Turn your nerves into your superpower! Tips for handling those music performance jitters.
by Robert Fisher, Catoctin School of Music
Heightened pulse. Sweaty hands. Shallow breath. Serious gaze. Anxious thoughts… Almost every musician has encountered some form of nerves or the “butterflies” before a performance. Some may even wrestle with a Glossophobia: the fear of social situations in which one is watched or judged by others (also known as “Stage Fright”). When encountering stressful situations, it is commonly said that people will respond in three different ways: fright, flight, or fight. With music performance, I encourage my students to first acknowledge their performance nerves and identify how they tend to respond to their performance stress. With each response, we focus on the following ways to tackle and reframe their mindset:
Fright: What to do when you want to freeze or feel overwhelmed? Acknowledging fears and talking about anxieties openly is often the most helpful first step in overcoming performance fears. Before a recital or performance, I will often ask my students how they are doing outside of the actual piece they are playing. Whether we admit it or not, we are emotional beings with feelings that often emerge in different ways in response to our environment and thoughts. Musicians of course know all too well the power of tapping into the “feeling” of a piece and as musicians become more seasoned, being able to express a musical piece becomes one of the core tenants of “mastering” a work besides perfect technical execution. Just as we analyze, interpret and express musical pieces in performance, we should also tap into our own self-awareness of we are feeling as we prepare for performance.
Some form of nervousness or uncertainty is normal and common and often the simple act of admitting nerves to yourself and others helps alleviate some tension. I often share with students that it is “normal” to get a little nervous and that I’ve experience nerves in the past as well! Many of my students light up and some are surprised and relieved to hear that their teacher has gone through similar feelings. Being relatable and honestly acknowledging how one is feeling is often the first step to overcoming performance fright and reminding my students that their community of trusted people (teachers, fellow students, friends, etc.) often share in similar feelings is often encouraging to an anxious performer. This frankness and openness about nerves helps them realize they are not alone. Most nerves revolve around the thought of “making mistakes” in front of others. There is a quote I share about a famous musician who was once asked if they got nervous before performing in front of a huge crowds of fans. He responded, “Of course I do! The moment you stop feeling butterflies in your stomach before performing is the moment your music is dead”. Contrary to the opinion of their most devout fans, even the “greatest musicians of all time” are still human and have made mistakes! They continue to live on in legend, just as every musician will live on after any potential mistakes. We try to not make mistakes, but when they happen, we appreciate them for what they are, learn, grow, and move on in our growth.
Once students realize it is ok to acknowledge their fears, make mistakes and that they are not alone, it is often also helpful to share some practical tips to help calm nerves. One of the most helpful and easily accessible things I recommend to my students is to simply practice conscious breathing! Yes, we all breathe but often nervous performers may not realize in their stress that they have shallow breathing or may even be holding their breath altogether! This only serves to spike their heart rate, which then compounds symptoms of stress and nerves. I often encourage students and musicians to combat stress with a simple trick psychologists often recommend called “4-7-8 Breathing”. Start by breathing out (some recommend making a “whishing” sound, so you hear your breath going out), then breath in for 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Then, let your air out for 8 seconds. Repeat this process a few times until you notice your heart rate slowing and focus returning. I often encourage my students to practice thoughtful breathing while waiting to enter the stage or even doing an abridged version of the 4-7-8 breath right before they sound their first note on stage. Conscious breathing does physiological wonders and can certainly help mitigate some symptoms of stage fright!
Here’s some more info. on the 4-7-8 Breathing Technique: https://www.cordem.org/globalassets/files/academic-assembly/2017-aa/handouts/day-three/biofeedback-exercises-for-stress-2—fernances-j.pdf
Flight: What to do if you want to run, bail or give up?
When a musician wants to bail out from an upcoming performance, this is often an indicator that they are unable to see any other option besides giving up. Habitual unresolved frustrations or runaway thoughts about failure in performance can lead to performers giving up or abandoning their commitments. There is usually an underlying issue or root to these feelings of surrender and rather than simply admonishing students to simply “honor their commitments” (a statement of merit but lacking support), we can go one step further in helping students figure out how to do that. Most performers don’t want to give up (most have a sincere desire to do a great job!), but they may be wrestling with a fear of making mistakes, failing on stage, or simply not knowing how to fix their mistakes!
If their fear is “making mistakes”, it is important to acknowledge openly that mistakes happen to all humans (teachers and pros included!) but to also redirect students to focusing on strategies to minimize mistakes. Of course, practice! Practice does not, however, make perfect! To quote from Vince Lombardi, only perfect practice makes perfect! When I ask a student considering giving up on a performance if they’ve put in the time to practice, most acknowledge they do practice. The question is often more importantly what and how are they practicing. It is common to for students to rush the beginning to end in their music, repeatedly, with little regard to breaking excerpts into pieces and tackling mistakes individually each practice. Failing to mark music or perform dynamics, articulations or interpretive markings is another common mishap. And of course, a perennial favorite, simply going too fast! Commonly overlooked mistakes can have discouraging or disastrous results in performance but are usually only addressed and remedied through intentional, targeted practice. Practice is our weapon to take on mistakes, however, only targeted practice yields targeted results. Students and growing musicians often need specific guidance and direction in practice versus simply pointing out mistakes and reminding them to practice more. Sometimes the cure to helping someone not flee from a performance in fear is simply letting them know they are not alone and giving them tools to help them practice and effectively prepare!
Fight: Taking on Performance Jitters with Courage!
Acknowledging our performance fears openly, making grace for unintended mistakes, and taking on strategies like conscious breathing and targeted practice, builds courage to take on performance jitters!
In a final dress rehearsal or recital run through, I always ask my students how they are doing with preparing to perform. Most are willing to share any negative fears they are facing and what strategies they are employing to face each fear. I usually wrap-up a final run-through rehearsal reminding each of student that nerves are normal and rather than simply trying to cower to or run away from them, they should embrace their nerves! Fight fire with fire! I tell them to “make their nerves their superpower!” How so? Here’s how I break it down:
Does your heart rate rise when you get nervous? Awesome! That means you’re alive and your heart is pumping! More blood moving around your body means more previous oxygen which allows your body to function even better! Use the 4-7-8 breathing to tap into this strength!
Are your hands a little clammy? This can be good too! Just a quick wipe on the pants of any extra moisture and your hands should have a bit extra tactile grip to hold and play your instrument!
Do you feel adrenaline coursing through your veins and are you moving with speed? Great! Tap into this incredible chemical the body produces and use your “new” agility to tackle speedy technical passages with gusto. Use your heighted sense of hearing to hone in on melodic passages, tone and expression and finally, use your alert vision to focus more intently on your music.
Next time you or any student or colleague is battling performance nerves, remember to acknowledge these fears out in the open. They are more normal and common than you may realize. Don’t let those performance jitters stop you from sharing your music. Remember to turn your nerves into your superpower!