Performance anxiety

31 Dec 2010

Performance anxiety is a frequent problem among musicians. It can considerably reduce your pleasure in playing and in your work. Feeling nervous prior to a concert is normal and can in fact actually improve your performance; resulting in an even more intense vibrato, more inspired playing and a wonderful alertness heightening your contact with the audience. However, excessive nervousness has a negative impact on your performance; your heart pounds, your hands sweat, suddenly you find yourself struggling, bothered by distracting thoughts, shaking… All of this can completely spoil your enjoyment of the music.

Causes of performance anxiety

The causes of performance anxiety are primarily to be found in the mental sphere, creating these annoying problems that affect your coordination. Nervous tension makes you feel cramped and restricted and your movements become less supple . Your performance suffers from these cramped movements and you become even more nervous. Before you know it, you find yourself trapped in a downwards spiral.

  • Attitudes consciously or unconsciously passed on to you by your parents and teachers

Were there extremely high expectations? (If you really want to, you can achieve anything) Or perhaps on the contrary the expectations were very low? (Don’t think that you will ever be as good as…) Was the manner of teaching overly focused on achievement? Was there an overriding attitude of ‘mistakes are not permitted’? Or was experiencing enjoyment in playing/singing the central focus?

  • Your own inner dialogue

Do you think thoughts that generate stress? (I have to play well this evening; otherwise the other students won’t think much of me… I must win this audition; otherwise I will disappoint my parents…)

  • The way you study

Studying in a positive and calm manner prevents performance anxiety. On the other hand, studying in a negative and stressed way creates nervousness, resulting in increased stress and tension in your body.

How can the Alexander Technique help?

The Alexander Technique can help you with the following:

  1. Accepting your performance nerves so that you can focus more attention on the music
  2. Learning well-coordinated movements
  3. Learning to study in an efficient, positive and calm manner
  4. Developing a healthy internal dialogue
  1. First and foremost, it is important to realise that it’s better not to try to suppress your nerves. The fact is that the more you try to suppress them, the worse they will become: you end up fighting against them. The best way to suffer less from nerves is actually to totally accept them. This might seem crazy, considering that in such moments your dearest wish is that your performance nerves would immediately vanish forever. One of the first steps in the Alexander Technique process is ‘being in the here and now’ by briefly pausing. In this crucial moment you observe yourself, thus accepting where/how/what you are/feel/do at that moment. This first step always consists of acceptance, an attitude that is essential for reducing performance anxiety. Consequently there is room to focus your attention on the true central issue: the music.
  2. As a result of accepting your nerves you are better able to coordinate your movements well. Conscious coordination of your movements can help you to play/sing/conduct to the best of your ability in spite of being nervous.
  3. The Alexander Technique can also help with the way in which you study. See my article study tips».
  4. The Alexander Technique can also indirectly help with your inner dialogue: it can help you to discover your negative ideas and thoughts, an aspect of ourselves that we are often quite unaware of. Just as we have our physical habits; we also have our habitual mental patterns.

Reducing performance anxiety in a natural manner (without the use of beta-blockers) is a process that may take time. For most musicians it requires a considerable shift in their way of thinking and an improvement in coordination. However, taking the time to undergo in-depth, fundamental change in this way can prove to be extremely worthwhile and it provides an opportunity to discover many things about yourself.