Embracing the hard: pre-performance anxiety

classical musician performance performance anxiety


This week, I’ve spent a lot of time confronting feelings of anxiety, discomfort and instability in my practice. Tiffany here, and I have three recitals coming up quickly in February! 


For me, as a performance approaches (usually about 2 weeks away if it's a biggie), I experience some of these things... maybe some of you can relate: 

  • In practice, I may approach a technically difficult passage and start thinking “What if I mess this up?” My hands get weird and my technique suffers just thinking about performing the passage. 
  • I have a glimpse of the discomfort I may feel in a long phrase and start asking “But what if I don’t make it?” 
  • I get butterflies thinking about walking out on stage - a mix of super excited and ... "will I be ready?"  
  • I start to really worry that I am not practicing enough. 
  • I start to have super irrational thoughts like "Will I even remember how to play any of this?" 


I used to spend a lot of time avoiding these thoughts. They didn't feel good, I didn't want them, and honestly I thought something was wrong with me because I had them. (What performer worries about a performance?) I’d push them away, and I’d focus on performance anxiety solutions for the stage - because that’s true performance anxiety, right? 


I'd focus my attention on what I was going to do to calm my breath backstage, how to remain centered during the performance, and staying in the moment as the bright lights begin to shine down upon me. 


And sure, working through those things was really helpful. 


But… here’s my truth.


My main discomfort has never been on stage - I mean don’t get me wrong - I’ve had very uncomfortable moments on stage and have made more mistakes than I care to admit in performance - but the real discomfort of panic, loss of control, nervousness for me happens in the couple of weeks leading up to a big performance. 


Not a shocker, I always knew I didn’t want to feel this way before a performance. I wanted to feel in control, excited, balanced. Sure, maybe a little nervous! But not overtaken.


Finding ways to ground my playing in general helped - because I was focused on finding control in my practice which helped when these anxious moments would appear in the practice room. Mediating helped, because I was beginning to learn how to let thoughts pass by without latching onto them - which helped on stage, but also in practice when seeds of doubt would appear. 


And then, there was a day where I had a big moment of realization when reading The Musician’s Way by Gerald Klickstein. 


The book displays performance anxiety symptoms in three buckets… before, during and after performance. At the time, it was pretty astounding to me… I thought performance anxiety only happened on stage!! And then... this person was telling me all the discomfort I was feeling before a performance could be considered performance anxiety?! 


Some of the “pre-performance” performance anxiety symptoms as listed in The Musician’s Way include: 

  1. Avoidance of practice
  2. Obsessive practice
  3. Busyness/disorganization
  4. Depression/fatigue/laziness
  5. Worry/distorted thinking


Which in this list have you experienced? I know I’ve experienced #1, 2, and 5 a lot. And I’ve also experienced 3 and 4. 


Somehow, seeing this "proof" in writing gave me permission to start focusing on my pre-performance anxiety just as seriously as the on-stage stuff. This big shift happened in the last years of my doctorate, around 2016. 


Since then, I’ve been exploring all the ways I can address my pre-performance anxiety head on. And this week, I’ve been comforted so much by embracing something we wrote about a few weeks ago: finding the center within it. 


I’ve been trying to face my anxious feelings head on. REALLY feel them. Sit in them. Anxious about this passage? Good! Feel that. Embrace that. Know how real that is. And then? Find your center within it and find your way THROUGH it. 


All those things I may feel - losing control, panic, sheer joy, excitement, wanting to “do more” just because I am performing - I’m trying to feel them as deeply as I can before I get to that stage. It’s not always pleasant, and it’s hard to even admit to myself I am feeling these things at times. Because I am a performer - shouldn’t I just love performing and preparing? 


This is slightly off topic but related: Who ever told us that loving performing and preparing meant we don’t feel discomfort?!


Of course we feel discomfort and nervousness, those feelings are different for all of us, and they DO NOT discount how much we love what we do. 


Anyway, I digress.


Practice looks different when I am in this zone of accepting my feelings and working on calm, centered ways of conquering my fears.  It's about getting to know the discomforts inside and out - so that they lose power over me. 


In this practice, I’m focusing on my thoughts and how they’re manifesting in my body. I am not repeating things over and over… I am trying to learn how I feel when I try to play things the first time, as if I were performing. This sort of practice can feel slow and almost like it isn’t doing anything… because I’m not drilling things over and over. There’s a place for drilling… but it isn’t the only tool we have. And for me, it’s absolutely not the answer as I approach a performance - or even as I try to reach a deeper knowledge of myself and how I can give myself to an audience. 


I have never, ever found more power and confidence in my playing than when I follow through with this level of honesty with myself. Because when I get to the performance and these feelings creep in, they're familiar friends and I've made my road map through them.


Here’s how this dialogue may go between two versions of myself in these moments of practice… 

Nervous Tiffany: This passage freaks me out. I am feeling super nervous when I approach it…. 

Grounded Tiffany: Okay! Fine! Remember, you’re allowed to feel nervous. What is your body doing when it gets nervous? 

Nervous Tiffany: My eyesight is not focusing, my hands feel out of control. My heart beat is increasing. I’m focused on not messing up. 

Grounded Tiffany: Okay… What can you do to remain in control? Hold that note slightly longer? Drop your shoulders? Really focus on listening? Really focus on my eyes not getting ahead of my fingers? Remember that you can be nervous AND perform well? Remember why you love doing this? 

Less Nervous Tiffany: YES! All those things. Let’s try all of those things. I love doing this. My air can carry my sound, which carries a part of me. 


I embrace the nervousness, feel my way around it and then embrace a bunch of solutions. The work is never over, and this is a continuous journey. 


But, I truly believe that when you embrace the hard and let it sit at the table, it all of the sudden becomes much less intimidating. And also … you don’t need to eradicate all the nervousness to be absolutely wonderful at what you do. As a matter of fact, that is a pretty unrealistic solution. 



So this week we’ve got a simple but … hard challenge.


Imagine an upcoming performance. Sit in all the hard that comes up. Feel it. Write about it. Embrace it. Welcome it. And then, begin imagining your way through it. If you're not ready to imagine yourself on stage performing because it's too much, then imagine yourself backstage. Or, at the building. Or warming up that day. 


And then - sit in all the good. The feeling of expressing yourself, the feeling of giving beauty to others, the feeling of accomplishment when you walk off that stage. 


Now, go read The Musician’s Way. We believe in you!!

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