I have really struggled with performance anxiety throughout my life. However, I have arrived at a place where I can manage it with a high degree of success (at least I think I have!) Here are my steps to comfort in performance.
Step 1: Make peace with adrenaline
The first step on the road to being comfortable on stage is accepting the fact that it is a rush. Our natural instinct is to release adrenaline in situations where there are a lot of potential predators nearby. But this is so we can be more alert and high-functioning. So rather than fight it, I let it fuel the fire. I try to channel the nervous energy into my performance.
Step 2: Make a mantra
And this mantra follows the same rules as the spinning top in Inception, if you tell it to anyone it will lose its power. It is also helpful to use positive language when writing it (and it is good to actually write it down). “Don’t be nervous!!” is obviously not a very effective mantra. Without giving too much away, mine involves many variations on the word “relax”; there is a yoga instructor in my head while performing.
Step 3: Prepare
To be honest, the biggest cause of performance anxiety is lack of preparation. So if I am ridiculously, well-prepared, it certainly doesn’t hurt. It helps to be able to tell myself “I practiced this so much, there’s no way I can screw it up” and “trust yourself, you got this” and actually believe myself.
Step 4: Practice practice practice…performing
The only concrete way to get better at doing anything is to do it a lot. I will invite a friend into my practice room, play for my family, play for my dog, sometimes even opening a window can cause enough self-consciousness to give me a small rush of adrenaline. Later in the process, I might go to a park and set up somewhere to play. The smaller audiences will help bridge the gap between the practice room and the stage.
Step 5: Stop caring
Stay with me here. The most important part of my mantra involves a variation of the phrase “I don’t care what anyone thinks”. The last thing I have to do before walking on stage, after countless hours practicing, after many lessons on the repertoire, after stressing over missed notes and historical accuracy, is let all of that go and just play. Am I a bad person if I miss a note? No! Will people judge me if I get a little romantic on my Bach? Maybe, but do I care? No! At the end of the day, if I play so that it means something to me, it will make a better performance. The idea is that I spent so much time being self-conscious about the notes and whatnot in my practice, that will come out in my performance without me stressing over it on stage.
This is my personal philosophy. Tackling performance anxiety is a road we must all go down and everyone’s looks a little different but maybe these tips will help provide some sign-posts.