Conquering Performance Anxiety for Musicians

Kimberly Morrow

Performance anxiety often hangs out with musicians, tapping on their shoulder or sometimes screaming in the musician’s head, “You can’t do this!” ” You haven’t learned the music well enough to perform it!” “Everybody is going to see your hands shake. Get your act together!”

My daughter is a violinist so I have watched her suffer. As I offered her and her classmates skills to help manage anxiety so it didn’t control their performance, I found most of them had never had this information before.

First, it is important to educate musicians about what is happening in their brain. I educate them about the role of their amygdala which protects them from perceived danger. I also educate them about which part of their brain to use when they are practicing versus performing. Finally, I teach them a centering routine to use before their performance.

When we discuss the amygdala, I tell them that it is their job to teach their brain the truth about danger vs discomfort. One way to do this is to practice in a variety of settings that are stressful for the musician. Practicing around family who are watching t.v., practicing in different temperatures, practicing with the phone ringing, will all teach the amygdala that they are choosing to tolerate the discomfort of imperfect settings. From this information, the amygdala will learn that unexpected stimuli during performance is not dangerous.

In regards to which brain to use for practice vs. performance, I educate the musicians on what gets activated in the left and right side of the brain while they are playing. The left side of the brain is activates fear, criticism, and details. You can see that this is needed for good practice but can really get in the way of performance. The right side of the brain is connected to peace, focus, and ease which is needed for performance. It’s easy to see that it’s the left side of the brain that screams at you with all it’s critical talk as you walk out on stage.

So how do musicians engage their right brain instead of their left for performance? This is when I teach energy work and mindfulness. I believe Emotional Freedom Technique which uses tapping on accupressure points to move energy, while quieting the amygdala can be helpful in quieting the left side of the brain. I also teach a centering technique which helps them use mindfulness to focus their energy prior to performing.

This is what I have musicians practice in my workshop and then every day they play so that when they perform, they are already in the habit of centering:

  1. Pick a focal point (somewhere out in front of you)
  2. Form a clear intention (be detailed about what you want your performance to look like)
  3. Belly breathe with a longer exhale
  4. Scan your body and release tension
  5. Find your center by focusing in on it
  6. Say your process cue: smooth bowing, fluid, powerful, clear articulation, etc.
  7. Direct your energy-gather energy from your body and send it up through your torso, neck, eyes to your focal point (step 1)

These are new ideas to some musicians. As with all CBT and mindfulness, musicians need to practice these new skills daily in order to train their brain to work for them.

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