There are so many personal experiences that I could share with you about performances that were derailed by crippling stage fright. This wasn’t a problem in early childhood, but became quite the untameable beast in my teenage years. I would spend days, sometimes weeks before a performance filled with dread and anticipation. The few hours before a performance were the worst, filled with unshakeably anxious thoughts, nausea, shortness of breath and multiple trips to the bathroom… When I would finally get up on stage to play, my bow would shake, my legs would tremble, and I would feel a complete lack of control over the sounds coming out of my violin.
I’m not alone. There are countless studies out there showing music performance anxiety (MPA) is one of the most common disorders among both professional and developing musicians. Some psychological studies have even deemed MPA an occupational health problem because of its impact not just on performance, but on general wellbeing and mental health. Other studies have found that MPA is more prevalent in women, correlates with previously negative life experiences, and is associated with the personality characteristics of introversion, sensitivity to judgment, low self-esteem, perfectionism, trait anxiety, and negative self-expectations.*
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with performance anxiety was feeling like I had to struggle in silence – I’d be reluctant to talk about it for fear of being judged or seen as weak. But once I started speaking up, I realized just how many of my peers had those same feelings. Part of overcoming music performance anxiety is realizing that it’s normal – you are not a broken person for experiencing it, however intensely. And why wouldn’t it be normal? Performing is inherently stressful, especially if you’re showcasing a skill that you’ve worked countless hours trying to perfect. Whatever you’re feeling on the inside, and how they manifest physically, are entirely normal reactions.
Another important aspect that significantly improved my struggles with performance anxiety was articulating what I was afraid of. Was I performing to be better than my studiomates, or maybe not to be the worst? Did feeling anxious about memory slips make me even more anxious? Or maybe anticipating that my nerves would be through the roof made them even worse, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, knowing the root cause of your performance anxiety can help you understand yourself more, and possibly even challenge and lessen these fears in the process.
I really believe in trying to cultivate a growth mindset** in everything you do. The skill of performing is something that can be developed with practice. In fact, just as your instrument is something that needs practice for improvement, you also need to practice performing!
Next week, I’d like to share my step-by-step guide on how to overcome performance anxiety and get better at performing. I hope this was helpful and thanks for stopping by!
*Barbar, A. E., de Souza Crippa, J. A., & de Lima Osório, F. (2014). Performance anxiety in Brazilian musicians: Prevalence and association with psychopathology indicators. Journal of Affective Disorders, 152(1), 381-386.
Osborne, M. S., & Kenny, D. T. (2005). Development and validation of a music performance anxiety inventory for gifted adolescent musicians. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 19(7), 725-751.
Mor, S., Day, H. I., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (1995). Perfectionism, control, and components of performance anxiety in professional artists. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 19(2), 207-225.
**Growth Mindset: Believing that you can get better on any skill with time, effort and energy.
Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, I am a performing musician with a background in psychology and cannot offer any qualified medical advice.