While a precious few of my readers are blessed with having no personal experience with the matter I am discussing today, most performing artists know it and know it well, and for some it can be debilitating at times. Performance anxiety is a frustrating challenge. Sufferers know it to be irrational and unpredictable, and yet most are unable to eliminate it entirely. Indeed, both I and my students have found “managing symptoms” or even achieving “remission,” to invoke concepts from the medical profession, to sometimes be more plausible goals than “cure.”
When I first began teaching university-level applied trombone lessons as a graduate assistant nearly thirteen years ago, I very self-consciously sought to hide any and all weaknesses in my playing and teaching. I am still a few months shy of age 35 now, so in the early years of my career I was usually very close in age to my students, and in a few cases I was younger than them. At that time I feared that admitting any weakness or ignorance would somehow damage my credibility in my students’ eyes. These days I am a little more “seasoned” and a lot more comfortable, and have discovered that being honest with students about areas with which I struggle or have struggled in my playing is very helpful to them in that I am able to speak from experience about steps that they can take to address the same issues. Today’s subject is an area in which I have made a great deal of progress, but still have some distance yet to go.
And so, in addressing the subject of performance anxiety I write very much as a fellow “pilgrim along the way,” not as one that has entirely “overcome.” Here are some ideas and steps to consider when dealing with this issue. Most of these can be tried simultaneously, and any can be modified as needed to fit a particular person or situation.
1. Practice. A lot.
Musicians accept as axiomatic the need for plentiful, rigorous, and daily practice, but perhaps few consider how much this helps one to manage performance anxiety. The more times one has successfully played a challenging piece or passage, the greater the likelihood of a successful performance. Furthermore, with greater practice comes greater honing of the physical structures and movements used in making music. The more “in shape” one is as a player, the more likely he is to be able to overcome the physical manifestations of performance anxiety.
2. Strive for Efficiency.
When practicing, and particularly when working on playing fundamentals, note any and all extraneous or inefficient movements (or, conversely, areas excessive tension or rigidity) in the body, and seek to eliminate them. These “nervous habits” often become magnified in stressful performance situations, and quickly go from being meaningless “quirks” to real liabilities.
3. Learn to Relax.
I have often noticed that when I am “just messing around” in the practice room I can play some difficult things very well and very efficiently, but then struggle with similar passages when actually “working at it.” Many of my students have noticed the same thing about their own playing. Why can we play certain things when we aren’t taking our playing seriously but not when we are? Often it is because we are not “getting in our own way” by introducing the useless nervous tensions that we often employ when we are “really trying.” While relaxation is no substitute for regular and diligent practice, I have found that making a “mental note” of the way that I play when “having fun” and then trying to replicate that way of using the body in a more stressful playing situation is very helpful.
4. Address “Problem Areas.”
Even the most nervous players can be successful on stage when performing repertoire that exploits their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. It is the weaker areas, the ones that sound fine but feel insecure in the practice room, that will both feel and sound poor on stage once “nerves” are introduced. Work extra hard to turn weaknesses into strengths!
5. Choose Repertoire Wisely.
As a follow-up to the previous point, when possible, choose performance repertoire that accentuates areas in which your playing is most secure, while drawing less attention to areas of difficulty. During his group warm-up session at the Eastern Trombone Workshop this week, SFC Sam Woodhead of the United States Army Band noted in passing that (I am paraphrasing here) “Even the best players in the world have ‘chinks in their armor,’ so to speak. They just do a good job of covering them.” I’ve been pondering that statement for a few days now, and I realize that I do a very poor job of applying this principle. Thinking back, my most successful solo performances (and, incidentally, those that were most enjoyable and least affected by nervousness) have been those in which I played repertoire that did not require me to “expose” any areas of significant weakness in my playing. While there is a place for practicing and sometimes even performing repertoire that forces one to address weaknesses, there is something to be said for choosing works that make you sound good. I have a habit of choosing music that I like without considering whether or not a given piece is a good piece of music for me, and this is a habit I will endeavor to change, beginning now.
6. Perform as Often as Possible.
An unhappy result of performance anxiety is that those that suffer from it become less enthusiastic about performing publicly. And yet, why do we become musicians if not to perform for others? Performing more frequently is an important part of addressing anxiety not only because there is no place in the profession for the “non-performing performer,” but also because fewer performances can lead the anxiety sufferer to believe that the “stakes are higher” for the performances that he does have. This leads to a spiraling cycle of increasing and debilitating nervousness. Performing more often, conversely, causes one to become more comfortable, to enjoy the increasing confidence brought by repeated successes, and to be able through honest appraisal and evaluation of experiences on stage to identify causes, symptoms, and solutions for specific instances of anxiety when they occur.
7. Be Humble, but Confident.
As a Christian, I reject as incompatible with my faith the arrogant type of personality both on and offstage that some associate with “great artists.” However, while Christ commends humility, there is a difference between humility and self-deprecation, the latter being unhealthy. Despite the haughty attitude that society sometimes expects of them, I have noticed over the years that the very best performers, regardless of their belief systems, carry themselves not with arrogance, but with what I will call a “settled confidence,” simply performing with a secure idea of the sound they wish to produce and with the expectation that the desired sound will in fact be produced. Cultivating this kind of outward demeanor, even when one’s inner emotions are full of nervous turmoil, helps with performance anxiety in two ways. First, it causes the audience to have better expectations; when they see nervousness they expect to hear it, and are more likely to notice minor blemishes as a result. More importantly, confident behavior can sometimes beget the actual feeling of self-confidence, with predictable and positive results.
8. Entertain and Serve Your Audience.
As performers we always hope that the audience will “like us,” but we must strive to make the performance not so much about us as about the audience. We are there to present great music for the audience to enjoy, and should strive to play in a way that is entertaining and uplifting for them first of all, and only secondarily fulfilling and gainful for us. Anxiety is in many ways a self-centered attitude, rooted in the fear that the audience may have a negative opinion of us. When the performer’s primary desire is shifted from the promotion of self to the edification of the audience, performance anxiety sometimes lessens as well. Perhaps paradoxically, the performer’s reputation receives a “boost,” as well!
9. “It’s Just a Trombone.”
The first International Trombone Festival I attended was the 2001 event at Belmont University in Nashville. Despite the passage of time, I still very clearly remember a talk given by Jim Miller, Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. In that talk, he described his dismay at his inability after multiple auditions to move from a “middle-tier but still full-time” orchestra to a position like the one he now holds in one of the top orchestras in the country. Without repeating his entire story here, the discovery that “it’s just a trombone” was central to his renewed success, as he realized that he was taking himself and his career so seriously that he was unable to regain the skill, confidence, and enjoyment that were needed for him to enjoy the greatest success. For those of us that suffer from performance anxiety, the message here is to remember that “it’s just a trombone” (or whatever instrument one plays), that the negative impact of a poor performance is almost nil “in the grand scheme of things,” and that to be able to play and perform for others is a great privilege afforded to relatively few people. Don’t dread playing. Enjoy it!
10. “It Will Be Okay.”
The message of this last point is more suited to one of my occasional posts related to my Christian faith, and so I will leave expounding upon it at length for another day and another article. Suffice it to say for now that I am comforted by the promise that the God whose providence extends even to the smallest birds and to the hairs of my head will always care for and sustain His people (Matthew 10:29-31). Resting upon that promise always provides both perspective and relief in the face of anxiety.
Again, I write today not as one that has “arrived” but as one that still struggles from time to time with performance anxiety. Happily, those occurrences are less frequent and less severe than they once were, largely due to application of the ideas discussed above. I hope these thoughts will be helpful to musicians and others with similar struggles.