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Stage Fright: Overcome the Horror of Performance Anxiety with These 5 Tips

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Rihanna, Luciano Pavarotti, Lorde, Eddie Van Halen, Adele, Katy Perry, Barbra Streisand. Those are all people who are extremely famous and successful. They are also all people who admit to suffering from performance anxiety

Is fear getting in the way of you pursuing your dreams? A little nervous energy can be valuable in a number of pursuits, fueling performance and motivating you to improve.

However, at times fear about public performance can go beyond normal jitters into full-blown performance anxiety or stage fright.

First of all, if you do suffer at all from performance anxiety, please know you’re not alone! In fact, a number of talented and successful musicians have overcome performance anxiety in order to share their talents with the world.

Below are some tried-and-true tactics that can help you use your “extra energy” around performance for your own betterment so you can put overwhelming nerves behind you.

What is Performance Anxiety?
While it may seem rare, performance anxiety is actually one of the most common social fears. Unlike the normal feeling of being nervous, performance anxiety can be crippling.

Symptoms of performance anxiety are similar to other types of social anxiety: you may experience hyperventilation, shaky hands and limbs, nausea, dry mouth, sweating, and a racing pulse. In addition to physical symptoms, individuals with stage fright often have a preoccupation with things going wrong, constant fretting about failure, and even full-blown panic attacks.

Luckily, a great deal of research exists to help you manage stage fright and keep it from interfering with your passions. Before we look at ways to manage anxiety, let’s try to understand a bit more about what can happen during a performance anxiety attack.

To perform in any capacity, our body relies on “procedural memory,” meaning rather than consciously thinking about the physical activity of playing an instrument or singing lyrics, our body learns to do those things automatically.

That’s why you practice: so that when you need it to, your body just “knows” how to perform. In fact, for many types of public performers, from athletes to actors to musicians, consciously thinking about performance can actually be detrimental; the more you think, the worse you perform.

Unfortunately, in the case of performance anxiety, your brain under pressure can get in the way of your body’s procedural memory, and you can “forget” how to do something you’ve been doing by rote for years! The stress makes you think about the mechanics of a well-learned activity, and your prowess goes right out the window.

In short, the more you think, the more likely you are to choke.

Practice Mindfulness
While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the best ways to ease performance anxiety is to NOT think. Letting your thinking mind get out of the way of what your body already knows how to do can help you get back into a comfortable feeling of “autopilot,” when the creativity flows and you’re able to execute what you’ve rehearsed.

One of the best ways to help your mind disengage from an anxious loop is through meditation. A number of scientific studies have looked at how a regular meditation practice can help musicians conquer pre-show jitters. One study from 2003 found that eight weeks of meditation not only helped adult musicians feel less nervous before performances, but it also helped them get more relaxed enjoyment from their experience once the performance was complete.

A second 2009 study looked at the effects of meditative yoga on young musicians with severe performance anxiety. Overall, they found that weekly yoga and meditation sessions helped musicians experience less music performance anxiety and less overall tension and even depression than the control group.

To get started, you needn’t find resources specific to musicians. Whether you prefer a group setting or private home practice, most communities have affordable local classes teaching meditation, mindfulness stress management and yoga. There are also countless online and app-based tools to practice meditation and yoga in the comfort of your own home and on your own schedule!

Photo courtesy of Mwangi Gatheca/www.thirdworldhippy.com

Reframe Your Feelings
Here’s an interesting exercise: Close your eyes and remember how it felt the first time you really fell in love. Think back to how your mind felt, the flutter of your heart, how your body felt. Got it?

Now, close your eyes and remember how it felt the first time you experienced some type of performance fear or stage fright. Think back to how your mind felt, the flutter of your heart, how your body felt.

Now compare them. In most cases and for most people, the sensations in the body and mind are remarkably similar!

Scientists who study musical performance anxiety often find that musicians with stage fright experience “extreme arousal,” meaning a state of heightened emotion and physical sensation. They’ve found that performers who can turn their perception of this state of heightened arousal into a positive can begin to channel their nerves into positive energy for performance.

This type of cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you turn terror into excitement. It’s all how you perceive it. Basically, you take the fear out of the feeling and recognize the affection and love you feel for the act of performance.

By renaming your “butterflies,” you can begin to use your excess energy before a performance to mentally prepare and fuel your experience.

Regarding #StageFright, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you turn terror into excitement. It’s all how you perceive it. Basically, you take the fear out of the feeling and recognize the affection and love you feel for the act of… Click To Tweet

Try the Alexander Technique
While the Alexander Technique was not developed to combat performance anxiety, a significant percentage of professional musicians have studied it and it can be immensely helpful in supporting the body during moments of anxiety.

The Alexander Technique is named for its creator, Frederick Matthias Alexander, who developed his principles in the 1890s to help speakers maintain a strong voice during public events.

Alexander felt that poor posture and movement harmed an individual’s health and self-awareness, and that learning good posture and efficiency in movement could improve mind and body.

Music performance requires incredibly complex coordination of mind and body—sitting, standing, holding your instrument, managing your breath and stress levels, etc. With the Alexander Technique, you learn three related skills: awareness of your body, the ability to release tension in the body, and the use of the mind over muscle for more efficient movement. In a nutshell, the Alexander Technique involves mindful movement.

The Alexander Technique is taught at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, the Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, the Royal College of Music in London, the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and at many other music colleges. You can also find resources about this fascinating technique online.

Picture Your Success
One of the more successful techniques you can practice yourself anytime, anywhere, is positive imagery and mental rehearsal.

This technique is used widely by performers in a number of fields, including musical performance, elite sports and public speakers.

Mental rehearsal is easy: sitting quietly with your eyes closed, paint as vivid a picture as you can of your future performance space. Imagine all of the surroundings—lights, audience, equipment, etc.

Try to draw on all of your senses to perfectly picture what the experience will be like. What will you hear? What does the stage feel like? What are the smells surrounding you?

Now, imagine yourself performing. Are you standing? Sitting? Playing or singing? What are you wearing? What do the lights feel like on your face? Who’s surrounding you? Can you hear the murmur or applause of the audience? Do you see smiling faces in the crowd?

Immerse yourself in this imaginary world as much as you can. Now watch yourself going through all of the motions of the performance, seeing how you behave and how your talents emerge.

Allowing yourself to pre-plan the event in your mind, and to see yourself successful in that space and time, can do wonders at alleviating any nerves that may arise during the actual performance.

Study and Practice!
There’s empowerment and comfort in being expert in your artistic field. As mentioned above, being able to rely on your body’s procedural memory can help you tap into the hours and hours of practice and effort you’ve put into your craft.

Continuing your education in your area of performance can also help you conquer any stage fright you may feel. Whether you pursue a degree in voice, guitar, songwriting, or even music production, furthering your education through an online music degree gives you a solid base to build upon for performance.

You’ll learn techniques to perfect your craft, connect with other artists who share your interests (and fears) and master your art, allowing you to bring expertise to every performance. Each class you take or degree you work toward will boost your confidence in any performance situation, allowing you to face new opportunities “knowing your stuff!”

About
Berklee Online is the online extension school of Berklee College of Music, delivering access to Berklee’s acclaimed curriculum from anywhere in the world. Berklee Online's award-winning online courses, multi-course certificate programs, and Bachelor of Professional Studies degree are accredited and taught by the college's world-renowned faculty, providing lifelong learning opportunities to people interested in music and working in the music industry.
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