MUSICIAN EXPERT: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

By | 2018-10-17T20:01:38+00:00 June 11th, 2018|acoustic music, Performance Anxiety, stage fright|1 Comment

by Tom Stein

Fear Is Natural

An annoying part of our human nature seems to focus our thoughts obsessively on all the things that could possibly go wrong in our daily activities. Of course, this becomes more severe when we have to do a performance, an interview, or otherwise engage in an activity that is supposed to lead to a desired outcome that will represent our success. We tend to focus on all the “what-ifs” in these stressful situations, and the danger is that by being nervous we actually increase the chance of the undesired outcomes occurring.

This vexing situation will be familiar to anyone suffering from performance anxiety, or “stage fright”, as it is known in the entertainment field. How do you avoid being your own worst enemy, and contributing to an increased likelihood of failure in these demanding situations? We can use the much-studied phenomenon of performance anxiety, and some of the useful techniques for combating it, in just about any area of our lives prone to inducing stress or nervousness.

Overcome Your Performance Anxiety

When it comes to overcoming performance anxiety, we will need to convert potentially harmful negative thoughts and energies into a constructive positive result, and this is indeed possible. I have developed some techniques that may help you in this regard. These techniques, while simple, do require you to gain a sharp awareness of your thought processes, and to monitor thoughts as they enter your consciousness. These simple and basic techniques for turning anxiety into positive results will take a little time and practice to learn to implement and to get used to them, but once you have gained the techniques, you will use them automatically and forever. And the best part about all of this is that they really work.

Meta cognition

As humans, we are supposedly the only animals on the planet that have the ability to think about our thinking. Whether or not this is true, meta cognition, as this practice is called, does give us the ability to apply reason to the thoughts we are subjected to at any time. Thoughts just occur, it often seems, as if coming at us out of nowhere.

The average human thinks 50,000 discreet thoughts each day. While many of these thoughts might be repetitive, others may be situational, or occur in response to external stimuli. One effect of this constant barrage of streaming thoughts is that we can become confused, or lose track of what’s happening in the moment. We might feel sadness when thinking about something bad that happened in the past, or fearful of something that might happen in the future. Fortunately, meta cognition, or the ability to think about our thoughts and thinking, can be a very powerful tool.

Keep Things In The Moment

This constant stream of thoughts that has the tendency to lead us into worrying about the future, and what may or may not happen, eventually brings on feelings of fear and anxiety. Although it is important to think ahead and plan for future contingencies, if we are living in the past or the future we are ignoring the present, and this is potentially harmful. When we notice ourselves being yanked out of the moment by fear, we should become aware and use our reason to pull ourselves up short.

The goal is to get back into the current moment, which in reality is the only place anything can happen. Once we have learned to notice the situation where we are feeling anxious or stressed, we could use a little prepared phrase to get out of that loop, such as “FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real”. A short prayer can work too, whether or not you are religious. What we should do is offer some kind of a small self-affirmation of our self-worth when we are feeling anxious, sad, or otherwise getting pulled out of the reality of the moment by troubling emotions.

One Good Turn Deserves Another

Have you ever seen a dog about to lie down? Sometimes they will turn around and around again in a circle, and keep turning for what seems a long time before finally plopping down on the ground. It seems as if the dog is repeating a behavior because it feels good knowing it worked in the past. When we see this we always say jokingly “one good turn deserves another”. It is just a silly saying, and can have different meanings, but my point is that there is comfort in repetition.

Don’t Compare Your Insides To Someone Else’s Outsides

Probably you have enjoyed many successes in your life, big and small. You have also likely suffered through mistakes and failures, also big and small. This is true of everyone, without exception. The worse thing you can do is to compare your insides with someone else’s outside. The only person you should make any comparisons to is yourself. A mistake people make is looking at others who are further along the road to success, and assuming that they will not have the same amount of success, or that success is not for them. Always remember that for anyone who is successful at doing anything, there was a time when they couldn’t do it.

Visualize Your Past Successes

When you are aware that you are experiencing performance anxiety, for whatever reason, you should reign in your thoughts and begin to control them, This is where the necessary techniques, time and practice come in to play that I mentioned previously. As soon as you are aware, and after bringing yourself up short, the next step to this process is to think about similar situations from the past that you have faced, and came through successfully. Try to recall that you were also nervous then, but everything ultimately turned out okay, or better than okay.

For example, if I am playing a concert for a group of people and I’m nervous whether they will like it, I call to mind a time, usually fairly recent, that I gave a performance and the audience loved it! Remembering that specific previous success makes it a bit easier to walk out in front of a new crowd, and give it my all with some certainty that they will like what I do. Mike Ditka, the Super Bowl winning NFL coach once famously said that the first step in winning was to believe that you are worthy. So, all ingrained and automatically expressed vestiges of the mentality of “I’m not good enough” must be balanced with thoughts about the possibility or likelihood of success. Successful people seem to be good at combating self-doubt.

What Goes Around Comes Around

Humans seem to be conditioned to living in groups, for whatever reason. We are predisposed to working in teams. When your success is crucial to the success of the team, it becomes all the more important not to allow performance anxiety to get in the way. Most people have similar feelings and experiences as they go through life, and everyone is human. Make sure to encourage success in your teammates, and look for ways to help them succeed with their own challenges. They will value you more as a team member for this, and rush to your aid when they see you are similarly struggling. When you help someone else succeed, the universe tends to find ways to repay you for your kindness.

Law Of Attraction

There are many that believe we tend to attract to ourselves what we focus on. If we focus on our fear and anxiety, it is likely to increase. One thing that can work well is to focus your thoughts elsewhere by using visualization techniques. When you feel the anxiety coming on, you could create a mental picture of the upcoming performance being completed. Look at your watch and tell yourself that it will all be over by the time the hands of the clock have moved a certain distance.

You could also picture a peaceful scene from your childhood, a lovely beach or park you enjoy frequenting, a favorite pet, or the face of a loved one. It is recommended to take a few deep breaths, exhale completely, stretch lightly, or move around a bit while you visualize, to help the nervous energy to dissipate. Alternatively, you could sit quietly with your eyes closed for a minute while focusing your thoughts elsewhere.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

A wise friend once told me: “Don’t take yourself too seriously, no one else does.” A favorite aunt use to say: “Who will care in 100 years from now?” These comments are reminders that usually our mistakes are more noticeable to ourselves than to others. And in the worse case scenarios, like a figure skater after a fall, we will pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and continue moving forward in our lives.

Success Is Peace Of Mind

John Wooden, the late famous college basketball coach, talked about success being the peace of mind that comes from the satisfaction of knowing that we did our best to be our best, under the circumstances. Looking back at previous mistakes, we can ask ourselves if we were doing our best. The answer will always be “yes”, because we know in our heart that if we could have done better, we would have. Mistakes are a necessary part of growth because they teach us what not to do.

It helps to remember that we are actually where we are because of decisions we made. We came to this point as a result of doing what we wanted to do. Why should we let a little normal anxiety or tension get in the way? We are learning to harness the energy and turn it around for a positive outcome.

Don’t Be Fooled By Randomness

People often tend to ascribe their failure or success to their own efforts more than reality warrants. There is always a randomness factor, and even if we do all the right things, we can fail. Conversely, even if we don’t do the right things, we can have success. The ancient wisdom texts of the Upanishads tell us that we do not control the results of our actions. All we can control is our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Lastly, never forget that your self-worth is not attached to your achievements, or lack thereof. Failing at something does not make you a bad person, and success doesn’t guarantee you anything, either. Use the techniques I’ve outlined to combat your performance anxiety next time you are facing a difficult or demanding task.

Tom Stein is a visionary musical entrepreneur, music producer, artist development consultant, arranger, and performer on electric bass, voice and guitar. He teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston and is the founder of Music Connectivity, a cultural diplomacy firm.

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One Comment

  1. Jocelyn McDonald June 21, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    My sister wants to be a musician, but she gets really bad stage fright when she needs to perform. Your article had great tips regarding this, and I liked how you said my sister shouldn’t take herself too seriously, and know her mistakes are more noticeable to herself than others. Thanks; I’ll share this with my sister to help her manage her performance anxiety as a musician.

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