Go Ahead and Sweat It!
A Flutist's Unconventional Guide to
Handling Performance Anxiety
In a recent class, I began a dialogue about performance anxiety by having the students answer the following three questions:
1) What physical symptoms do you experience when you are nervous before a competition or performance?
2) What is your mental state like when you are nervous? What thoughts enter your mind before a competition or performance?
We quickly learned how much everyone had in common! Here are the class's combined answers. Which of these apply to you?
1) Physical Symptoms: nausea, stomach ache, shakiness, clammy hands, trouble focusing, racing heart, shortness of breath, jittery or jumpy feeling, really cold or really hot
2) Mental State: feel like I'm going to screw up, embarrassment, worried about reputation, a million thoughts at the same time, obsessing over hard parts, afraid of the domino effect if I mess up, a lot of self doubt, comparing myself to others
3) Fears: I won't win the spot (the chair, the prize), people will judge me, I'm going to blow my only shot, I didn't practice enough, I'm not ready, I'm not good enough
It is completely normal to experience unwanted physical and/or mental symptoms as a result of the natural adrenaline rush that occurs in your body when you are under pressure. In the chart above, the bigger circles address the natural part of the performance anxiety process: (an adrenaline response leads to physical and/or mental "nervous" symptoms).
The cycle doesn't become problematic or unnatural until the moment we resist our symptoms by trying to control, eliminate or fight them.
Adrenaline is commonly known as the "fight or flight" hormone. Popular advice for musicians usually deals with choosing to fight instead of flee or panic. This is an excellent strategy unless you are fighting against your symptoms.
When you fight your performance anxiety, you actually give it strength.
My big three nervous symptoms are having to pee every 2 minutes, feeling like I'm going to throw up and persistent thoughts of not being good enough. When I was younger, I fought valiantly against these symptoms and the end result was having to pee even more, often actually throwing up and mistakes in my performances directly related to insecure thoughts.
Now, the most powerful strategy I use to help myself with stage fright is allowing my stage fright to happen.
I breathe deeply and accept the physical sensation of needing to pee. More often than not, the feeling passes. I breathe deeply and notice the feeling of nausea. More often than not, the nausea lessens with every new moment and new breath.
I observe my insecure thoughts and follow them through:
"That run at the end of the third movement is SO hard and I didn't do nearly enough practice games or repetitions."
Okay... so what?
"Well, that's the end of the biggest movement of the biggest piece at the end of my program and it's going to be completely anticlimactic and everyone in the audience will feel disappointed, or worse yet, bored!"
Okay... so what?
"Well, that will ruin my reputation and no one will feel like coming to my recitals ever again and every flutist in the audience will assume that they can play this piece better than I can."
Okay... so what?
"Well, well, well.... I guess.... um.... I guess everything would still be sorta kinda okay....maybe...The sun might still shine tomorrow...but... but... Well, fine."
My inner freak out voice tends to poop out in a matter of seconds these days. The trick is just to let it run its course.
After you find relief by accepting your physical symptoms and allowing your own freak out voice to deflate, its time to move on. Let's look at some ways you can actually use your performance anxiety to create some magic on stage!
Though many unwanted symptoms are best allowed and let go, the energy from an adrenaline rush is of best use when you channel it into performance fuel!
Performing beautiful, exciting and effective flute music takes a total commitment of mind, body and spirit. Why not take the extra energy adrenaline provides and use it to boost all three?
You know that moment at the top of the roller coaster when you're thinking (even though you waited in line for hours and swore you couldn't wait to ride),"What the heck did I get myself into?" Your racing heart, stomach butterflies and OMG thoughts are all part of the fun!
When it's time to perform, you can "flip the switch" in your mind from panicky, insecure performance anxiety to a "Here we go!" roller coaster mentality. The symptoms are the same in a bad adrenaline pumping situation as they are in a good adrenaline pumping situation. Instead of dreading the pressure, flipping the switch allows you to become energized by it!
Flip the switch by intentionally thinking thoughts like, "I love this piece," "I am so excited I get to perform today," and "this is a crazy fun adventure and I know I've got this!" Even if the thoughts feel cheesy or a bit fake at first, it will only take a few moments for your brain to rally and get on board. In "Failing Up: A Flutist's Guide to a No Matter What Fresh Start" I talk about how your brain is like a Google search. Whatever search words you type in, those are the results you get! Keeping this in mind, flipping the switch is probably a lot more possible than you think.
After you let your freak out voice run its course and boost your performance energy by flipping the switch, there is still another challenge to tackle.
If you view your music as a series of hurdles to jump, obstacles to overcome or mistakes to avoid, you are setting yourself up for failure. By thinking "don't mess up, don't mess up, don't mess up" or "got that part, got that part, got that part" you are leaving yourself open to a host of other anxiety symptoms that will show up during your performance.
The solution? Hooks!
Like Captain Hook asserts in the quote above, a flutist unwilling to fight for what she wants, deserves what she gets! In other words, if you don't have specific things to "hook" your mind onto during your performance, you are asking for trouble.
Hooks are amazing. Hooks are everything. Hooks can channel all of that diligent practicing you've done and turn it into the beautiful performance you've wanted all along.
Here is a description of hooks included in my recent interview for Miyazawa flutes:
I use the word “hooks” to mean anything from the smallest detail to the biggest overall perspective that you can hook onto during a performance. Hooks could be special tone colors perfect for key moments, thinking of a particular part of the body to facilitate a resonant tone, creative techniques to provide huge contrast (i.e. this piano, minor section is like a dark, cloudy sky and this forte, major section is like the sun shining through), or story lines to guide your entire performance experience (I think of the first movement of the Liebermann Sonata for Flute and Piano in terms of a murder mystery plotline, worked out to the greatest detail).
Using your hooks not only helps your mind access all the physical, mental and emotional resources at your disposal, but it keeps your mind on what’s important and allows less time to be affected by nervous symptoms! (to read my full interview, click HERE).
By intentionally programming your entire piece with hooks, you have given yourself the gift of clear objectives during your performance. Go all in by committing to each hook and your performance will feel less like a difficult, anxiety producing task and more like a story you are both telling and a part of!
Everyone has their own personal relationship with performance anxiety. The more you perform and the more you observe yourself without judgement, the more you will understand your own unique symptoms (that, ironically, you probably share with countless other musicians).
Next time your heart is beating fast, your mind is going crazy and you're searching for a way to rise above nervousness and anxiety to give a great performance, I hope you'll remember that allowing symptoms helps them lessen or pass, flipping the switch helps you channel adrenaline into wonderful performance fuel and using your hooks while you perform focuses your mind and helps all of your practicing show up right when you need it!
Click HERE to read a simple little Stage Fright Poem I wrote for young students (and myself!).