SOLVE PERFORMANCE ANXIETY, FINALLY
by Elena Greco
Typical reading time: 4 minutes
June 2, 2021
Performance anxiety affects most performers to some degree. For some, it’s debilitating. But don’t despair! There’s a real solution for this problem. Rather than a simplistic fix, try this multi-pronged approach. You just might be a better performer for it.
Five ways of neutralizing the effects of performance anxiety
It’s absolutely normal to get nervous before a performance and have some of the physical manifestations of anxiety — such as heart palpitations, sweating, muscle weakness, muscle contraction, need to urinate, dry mouth, and shaking — or the mental manifestations, such as memory issues and panic.
When we stand in front of a group of people and have a fear of being judged (and who doesn’t?!), we will likely experience some of those symptoms. But they don’t have to be a hindrance; in fact, those manifestations of anxiety — which are the effect of a huge rush of adrenaline — have the potential to create a more inspiring performance than if you didn’t have them once you learn to harness the energy behind them. Once you recognize them as a prelude to a good performance, rather than something to worry about or avoid, and immediately focus on one of the FIVE following techniques, they won’t be a such a problem.
Rather than focusing on the physical symptoms of performance anxiety and trying to change or eliminate them, try focusing on something larger, which is the perspective behind your performing. Once you do that, the physical symptoms are not such a hindrance. That’s because the perspective is largely what causes the physical symptoms. Remember your intention for performing that we talked about earlier? Focus on that.
Knowing and remembering why you’re performing and what you intend to accomplish through your performance can help greatly reduce your anxiety and symptoms.
2. Be the seer, not the seen
When you read children a bed-time story, are you worried about being judged? Probably not. What’s your goal? Perhaps it’s to entertain them, to capture their interest, to give them pleasure, maybe to help lull them to sleep. Your focus is on what you’re doing for them; it’s not on yourself or how “good” your performance is in reading the story, or how they might react or judge you.
This is part of the trick, then: changing your focus from being the “seen” to being the “seer,” from being the “judged” to being the “entertainer,” to being the giver of an experience to your audience.
3. Serve the material
Next, think about someone like Maria Callas. Could anyone have been more judged? Can you imagine putting yourself in her shoes, standing on a stage in front of thousands to sing incredibly demanding music at every performance, knowing that many were going to judge, even to boo and catcall, during your performance, and that you were going to be judged harshly in the press the very next day all over the world?
If you read anything Callas wrote or the interviews she gave, you get a pretty good idea that when she stepped on the stage, she gave herself completely to the music, becoming totally the servant of the music, with her awareness undiverted from that purpose. And in that way she transformed her performance into one that moved, even electrified, the audience. That’s another way to overcome performance anxiety; that is, to become the servant of the material and focus intensely on the importance of what you’re conveying. If you’re a singer, for example, you could give yourself completely to the music and the composer’s intention so that the music lives through your recreation of it.
4. Visualize the performance viscerally
This next exercise is one that was the most helpful to me in performing. I used to have anxiety about having performance anxiety. This totally handled that! I want you to close your eyes. Visualize an upcoming performance in as much detail as you possibly can. If you know the venue, imagine that you’re on that stage, and see the details of the curtain or architecture, and the smells and other sensory details that you know or imagine will be there. You’re there.
Now imagine you’re coming on stage and you’re having the symptoms of performance anxiety that bother you. If you’re a flutist, maybe your chin gets slippery with sweat. If you’re a pianist, maybe your hands shake. If you’re a singer, maybe your breathing muscles shake and get weak. You get the idea. Now imagine you’re performing successfully WITH these symptoms. You’re having the symptoms and you’re performing well.
Really feel what’s happening physically as you perform; imagine how your body feels as you perform. Let it play out like a movie.
If you do this daily before the performance, you won’t have to dread the symptoms, because you know they won’t stop you. And you just might have a great performance!
5. (Secret) Physical exercise to reduce performance anxiety
Now I’m going to share a secret with you. There’s a quick, simple exercise that can reduce performance anxiety effectively very quickly. Amazingly, it can also rev you up a bit when you can’t quite find the energy for a performance. It’s particularly useful right before you go on stage, when the symptoms are at their highest.
This exercise releases excess adrenaline — and its related symptoms — and calms your nervous system. It counters that huge rush of adrenaline that occurs before you walk on stage.
Do this: Stand comfortably with your arms dangling loosely by your sides. Go up slightly on the balls of your feet so that your heels are just off the ground. It doesn’t need to be much. You’re not standing on tiptoe; the balls of your feet are securely on the ground. Now bounce up and down on the balls of your feet. If you have bad knees, don’t worry, because you can do this without bending your knees.
With every bounce down, hiss quickly and forcefully. That is, say an “s” with a lot of air behind it, as though the bounce is forcing all your air out with this hiss.
To recap: Standing easily, move your weight to the balls of your feet. Raise your heels very slightly. Bounce quickly on the balls of your feet. As you come down, not quite letting the heels touch the ground, hiss quickly and forcefully. That’s all!
Performance anxiety: Summary
So the next time you have a performance coming up or have a fear of having performance anxiety, first recognize that the symptoms can enhance your performance if you don’t resist them. Instead of worrying that you might have anxiety symptoms, instead focus (1) on being the “seer” and not the “seen, or on being the “entertainer” and not the “judged;” (2) on what you’re giving to the audience and (3) on serving the material you’re presenting. And to address the physical symptoms, (4) visualize doing the performance while being nervous, and (5) do the bouncing exercise when you’re getting ready to take the stage. If you put these all together, you might find that your performance anxiety evaporates, or at least that it no longer affects your performance negatively. You don’t have to dread it any more.