I’ve written periodically about performance anxiety over the nearly six years that I’ve been blogging for one primary reason: I suffer from performance anxiety myself! I remember as a student thinking something to the effect of “I can’t wait until I’m really good and don’t have to deal with getting nervous anymore.” At the time, I’m sure I defined “really good” somehow in terms of “has a university teaching position and/or orchestral job.” The problem is, now I have that university teaching position and, at least on a part-time basis, an orchestral job, and yet in some respects my performance anxiety is worse than ever. This makes sense if you think about it—now that I’m “Dr. Everett” people’s expectations of me are higher, and thus the pressure I place upon myself to perform well is greater.
Happily, although my internal experience of performance anxiety has increased I have mostly learned how to minimize its external manifestations and its effects upon performance, and usually after the first ten minutes or so of a “big performance” I settle in and feel fine. In fact, I have sometimes been complimented on just how calm and collected I seem before going on stage (it’s an act!). If you would like to read more about the approaches I have taken in order to realize this amount of success in managing anxiety symptoms, here is a listing of my previous blog posts on the topic.
One approach that I have recently taken more often with myself and with students who suffer from performance anxiety is to encourage them (and me) to face the anxiety and the circumstances which precipitate it, to acknowledge the presence of the anxiety rather than attempt to deny its existence, to accept the anxiety as a more or less normal response to the factors which precipitate it, and then to dismiss the anxiety as a harmless feeling, one which has no power to disrupt performance unless we allow it to do so. Again, far from denying the presence or even the intensity of performance anxiety, by accepting it and then setting it aside we short-circuit the downward spiral in both our emotions and in our performing that comes from trying to suppress the anxious feelings. Once acknowledged and accepted these feelings begin to seem less monstrous, and are eventually set aside.
In this way, performance anxiety is a bit like the boggart, a magical creature which appears periodically in the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K. Rowling (b. 1965). We first encounter a boggart in the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999). In that story, third-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are introduced to a boggart in a controlled exercise supervised by Professor Remus Lupin. Although essentially harmless, when a boggart encounters a person it immediately assumes the form of that individual’s greatest fear, and in the class exercise the boggart is seen to take the form of a giant spider, Professor Severus Snape, one of the fearsome dementors (a much more frightening magical creature from the stories), and other genuinely scary forms. The boggart is defeated by using the spell Riddikulus, which causes its terrifying form to suddenly become a humorous parody of itself (such as Snape suddenly wearing an old woman’s clothing). In other words, once the wizard understands that the boggart is not truly threatening it can be easily banished.
Thus with the musician and performance anxiety. The solution is not to deny its presence, or to run from it, and certainly not to submit to it. Rather, we face it, acknowledge it, accept it, and then dismiss it. Is this approach always 100% effective? No—neither did the Riddikulus spell always succeed on the first attempt—but it is much more effective than cowering in fear. To feel heightened emotions in advance of a big performance is normal, but don’t allow them to keep you from succeeding!
Needless to say, I am speaking of temporary, run-of-the-mill anxious feelings experienced by just about everyone in advance of major performances or other important events, and which dissipate once the stressor is removed. This post should not be taken as denying the existence or seriousness of long-term anxiety disorders, or the necessity of treatment of such by medical professionals.