Understanding and coping with the stress of performance
We all have a tendency to post-mortem our performance after a concert, audition, or exam, focusing on the negatives and the errors rather than the good things, and in the heightened state of sensitivity that often accompanies such occasions, small errors can become huge. Of course it is important to review what happened and to reflect upon it, for this informs our future practising, but dwelling too long on mistakes is not healthy as it can negatively colour our attitude to our music making.
Wouldn’t it wonderful if we could see into the future and predict what is going to happen in a performance? To be able to look ahead and figure out all the things that could go wrong, and try to work out what you can do to prevent those things from happening. We might call this a “pre-mortem”.
The “pre-mortem” technique of risk assessment was devised by research psychologist Gary Klein who found that “prospective hindsight” – imagining that the event has already happened – increases and improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes. We can use this technique to help us prepare for stressful situations – such as performing – and a pre-mortem ahead of that potentially high-stress situation can ensure that rational thinking and reactions are available to you despite the inevitable physical and emotional side-effects of stress.
As musicians the single most important thing we can do to protect ourselves is good preparation. This is not simply practising at the piano but also recording and filming ourselves, playing to other people (teachers, friends, colleagues), playing other pianos, giving practise performances ahead of the big day, visualising the performance and imagining the sounds of the music in our head before we play, recalling previous successful performances, and engaging in positive, affirmative and mindful thinking. This is the musician’s “prospective hindsight” toolbox.
Managing our anxiety is another important aspect – and I refute anyone who says they do not feel nervous ahead of a performance, whether they are a world-class internationally-renowned musician or a young person taking Grade 5. Being nervous is normal; it is also a sign that you care about what you are doing. Understanding why we are nervous is also important: when asked, most people will respond that it is fear of making a mistake that fuels the anxiety.
Fundamentally, performance anxiety is fuelled by straightforward fear, and this is hard-wired into our physiology. There’s an evolutionary reason for this: when face-to-face with a predator, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode and releases stress hormones adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol, which cause certain bodily systems to shut down (for example, the digestive system, the libido, and the immune system) to focus on supplying the brain and muscles with much-needed blood, glucose (sugars) and salts to enable the body to react immediately: stand and fight that sabre-toothed tiger or flee from it as quickly as possible. The physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweating, nausea, trembling – are entirely due to the release of stress hormones, and one’s anxiety can actually increase by worrying about these symptoms.
In a performance situation, the body reacts in exactly the same way as in the sabre-toothed tiger scenario, and the physical side-effects of stress hormones flooding the body can be extremely unsettling when we are trying to be as calm as possible in order to play accurately and well. Many of the techniques suggested for alleviating performance anxiety are to do with “kidding” one’s mental state – positive affirmation (“I can do it!”), Neuro-Linguistic Programming, mindfulness – which can distract one’s mind away from negative thoughts and damaging self-criticism. There are also some very useful physical strategies, including deep-breathing (Pilates-style thoracic breathing) and power poses, which have been proven to reduce cortisol and increase testosterone. In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms before the performance, many of us also suffer afterwards due the depletion of sugars and salts during physical effort, and the effect of the stress hormones leaving the body and the body settling back into its normal state. These symptoms, which may linger for a good 24 hours post-performance, can include tiredness, grumpiness or depression, and physical aches and pains. Personally, I have found these symptoms more unpleasant than those of pre-performance anxiety. That is until a pianist friend of mine, who is a medic at a leading London teaching hospital, suggested I try using an isotonic sports drink before and after a performance.
Sports people use isotonic drinks, which contain similar concentrations of salt and sugar as in the human body, to help fuel the body when exercising, and to replace electrolytes and carbohydrates which are depleted during exercise. These drinks (the leading brands are Powerade and Gatorade) have also been proven to help patients recover more quickly after undergoing complex colorectal surgery (surgery which puts the body under significant stress) resulting in reduced morbidity rates. I used Powerade before and after a recent concert and took note of the effects. Certainly, I didn’t feel as physically or mentally tired after the performance (c45 minutes of continuous playing of advanced repertoire), and by continuing to drink Powerade on the drive home after the concert seemed to reduce the post-concert slump and the aches and pains I usually experience the day after. An understanding of what my body was undergoing physically before, during and after the performance certainly helped too, and I think if more musicians appreciated the physiological effects of stress they may be better equipped to cope with the psychological side effects too: it largely is not “all in the mind”, rather it is “all in the body”.
Until fairly recently, performance anxiety was a taboo subject for most musicians. To discuss it openly may betray a weakness which might lead to loss of work and by default income. Today many of the leading conservatoires and music colleges have courses, workshops and practitioners in place to help students understand and cope with performance anxiety: the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for example, offers a course in mindfulness for performers, while the Royal College of Music has a dedicated Centre for Performance Science. I believe that a better understanding of the physical effects of stress combined with a positive and sympathetic approach to the emotional and psychological effects will enable musicians to not only discuss performance anxiety more openly with teachers and colleagues, but also put in place effective personal strategies to enable them to play with confidence, fluency, expression and vibrant colour.
(Header photo from livescience.com)