All musicians experience stress and nervousness here and there, but if it is starting to interfere with performance outcomes and any other areas of your daily life it might be Music performance anxiety (MPA). MPA is completely normal and can affect musicians at any stage of their music careers, from highly experienced professional performers through to child beginners. The components of self that MPA can affect are somatic, behavioural, cognitive and emotional. If you feel any changes or difficulties in the way you think, feel and behave before an upcoming performance, this post is here to provide some advice to help you feel more confident on stage.
The first thing to do in a moment when you are feeling anxious is to control your breathing. There are a number of different patterns you can try but the most effective for relaxing the nervous system is the 4-7-8 method. This can centre your conscience to the present moment and silence the "what ifs”.
How to: 4-7-8 breathing exercise
The next thing to do would be to choose your focus ahead of time. We all know that playing an instrument requires steady concentration however, having a specific focus can also be a great way to reduce anxiety. Not thinking about something that worries you can feel impossible. However, if you choose something positive in advance to focus on and practice hitting that target until it comes to you naturally this can steer your brain away from the negative automatically.
An important reminder is to always remember that the physical effects of anxiety are completely normal. Whether your heart is beating a million miles per hour, you're short of breath, shaky, nauseous, your palms are sweaty or all of the above. This is all part of your body’s natural response to stress that has evolved over millions of years since humans were being chased by wild beasts. Dwelling on these responses or fighting them can continue to increase your anxiety further. The more that you accept how things are the less your nerves will affect your performance.
The physical response you experience from performance anxiety is the same as when you are excited. What is different is the emotional component of positive feelings associated with excitement and negative with nerves. You can use this to your advantage by reframing your mindset to think of your nerves as excitement. Now you’re probably thinking this is easier said than done, but it really is as simple as saying to yourself "I’m excited” regardless of whether or not you feel it in the moment. This can affect the way your brain adapts to the situation and have a positive impact on the performance.
The most common root for performance anxiety is our perception of the audience. When you are getting ready to go up on stage it can feel like everyone watching is going to pay attention to every note you play. However, the reality is far from that. People’s thoughts tend to be heavily focussed on themselves and during your performance, even if they came there to specifically watch you their thoughts will often be elsewhere. Additionally, musicians tend to put a lot of emphasis on how they want it to go but it is more beneficial to focus on making it an enjoyable experience for the audience. Keep in mind, the audience is there to have an enjoyable experience therefore they are always rooting for you to do well. This will help you let go of unhelpful self-critics in the moment of performing.
Hopefully this advice can help you recognise and adapt to music performance anxiety. Do not try to input all the strategies at once, just pick one and see if it works for you. If you are still finding that your music performance anxiety is troubling you please seek help from a professional.
In general, be realistic with your expectations, demanding perfection 100% of the time is not a helpful or reasonable goal. Wishing you all the best for your upcoming performance, you’ve got this!