Performance anxiety, also known as "stage fright" can affect any performer, from absolute beginners, to professionals and can really affect one's self-esteem. Here are some practical tips to prevent severe performance anxiety and manage the natural anxiety one feels before performing.
Before we dive into the practicalities of managing performance anxiety, you must understand that feeling a little nervous before a performance is completely normal, and can actually help you to perform better! The nerves can allow you to focus really sharply on the task at hand. Performance anxiety occurs when this feeling nervousness becomes overpowering, to the point that it may have a negative impact on how you perform.
Performance anxiety will generally present with it some uncomfortable physical symptoms, for example: nausea, headaches, body shakes, shortness of breath, sweating, etc. It is important to be aware of how performance anxiety generally affects you, i.e., knowing which symptoms you personally experience.
We're now going to discuss two sets of tips to help you manage your performance anxiety!
This may seem very obvious but the more practice you can do before your performance, the better! You don't need to spend all day every day every day practising your pieces, however, if you complete regular practice sessions which are short and efficient, you will be so familiar with your repertoire by the time you need to perform it that you can be confident to show it off! If you are learning from sheet music, make sure you mark in all of your performance directions, such as bowings, breath marks, dynamics, etc. so that when the nerves kick in on the day of the performance, you will not forget the key aspects of how you want to interpret the music
Visualisation is one of the most useful tools when it comes to preventing performance anxiety. If possible, try to imagine yourself performing in context....what is the venue like? what will you be wearing? what time is it? Imagine every minute detail of the performance scenario and visualise how you would ideally like the performance to go. If you regularly imagine yourself giving the best performance you have ever given, it becomes much more likely for that to come true. Think of this quote:
"The body achieves what the mind believes"
When you first begin practising a piece, you can split it into sections to make it more manageable, however, once you can play it all, you should play it as if you were performing each time. Try not to stop when you make mistakes, this is how it will be in the real performance! Any issues can be revisited in small chunks at the end of the play through.
Be aware of how anxiety usually affects you; what symptoms do you usually experience? Try practising under conditions which will create similar symptoms
For example, if you are someone who struggles with shortness of breath when you are anxious, you must ensure that you can perform under those conditions: two ways that you can prepare for this are to (a): run up and down a flight of stairs or do a few minutes of running so that you are out of breath, as you would be on the day of the performance, and then try playing your repertoire, or (b): perform to an audience of friends and family as regularly as you can, this will help you get used to managing nerves and will test how well you can cope when playing to an audience.
Meditation, along with visualisation are really powerful tools which can help make performing a more enjoyable and less stressful experience. A short guided meditation on the morning of your performance can help you to have a calmer demeanour and a more positive outlook.
Caffeine and sugar both place the body under stress so it is wise not to consume either before a performance as it can worsen any anxiety symptoms you may get and may provoke other symptoms, such as headaches or shaking.
Do a slow, relaxed warm-up but do not “practice” your pieces with the intensity of a regular practice session. Perhaps play the opening phrase of each piece but don’t exert yourself before the performance.
Don’t forget to enjoy what you are playing: you are performing because you love it. Yes, the anxiety is difficult, but try to block out your audience as much as possible and immerse yourself in the story which you are trying to tell through the music. If you have practised enough that your pieces are at a high standard, you should relish it and let your hard work speak for itself!