Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Overcoming Performance Anxiety

with Todd Goranson

Date Posted: May 03, 2016

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Todd Goranson is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal of the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school. This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.

How would you describe tactical breathing?

Todd Goranson: The deep, slow breathing that basketball players use before a free throw is identical to the technique that police officers and soldiers are trained to use to keep their pulse rate under control. Sustained, deep breathing such as this can also be used by musicians and public speakers to reduce or eliminate the physical and psychological symptoms of stress that so many performers experience. During big exams, Col. Grossman would tell his students at the U.S. Military Academy, “It’s a FREE THROW….It’s a FREE THROW,” and he found that the test scores went up significantly. 

This same reminder has helped my students, and myself, cope with the high-pressure performance situations that we face in our careers. We’ve all been told to “take a deep breath”, but you need to sustain this breathing for at least a few inhalations/exhalations to receive the benefits. Employing tactical breathing before a performance, in between pieces, or even between movements has proven to be a great help to me and to my students.



Todd Goranson presenting a clinic at Steelton High School

You’ve mentioned the book On Combat by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has had a profound effect on your performance career. What specifically did this change for you?

TG: After I was ambushed by three armed men and robbed outside my hotel following a rehearsal in 2009, a couple of folks recommended this book to me. Both suggested it could help me process the physical and psychological phenomena that I experienced during the robbery, as well as deal with the potential anxiety/trauma that you deal with psychologically after going through a life-or-death experience. It addressed some specific things I experienced, such as my inability to read the license plate of the car right in front of me in spite of my clarity and calmness during the robbery (visual exclusion, as my brain prioritized reading as a “low” priority) and how my hands shook twenty minutes after the robbery concluded (the bodies response to coming off of significant adrenaline). 

More importantly, I realized the benefits that all musicians could receive from reading this book: an understanding of how our mind/body respond to fear, as well as the techniques that Grossman laid out for coping with, or entirely eliminating, the symptoms. 

Though they are not always as severe for performers as for those in combat, the fear response (fight/flight/freeze) symptoms are potentially the same for performers as for those in combat because they are a function of our limbic system. 

Any time a fear response raises our pulse rate beyond 115 bpm, it starts to impact our physiology. The techniques that he prescribed (stress inoculation, tactical breathing, visualization, conditioned response) are equally effective for training a musician as training a police officer or soldier. This knowledge completely revolutionized how I prepare prior to a performance and what I focus upon during the performance.

Find the book here.

Have any of your students experienced performance anxiety and successfully combated the nerves?

TG: One of my favorite examples is a former saxophone student of mine in Texas. During studio class performances, her hands would shake to the extent that she would have to stop in the middle of a Ferling etude (common saxophone etude book), or whatever she was performing. 

After applying the concepts and practicing the techniques that I adapted from Grossman’s book, four semesters later she gave a magnificent senior recital in which she played beautifully and smiled at the audience throughout the performance. I have had the opportunity to lecture on this at TMEA, NASA and other music symposiums and have received a lot of positive feedback and heartwarming success stories.

"I had an excellent day today hosting Messiah College’s Todd Goranson as he held a reed clinic with all of my students, courtesy of the Vandoren Regional Artist Program. Nearly every reed player had a chance for a mini-lesson with Todd, and each came away with valuable information. I’m thankful that we had this opportunity!” – Amy Johnston, Sayre Junior/Senior High School

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