Vanessa Jump Nelson

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Harnessing performance anxiety
Lark Ryan, LCSW

We all have an instinctive, self-protective part of us that tries to keep us safe and warns us of danger, like a watchdog barking at intruders. When we experience stage fright, that’s our watchdog overdoing its job, like a dog barking at friends. This protective part of us misinterprets performance as more dangerous than it is. We need to handle that aspect of ourselves in order to have anxiety work for us, not against us.

The meaning we make of our anxious symptoms can make a difference. It can help to just be aware of body sensations nonjudgmentally, instead of letting fear of fear grow. For example, adrenaline is what gives us butterflies (or worse) in the stomach. This surge of energy is the same as we feel when we’re excited about something pleasurable. We can be overwhelmed by the wave, or we can choose to ride that surge. A pounding heart doesn't have to mean feeling out of control: how about during exercise? Channel that extra energy into the interpretation of the piece. We can just notice and accept our anxiety, and by doing so, it loses some of its power over us. We may try to fight or ignore that funny feeling in the gut, or chest, or wherever you feel it. Instead, give yourself permission to simply feel your nervous sensations. And too, besides those intense feelings, there is a place inside that feels calm and strong. Take a minute to scan your body from head to toe. Where is the place that feels the most solid? The soles of your feet, the backs of your fingernails? That still point is a resource, to balance when nervous feelings draw your attention.

For most of us, the physical symptoms of stage fright are magnified by what our critical mind tells us: “My hands feel clammy.  I just know I’m going to blow that run!” In performance, you’re as well prepared as you are, however well that is. So, the time is over for the watchdog’s well-meaning barking (although earlier, that may have motivated you to practice). Say thanks, but no thanks, to the extra helping of worry. More self-criticism: “What do you think you’re doing here, performing this?” Simply be aware that while part of you is nervous and judgmental, you can deal with that more primitive part.

One way to explore it: What am I doing, and what is this piece about? Vocalists have it easier, with words to interpret. And if you know anything about the music history of a piece, great. But even without these aids, get in touch with what a piece can express. For their inspiration, actors ask: what’s my motivation? If the music sounds stormy, what are you angry about, that could rage from your fingers on keys or strings? If singing sacred music doesn’t feel relevant to you, find the theme, and make it personal somehow. For example, Ave Maria could be about humility and gratitude for the composer.

Anxiety invites us to live in fear of future judgment by ourselves and others. Staying in the present moment melts those fears away. In the now, find beauty in this moment, every note, each chord in progression. Aren’t we musicians because we love music? When performances are full of fear, we lose our sense of enjoyment. Be open to the value in every passing measure, and let any small imperfections go by, without fixating on them (which would be getting stuck in past--another way of not being present). It’s so easy to focus on the future outcome of a performance, and end up having a nerve-racking experience. How about having a dual awareness: of course our wish for the audience’s approval, but also our own potential pleasure in the ongoing process of music-making.

As you consider incorporating any of these ideas into your performance, keep in mind it takes time (and practice) to learn anything new, so be patient with yourself and the process. As Portland author Ursula K. LeGuin writes: it is good to have an end to journey toward, but in the end it is the journey that matters.

Lark Ryan, LCSW is a therapist in private practice, and soprano in David York Ensemble.