Unpacking Stage Fright
'Stage Fright', 'nerves', 'jitters'... Just a few words to describe a feeling most of us are familiar with. It's something we pretty much have to learn to manage in order to perform.
But what do these words actually mean? I'm not entirely sure.... They attempt to describe a feeling which may be very different for each person. Perhaps they don't do justice to what can be a very real struggle.
But nerves aren't all bad.... Being nervous means you CARE. Nerves can help us to 'up our game' and provide the additional focus and energy required to perform well. It's an evolutionary thing... The physiological changes which accompany a stressful situation can help our bodies to perform at their optimum level. Once upon a time that might have meant the difference between eating and not eating!
The problem comes when our nerves get the better of us, and start to make things worse.
Someone recently told me that I didn't appear at all nervous or anxious about my playing. Well done me then! My 'game face' must be strong - or it was that day!
I know I'm not alone in managing my nerves even if it's not something we musicians tend to talk about a lot. Over the years they have sometimes been easier to deal with and less bothersome, and at other times harder to manage, but they've been a constant companion. 'Nerves' can manifest in a variety of ways. They can be very short-lived or more insidious, less immediately obvious but with perhaps with more far-reaching consequences...
Most of us would relate to some of the well-known symptoms of nerves, things like:
There are probably as many different ways of coping with these things as there are people. I've observed musicians going 'into' themselves before a concert, mentally and physically taking themselves off somewhere else - I sometimes do this myself. Dealing with other people and making polite conversation can be all a bit much if you're feeling nervous. Some people actively seek out distraction though, and that's perfectly valid too as long as you're not annoying anybody! Deep breathing can help a lot, mindfulness exercises are wonderful. Some people swear by rescue remedy, EFT or homeopathy. Ultimately though the hope is that all your hard work, experience and FOCUS will carry you through and the nerves will melt away. But it can be a hard mental game.
But then there are the more persistent 'nerves', which many of us will also have to manage at some point:
To a degree these are also 'normal' signs of nervousness, and I'm sure many people can relate to them. But what do you do if you find that they are affecting your ability to do your job or are starting to make your life a misery? What if a feeling of nervousness or nervous thinking isn't just limited to the short window of time around a performance? This is no joke. Out of control thoughts and feelings like this do destroy lives and careers. Being unable to perform without (self-)medicating with beta-blockers or alcohol is far from unusual in the music industry but the reality is that for some people it's the only way to pay the bills. Perhaps the saddest part of this scenario is how little we talk about it - it's the 'elephant in the room'. One reason why people might not want to talk about it is that admitting to getting nervous is like admitting that you might make a mistake, and we can't have that! ;)
Whether we talk about it or not, the reality is that it just isn't healthy to spend too much time in an anxious state like this, it can become habitual. It starts to feel normal, even though it isn't. Perhaps we even become addicted to the drama created when we spend our lives a constant cycle of high anxiety/ adrenalin/ relief! But it's important to remember that while short-lived periods of anxiety don't do us any harm (humans are designed to cope with some stress), living life in what is essentially a permanently anxious state of mind isn't healthy.
But think for a minute: if your amazing mind can conjure up all this anxiety and stress out of nowhere then just imagine what might happen if you were able to harness its 'creative power' for good!
I don't remember there being much focus (if any) about nerves or managing nerves when I was at music college and I think this was a shame. Professional musicians spend countless hours practising, constantly analysing their playing in minute detail for ways to improve it. Many musicians are 'perfectionists', but it doesn't take a genius to work out that the flip side of all this perfectionism can be anxiety....
There's no shame in a top sportsperson consulting a sports psychologist, Andy Murray recently talked about this very thing. In fact, mental strength is recognised as being a very important part of what makes a champion. However we can't expect our musical-mind-game to be strong if the rest of our life is a mess, so it's important not to look at any one thing in complete isolation. Getting enough sleep, eating well, not drinking too much, getting exercise, getting out into the fresh air & having time out & balance in the rest of your life counts for a lot too. These things keep us grounded and anchored generally.
It's easy to see how a strong mental game could help your career though: imagine walking into an audition with a strong mindset - regardless of how beautifully your competition can play you're at an advantage if they're a bundle of nerves and you are beautifully focused, confident and composed!
I remember my teacher suggesting I read a book called 'The Inner Game of Music' (or the original book which inspired it 'The Inner Game of Tennis') when I was a student. This was good advice and I still recommend these books to others. Essentially the books describe a type of 'mindfulness' which enables us to shut down the negative self-talk which can accompany a performance. Staying 'in the moment' is powerful but it requires practice.
I found out about the power of hypnosis when I used it for the births of my last two children. Our brains really can be trained to work for us, as well as against us! I've also used hypnosis as a way of dealing with performance-related nerves and I've found that it can work extremely well.
If your nerves are really affecting your life, then please do get proper help. There are interventions which can make life easier. It might cost money and take a while to sort out, but just imagine for a moment that your instrument had a broken spring or wasn't working correctly. You'd get it fixed, right? Your mind is every bit as important.
And if all else fails, I also recommend this ;)
What techniques help you with your performance anxiety? Do you have any suggestions for others? Please let me know. I'd love to share them in a future post.