Coping with performance anxiety

Performance anxiety – be it for a large-scale concert, a small event, or even an exam – affects almost all pupils. Rebecca Pizzey speaks to some experts about methods for learning to...

Performance anxiety – be it for a large-scale concert, a small event, or even an exam – affects almost all pupils. Rebecca Pizzey speaks to some experts about methods for learning to control the symptoms ahead of our workshop on 11 October.

She is famed for her incredible voice and she has performed in front of some of the largest audiences in the world – so you’d be forgiven for assuming that Adele laughs in the face of performance anxiety. In fact, she suffers from it so intensely that it takes her a long time to commit to a tour.

Understanding that even a talent like Adele experiences anxieties around performing certainly normalises what may, for some pupils, be a debilitating issue. One of the problems with anxiety is that many people are afraid to open up about it, for fear they are alone or an anomaly. The reality is that most, if not all, musicians will have experienced it to some degree. While some may feel slight butterflies before stepping in front of a thousand-strong audience, others may find the physical and mental symptoms incapacitating before a Grade 2 exam.

The important thing is to open up the dialogue around performance anxiety and remind your pupils that it doesn’t discriminate. Performance psychologist Noa Kageyama recommends introducing it with athletes in mind: as with musicians, athletes’ bodies may react a particular way before certain events. Your pupils should, he says, be assured ‘that it’s totally normal and expected to get a bit excited, and it’s how our body gets us ready to bring our A-game’.

Greg and Alison Daubney – respectively a chartered sport and exercise psychologist, and a music educator, researcher and trainer – agree. A pupil who recognises the difference between stress and excitement – which both have very similar physical symptoms – can positively harness these symptoms as part of their activation state. ‘It is how we handle them that is important,’ their book says.

Mental versus physical

So what are these physiological symptoms? Jane Oakland, music psychologist and founder of StressPoints, says: ‘When faced with danger the body triggers the fight-or-flight response to prepare an individual for action. Unfortunately, the body does not differentiate between real danger and an activity such as performance.

‘Physical symptoms include a raised heartbeat, shallow breathing, impaired motor control – such as tense or shaky movements – and changes in body temperature.’ Not ideal physical symptoms for a musician, then.

Indeed, Oakland says that the physical symptoms experienced by musicians tend to be instrument-specific: ‘String players may experience a shaky bow arm, pianists get sweaty palms, and wind players and singers can experience muscle tension in the diaphragm, leading to shallow breathing.’

The physical symptoms are not, of course, the only ones your pupils are likely to experience. We’ve all heard of – or been caught in – a vicious cycle, whereby the physical symptoms lead to panicked thoughts, and the panic increases or worsens the physical symptoms. Trainee clinical psychologist Jake Camp says: ‘When we feel anxious, our body produces a number of corresponding physical sensations, which are of course completely natural. People can however become hypervigilant of these or similar body sensations – and when they notice them, they then think that these sensations represent anxiety, which in turn leads to more anxiety.’

When the physical and mental branches of anxiety continue to tighten, they can impact a pupil’s ability to not only perform, but to want to perform, leaving behind low self-confidence and a negative outlook that may make them reluctant to try again, should they believe they have ‘failed’. ‘Our minds are also very evaluative and sometimes we are even very hard on ourselves when a performance is over, focusing on what we were not happy with, rather than what went well,’ says the Daubeny book.

Breaking the cycle

For at least some of our pupils, the slight stress may enhance their performance abilities, giving them the adrenaline they need. As Kageyama says: ‘The physiological response is not necessarily bad – in fact, in many studies, most folks perform better at a moderate to high level of physical activation. It’s only when their cognitive anxiety gets too high that performance starts to suffer.’

So, for those pupils who need to, breaking the cycle between the physiological and cognitive symptoms may be necessary – and it is also worth remembering that dealing with severe performance anxiety immediately before performance may not always have the desired outcome.

It is better, says Oakland, if pupils ‘can learn to accept the way the body changes state and develop strategies to manage their physical and mental symptoms. As a tutor, one way you could assist this is to encourage students to bring on their nerves – either in a lesson or their own practice room – talk about what they are feeling and then play a piece of music imagining themselves in an exam room or concert venue.’

Simulating a performance environment could be with just yourself as the examiner or audience, a select few classmates, or even on a phone or tape recording. In addition, encourage a student to incorporate simulated performance exercises into their practise time.

Kageyama also recommends cognitively separating practising for skill and practising for performance: ‘Practising for skill means doing a lot of self-monitoring and self-critiquing, while practising for performance means focusing on self-expression, staying in the moment and playing past mistakes.’

Learning how to ‘perform’ – when in isolation, such as in their bedroom – by giving themselves one opportunity to reach the end of the piece with expression and passion regardless of whether they make mistakes, can help some alter some pupils’ negative preconceptions about performing.

Deeper issues

There may, of course, be instances in which you are genuinely worried about a pupil, and you may be wondering if there is something else going on. You may notice that a pupil frequently misses lessons, stops practising or makes excuses not to take an exam or perform.

Oakland says: ‘If it becomes clear that a pupil seems to be suffering very severe levels of debilitating anxiety despite thorough preparation, or you notice any changes that have led to anxiety attacks, that might be the time to ask them questions such as: “How are you enjoying your music lessons at the moment?”, or “I’ve noticed that you have been ill quite a lot recently and have missed some lessons – is everything alright?”

‘Take a gentle approach to first ascertain the extent of any problems before deciding if external help may be needed. There are many different causes underpinning so-called “performance anxiety”, some of which may not be musically related.’

Ultimately, it is important to communicate to your pupils that anxiety – be it performance or otherwise – does not discriminate. It is a human response to a stressful situation, but when the right steps are taken, it can be turned into a positive.

Dr Alison Daubney and Gregory Daubney present ‘Psychological wellbeing: strategies for handling musical performance anxiety’ at Music & Drama Education Expo | Manchester on 11 October 2018.