When performance anxiety gets the better of you...

Are you a musician struggling with nerves? To face them, one must first understand them. Here are some explanations by physiotherapist Marie-Christine Mathieu, pedagogue Virginie Aster, and psychologist Joseph Descamps.

When performance anxiety gets the better of you...
When performance anxiety gets the better of you..., © Getty / Casper Benson

You dread public performances. The night before, you can't sleep. As you are about to walk on stage, your hands are clammy, your fingers are cold, you start to panic and your heart is racing. Your mouth is dry, and the only thing you can think about is the blood pulsating in your head. You bite the bullet and walk on, but things don't get better. Time moves faster somehow, you feel as if you can no longer control your actions, your hands and your head seem disconnected, you are pedalling in the fog with only one thought in your head: please let this be over soon!

You have performance anxiety. However, contrary to what some may think, this form of anxiety is far from rare. Considered a taboo subject in the past, it has since become a common subject for musicians, both amateur and professional. "I often hear musicians say that they believe their anxiety comes from the fact that they are less talented than their fellow colleagues", explains Marie-Christine Mathieu,  physiotherapist and trainer. She encounters on a daily basis orchestral musicians for whom performance anxiety is a real struggle. "In order to overcome such an anxiety, one must first accept and understand it. The next step is to learn how to live with it".

What is performance anxiety?

"Performance anxiety is first and foremost a natural phenomenon. It is a biological mechanism as old as time, allowing us to react in the face of a situation that our brain perceives as a danger", explainsVirginie Aster, composer, pedagogue, and trainer who organises regular workshops at Paris's conservatoires about stress and performance anxiety.

"Our brain perceives the presence of an audience as a threat, and seeks to defend itself. And it is precisely this false perception of the situation that sets off this survival instinct. We are therefore presented with two choices: fight or flight?" Fight? Flight? The latter is obviously not possible, so fight it is. But this is even worse: "It is pointless to try and fight performance anxiety", explains Marie-Christine Mathieu. "Willpower is not enough. The more one tries to control the shaking, the more the muscles contract and add to the overall tension of the body. In fact, these muscular tensions are generally the main culprits of performance anxiety: a bad posture or unusual movement can provoke muscular tension. The brain realises that there is a problem, and therefore acts accordingly. Therefore, much of the work to reduce anxiety begins with the body."

However, performance anxiety is a complex phenomenon and may be caused by a wide range of factors, varying from one person to the next. The psychological factors (beliefs, personal objectives, self-image, one's one past, and the relationship with one's instrument), all come into play during stressful situations. It is therefore important to take these factors into account as a whole in order to identify the origins of one's performance anxiety.

Can it be eliminated?

Unfortunately, no. When faced with performance anxiety, everyone is different. Some musicians live their entire lives with it, whilst others are struck by the phenomenon at some point during their career. It happens to solo performers as often as orchestral musicians. Age and experience are irrelevant. Countless famous musicians suffered from anxiety throughout history, such as Frédéric Chopin  who avoided large concert halls, choosing instead to perform in smaller, and more intimate, Parisian salons. Over the course of three decades, the musician only gave around forty concerts. Vladimir Horowitz repeatedly interrupted his career as a concert pianist following anxiety attacks at the thought of performing in front of a audience. Classical musicians are not the only ones to have suffered from such a phenomenon: Ella Fitzgerald, Paul McCartney and Barbara Streisand have all confirmed that they too experience performance anxiety.

Joseph Descamps, psychologist and amateur cellist, has often worked with orchestral musicians. His approach is psychoanalytical:

"That which comes up again and again is the fear of being judged by our peers, and not necessarily those that we respect. Sometimes, anxiety conceals a repressed frustration of not having followed our dreams completely by becoming an orchestral musician and not a concert soloist." However, anxiety remains a sensitive subject, and one to which few professionals musicians  admit easily. According to an American study, only 2% of professional musicians admit to having never experienced performance anxiety. They claim to manage the stress of performance primarily through the use of beta-blockers (72%). However, addiction amongst musicians is rapidly becoming a national health crisis in many countries. "When one experiences performance anxiety after almost twenty years, it is difficult to accept. Some musicians stop coming to see me when I tell them that the answer to their question "Why is this happening to me now?" may only be discovered with time, and that the answer may not be the one they were expecting, or even hoping. For others, analytical therapy sets off a profound change".

It is particularly important to discuss the problem of anxiety from an early age, even if children experience anxiety only when they start performing. "I have often heard music teachers say that they prefer not to talk to their students about performance anxiety so as not to plant the idea in their heads. In my mind, this is counterintuitive, since anxiety can strike at any time and these children will be unprepared when faced with such a phenomenon", explains Marie-Christine Mathieu.

So how does one face performance anxiety?

The first step is letting go of the guilt. Performance anxiety does not signify a lack of talent, and inversely, a lack of talent does not automatically lead to performance anxiety. Furthermore, those musicians that have preceded us, that will come after us, and those on stage with us, are potentially in a similar state. Once this fact has been accepted, it is important to change one's attitude: fight, no. Manage, yes.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint", explains Marie-Christine Mathieu. "The first thing to do is to try and understand the nature of our fears and analyse their manifestations so at to adapt and change our methods. Why do we shake, for example? This is simply a physical manifestation designed to evacuate excess energy. Some engage in relaxation exercises, whilst others run laps around the garden. There is no unique solution. But first, one must be ready to change from anxiety to confidence. Think about the positive aspects, ours or those of the student in the case of a teacher. And this must be maintained as much throughout the year as on the day of the performance."

According to Virginie Aster, anxiety management should be taught to all young musicians as soon as possible. "When learning to become an actor, one is taught how to enter and use the stage...why not musicians? We share the same objective!" Aster believes it is necessary to rethink how music is taught, so that the notions of competitions and the fear of failure are completely forgotten, focusing instead on emotional growth and personal pleasure. Such a change in perception can have a powerful impact upon performing on stage:

"When I work with musicians, I ask them one simple question: what do you wish to say, to express with your music? By giving meaning to each passage allows us to fixate upon the interpretation rather than the physical performance. Technique becomes secondary, or rather, it comes gradually as the student focuses on the interpretation and what it is he wants to say through the music, thus distracting him from his performance even in front of an audience."

What method should you choose? Psychoanalysis, physiotherapist, relaxation exercises, yoga, positive thoughts, Alexander technique, mental reorganisation...student, parent, or teacher, the first step is accepting yourself, including your anxiety. It may be turned into your greatest strength. Virginie Aster remembers the answer given by Sarah Bernard, a great sufferer of performance anxiety, to a young actor disheartened at the thought of never overcoming his fears:

"Worry not, young man, that is part of being talented".