Help for the nervous blues


I get stage fright (who doesn’t?) anytime I perform. Whether it is for something important or for the least stressful affair, it doesn’t matter. Even when I don’t seem to be nervous somehow my nerves kick in and it affects my performance level greatly. There was only one time when it didn’t and that was a time when I was so mad about – get this – in which order I was playing at a certain event (you play and receive a critique sheet, that sort of thing) that I was out to prove myself the best of the bunch. Okay, so right now you are probably thinking that I must be pretty full of myself. The answer to that is: to the best of my knowledge I am not. I actually am almost the opposite, and in fact, since that day even though I have tried (as that proved to be my best performance) I have not been able to get that same drive to execute a satisfying performance (it is rather a joke in my family though).

Usually before and during a performance, no matter to whom I am performing, I am too busy feeding my brain thoughts of doubt.

”I don’t feel like I have the piece memorized, what if I forget it?”

“Don’t miss any notes.”

”One section down, x more to go!”

You get the general idea. It’s certainly not thoughts of musicality and focus on the music.

So, what do I do about this? I’ve read all the tips and tricks: eat bananas, remember you are there to share music, stretch, breathe, think positive thoughts, etc. And while some of these things certainly help, it may not be enough to help (it was never enough to help me) overcome nervousness. So now what?

I did some research in April to prep myself for playing (in a winners recital) at Carnegie Hall. It’s not like I was giving a solo recital and gosh, it wasn’t even in Stern Auditorium, but it was still one of the biggest moments in my life and I didn’t want to gum it up – especially since nervousness has been a very paralyzing problem for me. I always get so nervous that the music, which almost always isn’t note perfect anyway, is made worse. It has kept me from advancing in competitions (well, I like to think that anyway…), and has, I am sure, made for some unpleasant experiences for listeners. But I could never pull myself together. My Mom certainly tried. I tried. (or did I?) I read tips and bought  this book (of which I would recommend) that Dr. Yoheved Kaplinsky once recommended to a student in a masterclass I was observing.
Nothing helped. My Mom kept trying to tell me to quit telling myself that I didn’t know the piece or wasn’t ready etc. And even though I probably knew (however, I think there have been times when I have told myself otherwise) that it was my mental preparation (or lack of) that was doing me the most harm, I just wasn’t ready to listen.

Mom: Lexi, you have to tell yourself you know this piece.

Me: but I don’t know it.

You can see the problem. Unfortunately, I didn’t – not clearly anyway. I just couldn’t shut out that little voice of doom.

In April, everything just seemed to click and make sense when I came across this website here. I enjoy/ed it very much and loved what Dr. Noa Kageyama had to say on the matter. To read things like this and know that I wasn’t the only one was so refreshing and helpful:

” We are typically led to believe that being “nervous” is a bad thing. Indeed, most of the advice I’ve ever heard has been aimed at reducing anxiety. Over the years, I tried everything I could to get rid of the unpleasant feelings associated with performance anxiety. I tried eating bananas, drinking chamomile tea, imagining the audience in their underwear, sleep deprivation, practicing more, taking various supplements, and even trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter how I played. None of this, of course, took the anxiety away or did much to help me perform any better.

From my work with sport psychologist Dr. Don Greene when I was a graduate student at Julliard and my own doctoral training in performance psychology, I’ve come to understand that anxiety itself is not the problem. The problem is that most of us have never learned how to use adrenaline to our advantage. By telling ourselves and our students to “just relax,” we are actually doing each other a disservice by implicitly confirming that the anxiety we feel is bad and to be feared. I soon learned to welcome the rush of adrenaline and to use that energy to power my performances, and to perform with more freedom, conviction, and confidence than I ever imagined possible. ”

For once, I put aside the feeling of silliness, and just kept telling myself how much I knew the piece, how well I was going to play it, and that  (I’m sorry, I know this sounds bad, but if you knew me, you would know how necessary it was! :)) I was going to play better than anyone else there. And do you know what? I think it actually worked! For once in my life, I walked out confident. Ready. And if you want to know, just ask my siblings; they’ll tell you just how confident I looked… actually don’t. From what they have said I’m afraid I went to the extreme side of looking just downright cocky. I hope not, I certainly didn’t mean to be! :D

Soo… please, if you suffer from extreme (or a little) performance anxiety, first, you have my complete sympathy – you really do; I thought I was never going to feel any other way! and second, I highly reccomend that you visit The Bulletproof Musician and try to implement some of his suggestions. To reiterate what I just said, I think it really helps – no matter how silly or ineffective you may feel this to be – to keep telling yourself over and over and over again (and then once more to be sure :)) that you know your piece; you own it.

Little voice: what if I mess up?

You/me: I won’t. I know this piece! 

What are some things that have helped you deal with performance anxiety? What do you do to prepare for a performance?

Some particular posts I would recommend reading:

What every musician ought to know about stage fright

How your mom can help you play more courageously under pressure

How to make performance anxiety an asset instead of a liability



July 29, 2014



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