The Psychology of Performance
by Elena Greco
Published in PSYCHOLOGY TODAY:
Also published in CLASSICAL SINGER
as “Overcoming Performance Anxiety”
Typical reading time: 4 minutes
November 9, 2015
Like many performers, I started off my singing career with severe stage fright. I never let it stop me – the inner drive to perform and make music was too strong – but it did cause me some sleepless nights and ruined some auditions until I found a way to deal with it. Once I overcame performance anxiety through a change in focus that I’ll talk about here, I was never hampered by it again. That doesn’t mean that I never feel performance anxiety; just that I experience it very differently now, and that my performances never suffer because of it. Anyone can learn this change in focus, which can transform the way you experience performing.
Performance is something most of us have to do periodically in life; it is certainly not limited to professional entertainers. When you have to stand up in front of a group, whether giving a lecture to a group, teaching a class, or giving a pitch to a prospective client, you’re giving a performance, a situation which can cause anxiety for some. Any time we’re in a situation that requires a performance – meaning we have to stand in front of people and do something that puts the focus of the audience on us – we can use the change in perspective I’m about to describe, not only to relieve performance anxiety to a great extent, but to help us give more effective and compelling performances.
It is 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 and have a fear of being judged, 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 the technique below, they will no longer be a problem.
There are a number of good books, courses and classes about mastering performance anxiety which offer techniques for overcoming those physical and mental symptoms, some of which are effective; in fact I teach some of them and use them myself at times. But rather than focusing on the physical symptoms and trying to change or eliminate them, I prefer to focus on something larger, which is the perspective behind the performing. Once that is taken care of, the physical symptoms are not such a hindrance. That is because the perspective is what causes the physical symptoms.
The first and most important question is, why are you performing? What is it you’re hoping to accomplish? As soon as you focus on the objective, it begins to become much easier. (Hint: Hopefully it has something to do with the audience or the music.)
Second, why are those people in the audience, really? Why did they make a trip to sit in probably uncomfortable seats to watch and listen to us? The truth is, people want us to be good; they are hoping to be entertained and inspired; they want to feel something. They are dying for us to give a successful performance because they want, even need, for us to give them an experience. And that also holds true for colleagues who have to sit through a monthly department meeting where you’re speaking or a client who has to listen to your pitch.
When you read children a bed-time story, are you worried about being judged? Probably not. What is your goal? Perhaps it is 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 in reading the story might be 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 the audience. Once you have the intention to do this, you can develop it further through other practices, such as meditation, which allow you to develop your capacity to be the “seer” (and giver) and not the “seen” (judged) in situations of heightened anxiety.
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 she 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 the audience. That is another way to overcome performance anxiety; that is to become the servant of the material and focus intensely on the importance of what you are conveying. If you’re a singer, you could give yourself completely to the music and the composer’s intention so that the music lives through your recreation of it. If you’re giving a lecture in front of a group of teachers, you could give yourself to the purpose of the lecture, perhaps to inspire the teachers to remember why they teach.
I remember the first performance I gave after a 10-year hiatus; it was for a senior center. As you might imagine, I was pretty nervous, and yes, I did have some symptoms of performance anxiety. But when I started to sing a Cuban bolero in Spanish, an elderly Hispanic woman in the audience became clearly moved. And so did I. I wanted so much to give this song to this woman, who was so obviously affected by it, singing along with tears in her eyes. Performance anxiety no longer existed. All that was there was my sincere desire to give something meaningful to this woman and the rest of the audience.
So the next time you have to perform in any arena in life, and you have a fear of having performance anxiety, recognize immediately that the symptoms can enhance your performance once you channel the energy. Instead of worrying that you might have anxiety symptoms, focus instead on (1) being the “seer” and not the “seen,” (2) what you are giving to the audience and (3) serving the material you are presenting. You just might find that you’re a natural performer!