Performance anxiety (PA) can be a career crippling condition. Just ask Barbra Streisand who gave up live performing for 27 years and NKOTB’s Jonathan Knight who became a virtual recluse. Even at its mildest, PA can prevent you from enjoying your performance experience and hamper your ability to deliver to the best of your potential. It’s important to know that PA is unlikely to go away by itself; in fact over time it may even get worse.
If you’re experiencing PA then you need to take proactive steps to deal with it. The good thing is that these days we have a far better understanding of PA. It’s recognised as a legitimate medical condition that can occur at any stage in a performer’s career. What’s more, there are many strategies, therapies and treatments available to help.
Lets look at three strategies that may help you to avoid PA in the first place.
And in case you didn’t get it the first time here’s a bonus fourth:
Jokes aside, making sure you’ve done the hard graft and done it well will go a long way to ensuring you have performance confidence and that you can deliver your best every time.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Benjamin Franklin
More often than not the root cause of PA is the memory of a past performance going wrong. This may have involved forgetting lyrics, uncontrollable shaking and sweating, nausea or vomiting, making mistakes, going blank or feeling a sense of impending doom. The next time we get up on stage we associate performing with this negative past experience. This then kicks off the Flight or Fight Response which leads to increased anxiety, and a vicious cycle has begun.
Preparation spans a wide range of components. It’s not only about learning the song and choreography, planning the gig or rehearsing with the band; it also encompasses preparing your mind, body and voice for the job to come.
The more secure you feel with all these elements, the less likely you are to experience anxiety. If you’re well prepared and something does goes wrong, you can at least know you did all you could to deliver. It makes it easier to accept that sometimes things are out of our control.
Here is a list of strategies and practices that can help you prepare well:
“A goal is a dream with a deadline.” Napoleon Hill
You need long, medium and short term goals. Finding a greater purpose will inspire and motivate you especially through the hard stuff. This way you will increase your chances of finding out what you need to do to succeed as a performer. In other words, it keeps you focused on the “doing” not the “being” – which is where our anxiety lives. Follow the SMART goal strategy – watch the video below to learn what this is and how to follow it.
How to do SMART Goals:
Engage good time management
“Ordinary people think merely of spending time. Great people think of using it.“ Unknown
Get a diary and use it. Don’t leave things to the last minute, this includes learning songs, finding an outfit, rehearsing the band or figuring out how to get to the venue. Keeping a diary will prevent you from double booking. Include time out and admin and make sure you schedule in travel time.
Checklists are also a great way to keep on top of tasks. I use Evernote. Here I have a note called the To Do List where I separate out my different projects with all the tasks that need to be done. For more urgent tasks I have a list called Time Sensitive with the date each task is due. Once done, I move the ticked off tasks onto the Done list – I get A LOT of satisfaction seeing all those ticked boxes in there!
Time Management For Creatives:
“This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” K. Anders Ericsson
What does practice do:
Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has been instrumental in identifying how expertise is acquired and maintained.
By engaging in Deliberate Practice you will be able to identify the areas you need to improve on and strategically work to improve them. Over time they become habits. Aim to improve yourself bit by bit. Understand there will be times where you plateau, this is normal and part of the process. Push yourself further incrementally, beyond what you can do, but not too far or you may lose motivation. And most importantly know that repetition is key.
Deliberate Practice guide:
If you’re unable to practise physically then practise mentally. Many studies demonstrate that the nervous system continues to develop and strengthen when we are practising mentally. Essentially the brain, as clever as it can be, doesn’t realise when we’re doing physical practice versus mental, duh. So take advantage of that dumb brain of yours.
It is obviously best to practise mentally when you have done it physically, as this will be your reference point. Even if you experience challenges during physical practice, use the mental practice time to go through the motions the way you want things to go. Once again, repetition is key.
Perform at less important occasions, or in front of a welcoming audience – family and friends. Also set up a simulated audience – set out chairs and on them place photos of people for whom you would feel intimidated performing.
Practise how it will look and sound if everything goes right, and how you will recover if something goes wrong.
Video your practice performances so you can objectively critique and get feedback to improve.
Prepare your voice
If you don’t have one already, find a good vocal coach/singing teacher; your voice is your instrument, product, brand and tool of work.
The fitter and healthier your voice is the less likely it is to let you down when it counts. You need to have vocal exercises that keep the voice fit-for-purpose and prepare it for performance.
I still get shocked when I hear singers say they don’t have a vocal regime or warm up strategy for performances. These are usually the people who freak out when their voice cracks, goes off key or sounds rubbish during a performance. Would an athlete compete without training or stretching? Exactly, you are a vocal athlete, act like one.
Warming up: Check out the Vocal Nerds article on Warming Up for some exercise ideas.
Science shows us that meditation can change your brain, mind and body. Increase your alpha waves to reduce your negative moods, tension, sadness and anger. You can also increase your immunity through meditation.
The Scientific Power of Meditation:
Recommended meditation app: getsomeheadspace.com
Your beliefs inform your actions, feelings, mental state and physical well-being.
Reframe negative thought patterns. This link will guide you through a reframing exercise: reframe.thnk.org. There are also therapies such as Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) that can help with severe negative beliefs. I use the Lefkoe Belief Process (LBP) to help myself and my clients eliminate those pesky negative beliefs.
Develop positive self talk. Understand that you are being run by “three brains”: the human who lives in the frontal lobe (logical); the chimp who lives in the limbic region of the brain (emotional); and the computer (runs the system works for both the human and the chimp.). We need to teach the brain how to work effectively and not be ruled by the emotional chimp.
Sports Consultant Psychiatrist and author of The Chimp Paradox Steve Peters at TEDxYouth:
Develop a growth mindset. Having a fixed mindset will limit your ability to move forward, learn new skills overcome obstacles.
Carol Dweck, “Developing a Growth Mindset”:
Prepare your body
You can do this by keeping fit, eating healthily and sleeping well.
This does not necessarily mean eight hours a night; everyone is different. You know what your body and mind need to function well. The Sleep Cycle alarm clock app will help you to wake up at the right part of your sleep cycle, and you’ll find yourself feeling a lot more rested and ready to go when you wake up regardless of how many hours you manage to get.
Keep well hydrated so your vocal folds can function at the high speeds they need to in order to sing. You know what food helps and hinders you, listen to your body. Certain foods will feed into anxiety including sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Some foods help, including dark chocolate (yay), blueberries and almonds. Check with a nutritionist for more information.
Finally, get help
As they say “A problem shared is a problem halved”
You can not do it alone. Elicit the help of a good vocal/singing/performance teacher. They can give you strategies, pointers and feedback to help you focus on the tasks that will help you to reach your objectives and deliver great performances. More often than not they can draw on their own experiences to help you and often will understand your situation better that your family and friends.
Also look to band members, peers and friends who can you constructive feedback and support.
Beyond that, and if nothing else is working, find a strategy or therapy to help. You could try massage, hypnosis, psychotherapy, Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, homeopathy or do a live or online course such as the one developed by Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician.