not inconsiderable) ego on the audience, the performance always suffered.

If I tried to share what I loved in the music with the audience, without getting my ego involved, trying to be faithful to the `soul' of the music, all was well.

The idea of using drugs, a special diet or sessions on a psychiatrists couch does not address the real problem. One either performs for ones self glorification or as a service to others. A drink before a performance, at least for a singer, is the worst thing to do since it clouds the attention and dessicates the vocal apparatus. Drugs and diets and the like may well have a beneficial effect on ones overall nervous condition but really have very little to do with performance anxiety.

I truly hope that this information does someone some good and serves to reaffirm why we performers do what we do.

Miscellaneous suggestions

Many of the following suggestions are culled from articles in the Usenet newsgroup; for the most part they originally appeared in the frequently asked questions file for that newsgroup. Further contributions/comments are welcome.

If you do not suffer particularly from performance anxiety, count yourself privileged. Anxiety in moderation can be a good thing, helping you to focus all your energy on the task in hand. Clearly, though, if you feel especially uncomfortable when playing or singing (or conducting...) in front of an audience, your performance will suffer.

There are countless ways of coping with the stress of performing, some of which work better for some people than for others. Some have suggested pre-performance exercises of various sorts, from deep breathing to meditation to screaming (quietly if necessary!). Also suggested were longer-term techniques such as the Alexander Method.

Many people suggested (temporary) dietary changes as a means of calming nerves prior to a performance. Indeed, one of the most popular remedies would appear to be the humble banana. Eat a couple of these before you perform and you'll have no problems (or so we are told) - apparently they contain some sort of natural beta-blocker.

Now for the serious stuff. A number of performers have advocated the use of various drugs as surefire ways of reducing/avoiding anxiety. While it is certainly true that drugs can be effective, it is equally true that their misuse can be highly dangerous. Never use anxiety-reducing drugs unless medically directed.

Beta blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal in the US), block the body's response (reaction) to adrenaline. Propranolol is well recognized as effective in reducing performance anxiety. It is one of the safest drugs ever developed, having been in use for treatment of high blood pressure, angina pectoris, and hyperthyroidism for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, beta blockers have at least one potentially fatal side effect: they will worsen the severity of asthma attacks and may precipitate an attack in an otherwise well controlled asthmatic. Persons with heart failure or mild degrees of heart block should usually not take beta blockers, as they can worsen these problems. Propranolol is supplied both in straight tablet form (taken every 6 to 8 hours) and in a long acting (LA) formulation, so be sure to find out from the prescribing physician how soon before a performance to take the medication.

Corticosteroids, such as Prednisone, work by reducing inflammation through suppression of immune responses. A number of side-effects have been attributed to use of such drugs, including thinning of the skin and redistribution of fatty tissue. Short term use of these drugs (a few days to a couple of weeks) will not usually have such adverse effects, though, given the suppression of immune response, corticosteroids should never be taken when suffering from a bacterial or viral illness.

A book on the subject of performance anxiety which comes highly recommended is `Stage Fright; its causes and cures, with special reference to violin playing' by Kato Havas.

The Archer and the Prize

- a final thought from Ken Fox

An archer competing for a clay vessel shoots effortlessly, his skill and concentration unimpeded. If the prize is changed to a brass ornament, his hands begin to shake. If it is changed to gold, he squints as if he were going blind. His abilities do not deteriorate, but his belief in them does, as he allows the supposed value of an external reward to cloud his vision.
Contributors: [1] Greg Baker <>; [2] Daniel Downey <>; [3] Jonathan Helton <>; [4] Nancy Leinonen Howells <>; [5] Seth S. Katz <>; [6] John Lewis <>; [7] Lawrence E. Mallette <>; [8] Ken Fox <>
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