I’m sure you’ve met performance anxiety. The vast majority of musicians have shook hands with this nuisance in one way or another. For some of us, it’s isolated to specific situations or particular people in the audience. For some of us, it’s so broad that we sweat at the very thought of performing. Some describe it as butterflies in their stomach; others would illustrate not with butterflies but with the sting of acid or the weight of a boulder. As with most conditions, it exists on a scale ranging from mild to severe and hits individuals in unique ways. And unless you’ve had some very unusual experiences, it’s internal - it’s all in your head. And that’s what makes it so frustrating. So. Frustrating.
Students tell me they don’t really know why they get so nervous; they just do. But in order to truly start dealing with this, you will need to track down the thoughts that start this ball rolling. Not sure you know what I’m talking about? Next time you’re playing and you feel apprehension coming on, stop and listen. What do you hear? Is it like a voice in the back of your mind? “You’ll mess up… again.” “Everyone else is better than you; and everyone knows it.” “What if something goes wrong?” “You’re not talented enough.” “You’ll never get this right.” “You’re not smart enough.” “Why do you bother trying?” “You’re not good enough to even be here.” (excuse me) “You suck.”
Feel like I’m in your head a little? Yeah, it’s because I’ve been there, too. Here’s the thing: they’re all lies. Those statements are lies. Stop reading for a sec and let that sink in. Seriously, go ahead, I can wait…
I’m guessing that you are resisting the idea, that you’re more likely to believe what you hear in your own head rather than me. And that’s fair. After all, you know you better than I do. So, let’s look at some external evidence: how is it that you are in whatever scenario you find yourself fretting about? If you are performing in a recital, how did you get in? If you’re performing an exam, how did you get to the level you are? If you’re playing in an ensemble, how did you join? In any of these cases, were you invited? Did you audition? Did someone recommend you?
Let’s use an example from my studio. A student had recently auditioned and been accepted to a school of music at a university. She was having trouble completing a skill exercise that I had assigned to her, and it was starting to really upset her. She was frustrated and emotional and visibly anxious. Before she even started playing in her lesson, she was feeling the anxiety. We took a time-out and I asked her what she heard. She described her playing. Me: “That’s not what I mean. Right now, before you’ve even played, what do you hear inside your head.” Student: (pause) “I don’t really know.” Me: “Let me take a guess.” And I quoted some of the statements a few paragraphs up, and hit on the ones she was hearing. She could point them out right away when they were called out. She easily admitted to them. But, she had a hard time accepting their inaccuracy, until I pointed out what she had accomplished that very same semester. Me: “If you feel like maybe I’m just trying to cheer you up, then let’s think about this: a panel of university professors who you had never met accepted you into their school of music based on the quality of your audition. They didn’t have to let you in. You played well. You don’t suck.”
Can you relate? I want to make it clear to you that you are not alone. Like I said, the vast majority of musicians have encountered these same feelings of inadequacy. Take that out into the everyday, non-music world, and you’d be amazed at how many people around you have heard similar thoughts pass through their minds. So what to do?
First, acknowledge the voices. Eloise Ristad calls these voices your “judges.” Don’t try to automatically ignore them - they have a way of getting louder. When you’ve heard the message, you have one of three choices:
1) Believe them. On occasion, they perhaps, could be, might be pointing out something that you need to address. (This would sound very specific and be about the piece or a particular skill, not a blanket statement like “You’re not good enough.”) Believing a false message is also an option, but I don’t recommend it. Listen to what is actually being said, then weigh the message very carefully before you decide to believe it.
2) Call out the lie. Your teacher asked you to perform - that means she has the confidence that you CAN do it. You advanced to the top band, where exams are a regular occurrence - that means you EARNED your way into the group. The hardest thing here will probably be believing that something you are hearing inside your own head is untrue. The more often you confront this, the more confident you will be in deciding how to handle it. The more practice you get at discerning the lies from the criticisms, the more self-assured you will be in your response.
3) Tell them to shut up. Sometimes, the message comes at a very inopportune moment when you can’t take the time to address it. So, tell the voice to shut up - you are busy and it’s distracting you from doing the work in front of you. Focus on what you need to do, and play just like you practiced. You can take the time to debunk later.
Another note about the untruths of performance anxiety (and this one’s going to be difficult, too): Beware of the comparison trap. Your progress is yours. There will always be somebody you perceive to be better. That doesn’t make you a failure. And anyway, that’s not why you started playing an instrument in the first place, right? To compete with people you know? So why spend your time and energy fretting over how someone you know is doing better than you? (Ah, such a good lesson for all of us, in many areas of life. I’ll let you know if it ever fully sinks into my thick head!) Applaud the excellence you hear around you and take what you can learn from those you hold in high esteem. But remember that your friend’s success is not your failure. A disappointing audition or exam result doesn’t mean your music career is over. This is hard because we feel the need to keep up with those around us. But, it’s a mirage - it’s not real. You only see snapshots of your classmates and/or colleagues, and while you’re chasing after something you see in them, somebody is likely chasing after something they see in you. So stop comparing yourself to those around you and pay attention to the work in front of you. Excel at what YOU do.
Lastly, remember what got you started on your instrument in the first place. Play music because you love to play music, and stop letting half-truths or flat-out lies rob you of the enjoyment of making art.