It is normal to feel anxiety, or nervousness, before and during a music performance. It is the body’s natural reaction to stress, just like hunger is the body’s natural reaction to not having had food in a while. The trick is learning how to respond to the sensation. A young child panics and often becomes extremely self-centered when they experience normal, everyday hunger pangs. Most older children and adults recognize that it is not an emergency. Maturity allows us to make choices about what and when to eat. Hunger is just a message, not a controller.
Now, I’m not trying to belittle anyone who has felt overwhelmed by adrenaline. Almost everyone has felt this at least once. I’m just trying to emphasize that it is something that can be worked with. It is actually there to help, to give you heightened awareness and quick reflexes. You have to learn to “ride it,” so-to-speak, to get where you want to go.
Much like riding a bicycle, not everyone learns as quickly or to the same level of proficiency. But no matter what higher levels of mastery are achieved, no one starts out riding in high speed races or on technical trails. Similarly, trying to perform in front of a large audience for a first performance is understandably difficult. Feeling anxious in this case does not mean someone “has” performance anxiety. It means they haven’t been riding a bike very long or practicing on challenging courses. They are simply not up to that skill level yet.
Many recital and school performances are automatically in front of large audiences. While there will always be some people who are more comfortable giving this a try (sometimes in ignorance, sometimes because they already feel accepted, sometimes because have already developed confidence in other ways), there are many people who wrongly think they can’t do it because they haven’t been given opportunity to learn how or work up to it. This second, and generally larger, group of people are done a disservice when conclusions are arrived at based on extreme scenarios. A five mile bike ride might seem extreme if you just learned to balance on and ride a bike, but if the distance is worked up to it is quite manageable.
If a new bike rider fails at a lengthy ride, no one tells him, “Oh, I guess you just weren’t meant to ride a bike.” Even if someone has had a bad bike ride, supposedly at their current level of skill and stamina, people more often say, “You’ll do better next time!” Likewise, learning to perform or develop skills to make presentations in front of groups is a reasonable expectation. Given the opportunities and encouragement, a person will get better at knowing what to expect and how to deal with the unexpected.
So, what are some helpful perspectives and tactics that you can use to teach yourself or your children how to perform or present in front of groups? I have a few suggestions:
1. Don’t give or accept coddling. When a toddler falls down or bumps his head, his reaction to the situation is greatly influenced by the reactions of people around him. You can give or accept understanding, without undermining a mature approach to problem solving.
2. Instead of trying to quell the energy provided by adrenaline, work on channeling it in positive ways. Talk about the excitement, and even concerns, but in ways that move you toward taking hold of the experience and enjoying it. You can be your own narrator, setting the tone of the story. Don’t make it make it scary and oppressive; make it an adventure.
3. Think more about the other people involved and less about yourself. You want to communicate with or entertain them. Your ability to do this will be severely limited if all you can think about is yourself.
4. Understand that you will make mistakes. When you do, just keep going with a smile on your face. Many times the audience or listeners won’t have a clue anything is wrong. And it is wasted effort to stop and think about it during the performance. Keep moving forward. You can evaluate later.
5. Everyone has bad performances. Everyone. Learn what you can from them and get on with the next opportunity or responsibility. Knowing you survived can help you be less nervous next time, if you keep it in perspective.
6. Evaluate what you are concerned about. Is it something that you can avoid by proper preparation? Is it just a matter of embarrassment? For most of us, no one will want their money back.
7. Be aware of over-scheduling your calendar before and after the performance. This will greatly affect your ability to concentrate.
8. Get good sleep. You will practice better if you are rested. But particularly, the week before the performance is important. Ideally, you want to stay rested that whole week, but at least for the 2 – 3 nights just prior to the performance, because the night before it might be hard to sleep.
9. Prepare and practice. Saying you have performance anxiety when you haven’t done this is not really honest. Start preparing enough ahead of time that there is time for many repetitions. Work out errors and don’t practice mistakes. Do it in front of a mirror. Record yourself and listen to that.. Gather a mini pre-audience to feel what it is like with others watching.
10. Keep warm-ups on the day of the performance limited. You aren’t going to make any progress at that point. You’ll probably just frustrate yourself and get tired. Save your strength for the performance.
11. Don’t drink too much in the couple of hours right before the performance.
12. Know your limits. If you are really messing up, move on to the next song or talking point. Add things back in later if you want to and there is time. If necessary, cut the whole performance short. I was once performing on the flute at a store, while people shopped, like I had done a few times before. But this time, I ended up with unexpected social stresses both before and after the performance. About ⅔ of the way into the planned program, my brain shut down. I began making all kinds of mistakes. I actually quit in the middle of a song, which was kinder for the listeners, too.
13. Have fun. Even if it is part of your job or an assignment, why not make the best of it? This will make it more enjoyable for everyone involved!
14. Don’t let other people’s bad attitudes or meanness get under your skin. There will always be bullies and spoil sports. They are unhappy or dissatsified with something, and just trying to make themselves feel better by dragging others down.
I have performed in front of “audiences” in a non-professional context for over 40 years, as a singer, a flute player, and giving spoken presentations. Audiences have been anywhere from 20 to nearly a thousand people. On the whole, it gets easier, but I still get more nervous sometimes. And sometimes I flop. I keep doing it because on the whole, it is fun (usually) and worthwhile to share music and ideas.
Our seven children have all performed (non-professionally) musically on instruments and/or in dance many times over the years. There have also been in plays and given speeches. They can attest to how this approach has helped them. They are usually get excellent reviews from teachers and other students in college speech classes.
As an example of dealing with a musical performance, I have included links to some short videos of our youngest daughter’s recent Senior Recital. She played the piano and sang. I remember when she was little and was almost mad that she couldn’t sing or play as well as all of her older siblings. I told her she needed to practice and be patient. She took piano lessons from a well qualified teacher. I was her voice coach, although that was always informal. Her recital did not go perfectly, and yet she performed amazingly, because she knew how to handle it. And that is the final thought I would like to leave you with:
A performance does not have to be perfect to be amazing.
What follows are a series of videos of the recital, with some explanation of the musical selections and unexpected phenomena, and hopefully in lengths that make them easy to navigate and enjoy. I was not really planning on taking videos of everything, so ended up just holding the camera up with my arms for nearly 45 minutes. Pretty stable considering that! (Don’t forget, you can click on the outward arrows near the bottom right of each video box to enlarge the video.)
The first one is a short straight up piece by J.S. Bach.
The Grieg piano concerto is quite the contrast, being significantly more theatrical and free. (The second piano is filling in for the orchestra)
And now for some playfully intertwining melodies from Schumann –
Music practice at our house always goes on in the living room, and is subject to regular, unexpected noise and interruption. The dog sings, the phone rings, the mother will sing random words as she does housework. And the musician learns to keep playing through it all. This probably helped Carlie during her performance, when Natalie started singing, completely out of the blue. It was not on the agenda and it was Carlie’s solo. Methinks private practice rooms are overrated.
And the final song was Jardins Sous La Pluie by Claude Debussy.