Fear of performing, also known as stage fright or performance anxiety, is a form of anxiety that appears before the time of performance in front of an audience, literally and potentially (performing on the air or shooting a music video for example). Performance anxiety is a common experience for musicians, actors, public speakers, and for all those that work in front of an audience. Performance anxiety can be so severe, that it can destroy an otherwise promising career, or it may only be a temporary feeling of anxiety at the moment the performer walks on the stage. Regardless, this phenomenon is something that has to be acknowledged.
First, remember that performance anxiety is a natural reaction to situations where we expose ourselves to judgment or evaluation. Yet, in some cases, stage fright may be a part of a larger pattern of social phobia (social anxiety disorder), but most of the people experience stage fright without any wider problems. Anxiety response involves a reaction of unconscious childhood conflicts and environmental stresses, like inappropriate fears of abandonment, lack of love, fear of failure, and all the ever-present psychic pains that mar a person’s present existence which all can generally be traced back to early childhood experiences, stored in the brain. Several studies have also shown that personality and performance anxiety may be inevitably linked.
It has been proven, that anxiety is particularly pernicious for singers due to the requirement of a high level of expertise and usage of varied skills all at the same time. From fine motor coordination, memory and attention to aesthetic and interpretive skills. As the act of performing does not require a physical action like running from a threat, then the energy is not used, nor absorbed and the outcome is simply stress and anxiety. The buildup of adrenaline, in a performing situation, causes symptoms like shaking, excessive sweating, dry mouth, dizziness and hyperventilation. “What will I do if I forget the text or my voice does not come out?” ─ the fear of failure and the sensation of having lost all rehearsed functions is common among singers with performance anxiety. Some singers can even develop unrealistic paranoia about the audience’s malevolent motivations.
So what choices can you make, responding to experiences of stress and anxiety in every-day living? Just as the fight-or-flight mode is starting to occur, the application of relaxation, breathing and Performance Anxiety Reduction (PAR) techniques can reduce anxiety and cause a psychological and physical response that will work in the favor of a performer. With practice, one can train oneself to choose the correct stress-response during performances. Practicing a calm and peaceful state of mind is as important as practicing your piece of presentation. A performer of any kind should strive to be both physically and mentally fit and emotionally and spiritually stable.
Performance Anxiety Reduction techniques
1. Confront, accept and understand the fear.
Bringing fear into the light of consciousness weakens its power to frighten us. In performance anxiety, there are four primary fears recognized by Eric Maisel: 1) fear of the unexpected and unknown; 2) fear of loss of control; 3) fear of strangers; and 4) fear of loss of love and approval. Each one of the primary fears needs to be addressed without shame and embarrassment. Why are you afraid of the loss of approval? When did this fear become deep-rooted? The answers to these questions can stem from the societal pressures under which we live.
Fear is a valuable ally. In fact, performing requires nervous energy which usually involves some tension. Natural desire to perform well may intensify those feelings. Now understanding the source of your fear can be enormously beneficial. Please consider the following questions: Are there any hidden benefits to my fear? Is success itself frightening? How would your relationship with yourself change if you were not so frightened? How would your relationship with others change? How would your life and career change? Do you welcome these changes? Would you be happier and less anxious if you were to achieve your goals and live your dreams? Or would you be happier in a different profession?
Ask yourself a lot of questions and answer with honesty. Investigate your fear and get down to the root of it. The answers may not come easy or be acceptable at first, but this will help you understand the fear and eventually conquer it.
2. Silence negative inner voices.
Three inner monsters that are most responsible for performance anxiety are the judge, the doubter, and the timid soul. It is important that you acknowledge the inner voices and talk back to them, reassure them, comfort them, or tell them to “shut-up.”
The Judge in you is aligned with the perfectionist and is interested in your mistakes and failings. This voice is the voice of a disapproving parent, the punishing, forbidding voice that shaped your behavior as a child. If you let the perfectionist in you take over, then you are applying impossible standards on yourself that can diminish your feelings of self-worth. Learn to accept your humanness. In truth, your littles flaws and personal quirks are what make you unique and set you apart from the crowd. Think for example of great singers - their voices and personalities were totally unique, individual and what’s more, flawed. Nothing functions well under the tyranny of perfectionism.
The Doubter. This voice is insecure, skeptical and uncertain. Many performers doubt themselves even when they are fully prepared, wondering if they have done enough. This is a habit that has to be broken in the early stages of preparation. After the technical work is complete, just have fun with your piece, whether it is a song, playing an instrument, a speech, etc. Just do it for the joy of it and don’t look back. Stay in the creative process and refuse to doubt.
The Timid soul expresses the rationale for your feelings of failure. “I just can’t, because I’m not talented...because I’m so ill.” These feelings usually start very early in life and have little to do with your act of performance. How many performances have you canceled due to illness? We have enormous power as human beings to bring whatever we focus on upon ourselves. It is quite possible to make ourselves ill with the stress and anxiety we’re experiencing. If the illness is a recurring theme, then the fear that causes it must be addressed, most efficiently with the help of a psychotherapist, but it is possible to talk oneself out of the illness as well. Speaking words of healing over and over again is a powerful tool.
3. Don’t fear criticism.
Understand that it is impossible to eliminate criticism from your life, but it is possible to eliminate the fear of it. Important thing is to learn how to handle criticism and incorporate useful information while disregarding the rest. It is not you who is being criticized, by the reviewer who does not like your high E. It is your high E that is being criticized. Fix your high E and thank the critic. Constructive criticism is a ground for growth.
4. Don’t be unsure.
Be prepared: practice, practice, practice. Excellent preparation gives you confidence in execution, but also remember that it is not necessary to be perfect, especially during a practice session. Remember that you are not defined by your performance, as you are much more than your act.
5. Recall and prepare.
First, create yourself a sense of your best performance ever (image or feeling). Choose a performance when everything seemed easy and went exactly the way you planned. Sense this performance with your body, enjoy the looseness and comfort of your body. See and feel it in your mind and settle into that confident place within yourself. Run yourself through that performance in a form of meditation every day. Become so familiar with the feeling and sensation of this perfect performance that the mere thought triggers your mind and body to return to that state of confidence. Another thing for you to do is to rehearse the possible problems that might occur during your performance the same way you rehearse the perfect performance. Ask yourself how will you deal with the problem, how will you adjust and successfully handle the problem? Sense yourself adjusting and rehearse your successful handling of the problem to be ready for the inevitable.
6. Release physical tension.
Physical manifestations of fear include dry mouth, fast pulse, freezing up, nausea, increased need to urinate, etc. A muscle relaxation technique is commonly used to fight these symptoms off. Use an audio recording to help you focus on different muscle groups, find a place where you won’t be interrupted, lay on your back and stretch out comfortably.
1) Breathe in, and tense the first muscle group (hard but not to the point of pain or cramping) for 4 to 10 seconds.
2) Breathe out, and suddenly and completely relax the muscle group (do not relax it gradually).
3) Relax for 10 to 20 seconds before you work on the next muscle group. Notice the difference between how the muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed.
4) When you are finished with all of the muscle groups, count backward from 5 to 1 to bring your focus back to the present.
If it is not possible for you to lay down to do this exercise, just acknowledge the tension in your body and consciously release it by relaxing your muscles.
7. Refuse to focus on nervousness.
Nervousness feeds on itself. The more you think about it, the more nervous you will be. Practice changing your focus. Think about what you are going to do, not how you feel. Think about the mood you want to create or focus on your breathing. The more you think about things that really matter, the less you will think about how nervous you are resulting in you not even being nervous in the end.
8. Have realistic expectations.
“Excessive concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, perception of high parental criticism, the doubting of the quality of one’s actions, and a preference for order and organization.” Performers who have high personal standards experience more anxiety than those who have more realistic expectations of their performances. If you set performance expectations realistically while working towards future goals, you will be a much healthier and happier performer. There is no such thing as a perfect performance.
9. Be generous.
The more generous a performer can be when listening to other fine performances, the greater the ease reflected in his own performances. If the performer is inwardly joyful when the other artist performs poorly, that same performer will find himself nervous in his own performing, because he will perceive the audience as the enemy. Establishing a generous attitude is important in the performance arena and in personal lives. Be a cheerleader, wish others the best and mean it!
Performance anxiety is universal and is at least once in some form experienced by anyone who has ever performed. The key here is to closely monitor what is going on inside of you, take notes and learn from what the anxiety has to tell you. The fear of the stage is only a ground for growing in your performances and personal life. Those with the courage and dedication to embrace the performance anxiety will take on the road of success in the music industry, by being well equipped to meet the challenges and overcome them.