My Experience with Performance Anxiety
The other day, a new student said to me, "I'm sorry, I'm kind of nervous, and when that happens, my voice gets really shaky." Girl. First of all, props for being aware of this at ten years old and being brave enough to say this to a stranger. Secondly, I get it. Completely.
College put me in the classic small fish, big pond scenario. I was now surrounded by other people who took singing just as seriously as I did, and who had also grown up as the best singers in the room. To me, all of the older singers in my program sounded so much more professional and advanced than I could ever hope to be. Fast forward to grad school, and this phenomenon became even more compounded. I was now studying at one of the most esteemed choir colleges in the country, in its respected vocal pedagogy program. I will be forever grateful for what I learned at this school, as its allowed me to teach well and to build a thriving voice studio. However, sitting in a room with your classmates spending hours listening to recordings of singers and actively searching for vocal flaws to improve takes a toll. For years after I graduated, all I could think when I sang was that this was what the audience was doing. I couldn't make any sound without hearing every single flaw, and imagining that my audience was hearing them as well. And this happened when I was singing for audiences full of nonmusical experts- forget about when I had to sing in front of my colleagues! It got so bad that at a certain point, I actually had physical trouble singing. I would become so worked up that the constriction in my throat made it impossible to make a consistent sound. I'd go to sing and sometimes, nothing would come out of my mouth. So, when it comes to performance anxiety, I have been there, big time.
Let's talk about performance anxiety and stress in general for a second. At a certain level, we need stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, historically helped humans run away from predators and stay alive. It is what gives us the ability to get out of bed, get through a work out, and yes, get through a two act musical or hour-long vocal recital. However, our bodies need to be able to regulate that cortisol and bring it down when the stressful event is over (after the final bow, or when the saber-toothed tiger loses interest and leaves you alone). Problems come when your body reacts the same way to a performance as it would to that saber-toothed tiger. If I don't get through a song with every note perfectly resonant, I'm not actually going to be killed. I also won't get fired, or be thought of as a terrible musician (as long as I show up knowing the music). Knowing this intellectually is one thing, but how do we train our bodies to get the memo?
After many, many hours of battling anxiety, I've come to realize two important things: Firstly, everyone experiences performance anxiety to some extent. In fact, imposter syndrome (believing that you are not actually any good at your job and that everyone around you will realize this at any moment) is present in almost all other nonmusical professions. Secondly, it never really goes away. You can't control the existence of performance anxiety, but you can manage your response to it.
The realization that almost all professional and amateur performers experience anxiety was mind blowing to me, mostly because this is something that was never addressed in my years of extensive training as a musician. We spend hours learning vocal technique, music theory, acting, pedagogy, and even industry training if we are lucky; why are there not courses in mental health as a performer? The sheer nature of the job requires training in recognizing and addressing our inner self critic and making sure that it is not contributing to the barrage of outer voices we are subjected to. It is essential that performers have techniques to calm their body's stress response before and after an event. Why, after six years of formal musicianship training, was I left to my own devices to figure this out? I'm not sure, but if I ever develop a performance training program, you can bet at least one mental health course will be offered.
Through my years of battling through crippling performance anxiety and self doubt, I have found several practices to be very helpful. It is also important to note, as I stated above, that this is a never ending journey. I will always be stressed about performing; at some times it is a mild "nervous butterfly" sensation, and at others I am downright terrified. Here are three practices that help me the most in times of self-doubt:
1. Journaling. I think the most important thing to remember is why I want to perform in the face of these sensations. I love music. It brings me so much joy and lifts me out of whatever is happening in my life and the world on any given day. When I am singing, I am able to express emotions that I usually do not even know are laying dormant in my body. Sharing this experience with others can be a form of profound connection. Reconnecting with this truth was something I accomplished through journaling. Writing about my identity as a musician also allowed me to unearth deep limiting beliefs about myself as a performer that I had carried with me since childhood. Identifying such beliefs and where they come from (hint: it's usually not from within) is a huge piece of being able to identify truth from reality during a stress response. If journaling does not come naturally to you and you love having a program to follow like me, check out Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. It's been around for a while, but it truly helps get to the root causes of blockages if you are willing to put in the work.
2. Mindset. The other huge piece of the puzzle that helps me in times when I will be opening myself to potential criticism is to remember who is actually in the arena with me. This is something Brene Brown talks about all the time (side note: if you have not read any of Brene Brown's work, please start. It is essential human reading). The idea of the arena comes from a Teddy Roosevelt quote. What it means is that if someone is not showing up with vulnerability the same way that you are, their opinion of your work does not matter. In other words, I can decide whose feedback I care and don't care about. If I have not paid you to critique my singing, or you are not paying me to sing, or you are not a colleague collaborating on a piece with me, please keep your critiques to yourself. If you choose to voice them, that's fine, but I don't need to take them seriously. It sounds like a pretty basic idea, but it's actually incredibly liberating when put into practice.
3. Meditation. All the time. As much as you can. There's a common misconception that meditation is sitting down and having no thoughts, and many people find that to be an impossible task and therefore a waste of time. I would consider that to be a waste of time as well. The value that I get out of meditating is actually noticing what my thoughts are, and letting them exist without forming an attachment to them. Thoughts are just thoughts. Just because I may think that I am a terrible singer and everyone is going to judge me for that does not make it reality. And also, the fact that I have that thought does not mean that I am unable to perform. It's just a thought; it's not me.
Bonus: I do also need to mention that medication like Beta Blockers and therapy can be absolutely essential tools in regulating your stress response. I have used medication and therapy and am a huge advocate for both. Many professional performers use both of these modalities. You are not less capable if you need to use one or both. It is completely normal.
The most important, effective way to deal with performance anxiety is to keep performing. Per
forming is a skill, just like singing or playing an instrument is. We practice to build good technique, so why would we not treat performance the same way? You will only have the opportunity to practice your stress management skills if you practice putting yourself in the stressful situation. My advice is to start with the lowest stakes scenario possible. For me, performing in front of non musicians was a good place to start; performing for colleagues was something to work up to. Find a way to make it fun. That might just be karaoke, and that's okay! And then please send me a video of it. I love any and all karaoke performances, especially if it's Britney Spears.
Have you experienced performance anxiety? What has helped you to navigate it? Please share so that we can keep this important conversation going.