Updated: May 20, 2018
This week’s blog post is all about something close to my heart - performance anxiety. Here’s a fun fact: as a student I suffered from severe performance anxiety. As someone who now makes a living as a performer, it’s interesting to think that – even up until my final year at university – I sweated (literally) over every performance. So of course it was no surprise that I never performed well. Even in my early days of going through the AMEB cycle, I only ever just scraped through my piano exams with C-Grade passes. I still remember the major assessment from my final year of music at school. My teacher had organised a dress-rehearsal for us. We went through the motions of what we would be doing on the day of the real performance: we drove to the venue, we met the examiner, we played through our repertoire. I had a good performance and the examiner actually said to my teacher, "Clearly an A". I felt pretty confident after all the hours and hours of practise I had dedicated. And then two weeks later? We did exactly the same thing: we drove to the venue, we met the examiner, we played through our repertoire. Only this time, because it was being assessed and not just a run-through, I messed up. What changed? My mindset. My mental preparation. My physiology. My hands were shaking, my heart was racing and my fingers were sweating. I couldn’t control my nerves.
On another occasion, this time while I was at university, I was once again preparing for an end of year assessment by playing through my pieces in front of a senior class at my old high school. Giving feedback, my teacher had written the word “Sorry” across the top of my score because I’d actually said this out loud at one point during the performance. Yes, I’d apologised to my audience for messing up a bar! So not only had I played it incorrectly, I’d drawn attention to the fact.
My performance anxiety was so bad that it took me three years to work up the courage to audition for a place in the Conservatorium of Music. And even when I finally auditioned, and was offered a place, I spent three years avoiding my obligatory performances as much as possible. I genuinely thought I wasn’t good enough to be there and so I was too
shy to work on my performance practise in front of my peers.
And herein lies the issue with performance anxiety: The catch-22 with learning how to deal with performance pressure is that training can only take place in front of an actual audience. Performing takes practise. Being mentally prepared to perform takes practise. You need to get inside your own head to get in the zone, and then once you’re in the spotlight you need to get out of your head to be in the moment. If you’ve ever suffered from performance anxiety you’ll know that feeling of being mentally hung up on a playing mistake you might have made, but rather than letting the moment go, you’re still thinking about it twenty bars later. Which means that for twenty bars, you haven’t been fully engaged in what you’re creating in that moment. Or perhaps it’s the feeling of being aware of *that* bar on page two you’ve always struggled with in practise and all you can think about from the moment you first play a key is that eventually you'll have to play it and now you’re at the bottom of page one and oh no, it’s getting closer and it’s nearly here and here it comes…. Again, there's no "being present" by the performer. And music, more so than other art forms, is all about presence. It's about each individual note in each individual moment. You can't go back and re-do a moment. You can't be anxious about moments that haven't arrived yet. You can only focus on the moment that you are creating right now.
There’s a unique element to performance anxiety for each instrument. For classical piano, I believe it’s two-fold. Firstly, the piano is (generally) a solo instrumental; meaning a piano student doesn’t always get the chance to play regularly amongst their peers the same way a student learning a band instrument would. Secondly, classical piano teaching has traditionally been very by-the-book. Meaning, students always learn from notated sheet music and don’t always learn comping skills or improvisational skills. This tends to create an over-reliance on the score and often a student will use it as a security blanket. And if they accidentally deviate away from the score by playing a wrong note, they create a mental block and struggle to get back to where their fingers need to be.
So how do you get over performance anxiety? I’ve heard of some extreme measures like taking beta-blockers to reduce the heart rate. This article outlines a great idea of simulating a concert hall environment for classical musicians, in a similar way pilots simulate flying before they take to an aircraft. For me, it was seeing Coldplay live in Sydney back in 2009. Chris Martin messed up the intro to a song and rather than apologise to the crowd and feel all self-conscious about it, do you know what he did? He laughed. He owned the mistake and simply started again. And that’s when I realised: it was that easy. The audience isn’t there to be against you. The audience is there *with* you, willing you to take them wherever you go. They don’t care if you mess up. The issue isn’t in the mistake, it’s in the recovery. So, how you view your relationship to your audience is how you’ll frame your mindset for performing.
Playing as an accompanist also helped me a great deal. Rather than being in the spotlight, I was off to one side. Still performing, still in front of an audience, but not the main attraction. Making the shift from being behind the keys to in front of the microphone didn’t seem like such a big deal, then, after a few years of preparing for it. Don’t get me wrong, I still get nerves and the adrenaline rush before a show but I’m ready for it. In fact, I welcome it: adrenaline is necessary for performing. It’s what makes you feel “in the moment”. But now I spend almost as much time on mentally warming up for a show as I do physically warming up. I visualise myself backstage, waiting for the lights to dim. I visualise walking on to the stage. I visualise that breath before the first note is played or sung or spoken.
The tip here is that the more you practise the art of performing, the more familiar you become with performing. The more familiar you become with it, the less scary it is. The less scary it is, the more you enjoy it. The more you enjoy it, the more you want to do it. And then one day you too could be living the dream of being hooked on adrenaline, putting yourself out there for critiquing, living in constant self-doubt, all for the love of the art! Happy playing!