Originally published to www.majoringinmusic.com
Reducing Music Performance Anxiety
Butterflies in the stomach; sweaty palms; negative self-talk; stomach pain; dry mouth; excessive swallowing; shortness of breath; fuzzy thinking; avoidance; or giving up. These are some of the signs and symptoms of performance anxiety. It feels so unfair when your hard work in the practice room is thwarted by fear or discomfort. A little stress can improve your game, motivating you to practice so you are sufficiently prepared by performance time. And sometimes the rush of adrenaline can sharpen performance. If stress is manageable, then all is well.
But if anxiety limits your ability to develop your talent and music performance charisma, you may wonder whether you should pursue public performance at all. Some people who suffer from performance anxiety decide to play music in ensembles, rather than as soloists. Some become music educators. These are valid choices, but before deciding to change your career path, give yourself time to explore some other options.
You Don’t Have to Be Anxious!
Our biological systems are wired to alert us to danger so we can defend, protect, survive, and procreate. Rapid heartbeat and increased muscle tension are valuable if we want to attack the wooly mammoth or run up a tree to escape it. But when it comes to public speaking, studio recording, or performing on stage, we seldom encounter situations where our lives are literally threatened. Your system doesn’t differentiate between clear and present danger and the perception of it. If you have a conscious or unconscious belief “as if” performing music were life-threatening, your body may tighten, your thoughts may become fuzzy, and you may encounter a variety of uncomfortable symptoms. It is an understatement to say it is not optimal to be in the throes of performance anxiety when you need to delicately coordinate your voice, breathing, arms, or fingers. We may be hard-wired to survey our environment for danger, but we can learn to cope. You can learn to orchestrate the level of stress at which you rehearse, as well as reduce the level of anxiety the day of a music performance, the moments before walking on stage, and even during the concert.
Coping with Performance Anxiety
As a long-time singer and lecturer who used to worry a lot, I found the Alexander Technique helped me improve my vocal technique, and that helped my confidence. I continue to use my Alexander thinking to center myself before performance, and — most importantly — to guide my thinking away from self-defeating thoughts and towards constructive ones. Using every Alexander option available to me, I can feel comfortable and joyous while preparing and then performing in front of people. For instance:
- Lying in semi-supine (see Revitalizing You and Your Music) is a fantastic way for musicians to prepare for practice, rehearsal, auditions, and performance. It’s also a great way to unwind. When you literally stop and rest, you decrease the level of stimuli bombarding you, and anxious thoughts and feelings evaporate. When you resume activity, you’ll have more resilience to encounter new stress-producing conditions.
- Learning to sit or stand with ease while performing music can improve sound quality, breath control, and endurance. In addition, standing in the “monkey” position — where you bend your hips, knees and ankles simultaneously — can be used during warm-up and practice to transform the quality of your sound.
- Special breathing techniques are often recommended as coping strategies. The Alexander Technique’s approach is the whispered “ah.” All musicians, including conductors, can reap the rewards from its calming effect.
Other useful Alexander practices help you shift your attitude or behavior to prevent confusion, panic, or getting hooked into negative thinking. By mentally preparing yourself ahead of time, there is less to deal with during a music performance. But if you do get triggered, stress hormones that course through your system are only effective for some 20 minutes. Once you know that, the feeling of your heart pounding doesn’t have to perpetuate anxious thoughts. Moreover, you can ask yourself what you want instead: clear thinking, easy breathing, and less tension. It may seem improbable that you could entertain these thoughts in the midst of performance, but that is what Alexander Technique lessons train you to do. The combination of skilled hands, gentle touch, cognitive instruction, and training in how to send yourself messages becomes a powerful and unique way of learning.
Whispered “Ah” – Step by Step
By Ruth Rootberg
At its simplest, the whispered “ah” means your exhalation is a whisper of the vowel sound “ah” as in “father.” The breath returns through the nose. Repeat. Here are some things to make this procedure more meaningful and beneficial:
Sitting or lying in semi-supine (See “Revitalizing You and Your Music.”)
- Take some time to just sit or lie, quieting any internal messages that distract you.
- Breathe in and out through your nose to warm, cleanse, and moisten the air.
- Do not manage your breath. Let the breath move freely. When at rest, there is a natural rhythm of breathing: the breath releases out, there is a tiny pause, and then the breath comes back in as you yield to the need for breath.
- Allow the jaw muscles to easily release so that the mouth drops open on the outgoing breath.
- Lightly close your lips as the breath comes in again.
- Continue the cycle: breathe out through the mouth, in through the nose.
- Think of something slightly funny.
- Let the sound of a whispered “ah” as in “father” release on the outgoing breath, as if you were steaming up a window.
- The tongue is lying relaxed on the floor of the mouth, with the tip lightly touching the back of the bottom teeth.
- Continue to recreate the thought of something slightly funny with each renewed breath. This thought does not have to produce a huge grin, but it may bring a twinkle to the eyes, a slight lifting around the cheek bones, and a springy elevation of the soft palate.
- While you are breathing, continue to quiet any distracting thoughts.
- After several cycles of the whispered “ah,” you might find your exhalation is longer. This is fine. In fact, this is a much better way to increase your capacity: focus on your outgoing breath rather than trying to take a huge incoming breath.
- Experiment with an easy transition from whisper to speech or singing.
Becoming a professional musician offers tremendous rewards—and challenges. If your talent leads you to music performance, don’t let anxiety prevent you from experiencing joy and satisfaction in your chosen field. Students of the Alexander Technique learn many skills to reduce the harmful effects of music performance anxiety. They develop strategies to prevent and diminish discomfort, to put uncomfortable situations in perspective, and to continue organizing themselves to enable peak performance.
Ruth Rootberg is an AmSAT-certified Alexander Technique teacher, designated Linklater theater voice teacher, Laban Movement Analyst, and classical singer. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Ruth sang opera and symphonic literature in Europe and the United States. She teaches the Alexander Technique and voice to people of all ages in Amherst, Massachusetts, and gives workshops around the country, including her highly successful Moving Voices with Quiet Hands—weekend workshops for voice professionals. Ruth conceived, edited and published Teaching Breathing: Results of a Survey (2002). Her published articles include “End-gaining and the Means-Whereby: Discovering the best process to achieve goals of vocal training and pedagogy using the Alexander Technique” in A World of Voice, Voice and Speech Review, (VASTA, 2011; vasta.org). For more information, go to www.alexandertechnique.com/amherst.