The euphoria of live performance is matched by a special kind of depression compounded by a profound tiredness after the event. A vast amount of energy – mental and physical – is expended in the act of performing, and the excitement of the concert fills your every moment in the hours leading up to it.
And then, suddenly, it is all over…..You wake the morning after with a sense of deflation, the euphoria of the previous night now replaced by ennui.
This is in fact quite normal and the explanation for these feelings is simple: you’re coming down from an adrenaline ‘high’.
Anxiety is a natural part of the performance experience and should be accepted as such. While many of us may dwell on the psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety (the fear of making mistakes, memory slips, negative self-talk etc), most of the symptoms we feel ahead of a performance are in fact physiological, the result of the release of adrenaline, a hormone and neurotransmitter which is produced when we find ourselves in stressful or exciting situations. Known as the “fight or flight hormone”, it works by stimulating the heart rate, contracting blood vessels, and dilating air passages, all of which work to increase blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs. This gives the body an increased and almost instantaneous physical boost. In a performance situation, the side-effects of adrenaline pumping through the body include racing heart or palpitations, sweating, breathlessness, nausea, and trembling or shaky hands, arms or legs. It also brings a heightened sense of awareness and increased respiration which can make one feel light-headed or dizzy. Understanding the physical symptoms of performance anxiety can go a long way to managing the unpleasant feelings, together with deep practising and good preparation, which can remove some of the psychological stress. We do not need to “fight the fear” but simply accept that these sensations and feelings are normal and common to us all – even musicians at the top of the profession.
The symptoms of the release of adrenaline do not leave the body the instant the stressful situation ends, and when one is not actually in a genuinely dangerous situation, the effects of adrenaline can leave one feeling jittery, restless, irritable and sleepless. In the immediate aftermath of the performance, you may continue to feel excited, “on a high”. Many people find it beneficial to “work off” the adrenaline rush after a particularly stressful situation (the clichéd example perhaps being the rock star trashing a hotel room after a gig!). It can take several hours for the body to settle down and the day after the concert, one can feel very flat as adrenaline leaves the system and one’s hormonal levels return to normal.
In reality, there’s no time for exhaustion: you have work to do tomorrow – and work is the best antidote to these feelings of depression and tiredness. There may be another concert to prepare for, new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revived and finessed. We draw strength from our love of the repertoire, our excitement about our individual pieces and the prospect of putting them before an audience. The performance is what endorses all the lonely hours of careful practice and preparation.
“At this low point, we have only to let music itself take charge. For every challenge we can possibly want lies before us in the vast and inexhaustible repertory that cannot but replenish our spirit. For true musicians, depression is temporary because their music is permanent.” (Seymour Bernstein, from ‘With Your Own Two hands’)
Stage fright? Blame Liszt – article by pianist Stephen Hough