A Few Thoughts about Performance Anxiety

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Performance anxiety is a big topic. A big part of the problem is just being focused on the here and now. This is where I like a number of sports psychology books a lot (such as the classic Inner Game of Tennis), as they are focused how to perform on a high level and don’t get into mumbo jumbo. New ones come out all the time, I have a couple newer ones set for reading this fall.

Talking to musicians and music teachers you will see there is no shortage of advice about performance anxiety. The nature of that advice will vary based on the person giving the advice and their experiences.

Why? It has in part to do with worldview – your overall view of life and your conception of the world. In particular I would note that if your worldview includes a strong belief in a higher power it likely will influence how you look at performance anxiety. For example, in 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV version) we read “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” I love this related quote from the great Philip Farkas in The Art of Musicianship. As I noted in an earlier article (here, where a longer version of the quote may be found), Farkas recalls how as a young professional hornist he had often wondered why he was there, but gradually he had a change of thinking.

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Formerly, I had assumed that all the events leading up to my engagement by the Chicago Symphony were completely haphazard–a bit of luck here, a chance encounter there, until I eventually ended up in the Chicago Symphony, as unpredictably as a seashell washes up on a beach. But, with my change in thinking came the realization that perhaps all these apparently haphazard events weren’t haphazard at all. …it wasn’t just a series of unrelated, random events which eventually put me on that stage. It was a series of incredibly interwoven and predestined events which put me there. … and, because I had been led there, certainly I could do the work assigned to me, and failure was not a part of that plan.

Another popular topic that people will react to differently is that of visualization. First experiences with this for me did not resonate at all. The realist in me says that you need to work out your problems so that you are confident in reality with no visualizations of success being necessary! But of course, for some it is a powerful technique, as seen in this quote from the Eastman E-Book I recently saw promoted on Facebook, 5 Steps to Auditioning Success:

Use visualization and mental rehearsal. Creating a positive mental image of an audition can be a powerful preparation technique. Imagine yourself walking into the audition room, greeting those who will hear your audition, and performing each selection in order with musicality and precision. The goal here is to imagine the performance exactly as you would like it to go. The more detailed your mental picture is, the more it can help you to perform at your full potential. Doing this well requires discipline, just like any form of practice. You can also use mental practice time away from your instrument to help avoid overuse injuries, and to make the most of spare moments that would otherwise be wasted, such as waiting in line.

And then there is another big topic I would like to put forward to readers to think about that is rarely addressed, the nature of anxiety itself and how different people experience different types or flavors of anxiety. Something that gives us a window on this is anxiety disorders. There are in general four types of anxiety disorders, and those types of anxiety do impact us to varying degrees as horn players – but differently as individuals, as each of us are different. According to a list found in the WebMD website we have the following:

  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Generalized anxiety disorder

I have come to believe that different people experience different types or at least shades of anxiety in performance. For someone who is more of a shy person their biggest anxieties would likely fall into the category of social anxiety disorder. This can be a plus, as anxiety that might more directly impact performance could potentially be pretty low.

monkey-bananasPersonally, if I am prepared and my chops feel good I simply don’t feel that much anxiety as a performer. I am basically a pretty optimistic person and simply don’t need long visualizations to feel up for performances. But if they help you, that is fine! It just means we are different and experience anxiety in different ways.

In the big picture, as stated at the beginning of this article, I think for a lot of people the challenge is not performance anxiety really, it is actually more about being mentally focused on the here and now to achieve peak performance. Some players are much better than others with this, and, again, sports psychology books can be extremely helpful and practical resources in this regard, don’t underestimate the power of a couple good reads on the topic to change your approach in positive ways. But remember too, that if your underlying world view is very different than that of the book or if advice focuses on dealing with a type of anxiety that you don’t really experience you may need to look to different resources. We all have to develop individual tactics toward lessening performance anxiety and there are such a variety of resources out there, you should be able to find some that resonate for you.