My primary-level students have started preparing for their spring concert in May, and part of that preparation includes discussing performance anxiety. Thanks to a supportive community, our concerts have very large audiences, which can increase the pressure on young performers. I recently asked my second graders, who have now participated in several school concerts, what advice they would offer to the kindergartners and first graders about dealing with stage fright. Their tips included preventative measures, fundamentals of stress management, and insightful techniques for managing anxiety during a performance. Their good advice could work for any age or level of experience.
“Practice your songs.”
Knowing your music inside and out is the best preventative measure for managing performance anxiety. But don’t just practice your music, practice performing. The more experience you can get, the better, whether you play for an audience at an open dress rehearsal, for your dog at home, or even in your mind.
This simple advice can have a profound effect. Extra muscular tension that accompanies stress causes shallow breathing. Inefficient chest breathing makes singing or playing a wind instrument difficult, decreases the ability to think clearly, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system response (fight-or-flight). A variety of methods, including Alexander Technique and yoga, teach diaphragmatic breathing and increase awareness of its effects. Focusing on breath control helps performers physically, cognitively, and musically.
“Look for your family.”
Coming on stage and looking out at a sea of faces can be very scary. One second grader said that she looks for her family and focuses on them during a performance. Making your focal point the people who love and support you unconditionally can lessen the feeling of scrutiny. People don’t come to concerts, especially student performances, looking for failure. Know that the audience is there for a love of the performers and/or the repertoire, not to judge mistakes.
“Think about your singing voice.”
It’s important to avoid being mesmerized by the audience when you’re performing. Remember why you’re there in front of them. Focus on the music and your sound. That’s what the audience is listening to, too!
Fake it ‘til you make it! Even if you’re not feeling calm, pretending that you are can work from the outside in. Social psychologist Ann Cuddy explained in her 2012 TED Talk that “our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology” are all influenced by our own nonverbal expressions, such as body language. Using confident body language increases testosterone (a dominance hormone) and decreases cortisol (a stress hormone), resulting in feelings of boldness and comfort.
“Move on if you make a mistake.”
Live music is a fleeting art form, existing in the moment. This can be a challenge with so many different factors affecting that moment, but it can also be an advantage. Mistakes are over as soon as they’ve happened, and good performers have the ability to move on from them. Focus on making each moment of music what you want it to be rather than dwelling on or judging what you have already played or sung.
“If you feel sick, you can sit down on the risers or just leave.”
The student who offered this piece of advice didn’t think it would quite fit on our list, but I disagree. Preparing for any situation that could arise, no matter how unlikely, will help any performer feel more prepared and comfortable. Locate the nearest exit, bathroom, garbage can, telephone, teacher, stage manager, or whatever else you could possibly need, and you will have a little less to worry about during the performance.
“Try your best. Everything will be okay.”
There is no “perfect” in music performance. If you put unrealistic expectations on yourself, you are bound to feel anxiety. Instead, visualize the bigger picture. Think of the beauty and purpose of the music you’re performing. Aiming to communicate these larger ideas through your music is more productive, both in lowering stress and improving a performance, than focusing on technical details. Try your best to stay true to the purpose of your music and performance, and have faith that everything will be, at the very least, okay.
“Be brave!” “Be strong!”
Facing fear, acknowledging the manifestations of stress in your body, and taking action to manage your anxiety while performing does require bravery and strength. Although many rationally thinking musicians convince themselves that stage fright is a weakness, it is a symptom of caring about what you do. Harness the power of the rush of adrenaline, the heightened awareness, and the value you place on your work to turn your anxiety into an advantage.