Guest post by Christina Cooper
You’ve tried every tool and technique from every book you’ve ever read, taken advice from teachers, colleagues, friends, and even tried to find your own ways of dealing with nerves. Still, you find yourself frustrated every time it comes to performance. Isn’t it soul-destroying when you spend so much time and effort practising and securing a piece at home, only to find that as soon as the pressure is there, the nerves creep in and the mistakes crop up?
Over the years, on countless occasions my piano pupils have shown visible frustration when they find that they can’t play to me what they’d played fluently at home. ‘I had it perfect at home!’ they exclaim – just in case I try to scold them for thinking they haven’t done any practice. I feel their pain; I used to say the same to my teachers, too.
I have experienced performance anxiety from many different angles. In doing so, I have identified common patterns in how pianists and other musicians approach their problem which could be preventing them from making the changes they want to make. These limiting patterns of thinking and behaviour could be what are stopping you too, from playing more often with the confidence, flow and ease – qualities which are intrinsic to everyone.
So, if you have thrown everything at your performance anxiety but are still feeling perplexed, frustrated or demoralised, then here are 5 likely reasons why you haven’t yet got the upper hand on your performance nerves:
1. You Believe That Nerves Are Something You Just Need To ‘Get Over’
This is one of the biggest myths in the whole of the performance world. Yes, nerves (or adrenaline as it is objectively known) are normal and highly conducive to performance. But only the right level of nerves. If your nerves are making you shake like a leaf, feel very sick or take over your ability to play well, then it is not enough to say ‘deal with it.’ That level of nerves is not normal and there are likely to be good reasons why you experience them in such an overwhelming way. They may stem from past experiences which shaped your behavioural and thought patterns.
Often it is the case that performance anxiety has a specific root in a childhood event which caused significant emotional distress, such as being forced on stage when you didn’t feel confident. It can even be that something seemingly unrelated to performance triggered a limiting belief about yourself which is still with you today.
These negative patterns become entrenched in your subconscious mind. If you consciously try to tell yourself that you are silly to feel nervous or beat yourself up about it, then it will not help. The physical nerves you feel are an automatic response to a particular stimulus. You make meaning out of how you are feeling when you get nervous, and it then seems as if you are afraid of the experience of performing, when in actual case, you are simply experiencing the outdated trigger from childhood.
None of this happens consciously, so trying to rationalise any of it with your conscious mind will only cause the anxiety to strengthen. Instead, subconscious work can be done with a trained professional in a modality such as hypnotherapy, to find the root cause and rewire those negative patterns of thought and behaviour.
2. You Try To Fight Your Anxiety Or Push It Away
Anxiety will always have a subconscious trigger. If you try to fight it or push it away, the feeling will get stronger. This is because the primary role of your subconscious is to protect you. If it believes you are in a threatening situation – i.e. performing, then it will do everything it can to protect you from it. This is called the stress response, and is the fight, flight or freeze reaction you might experience when you get really nervous on stage.
You might ask, ‘why do I feel afraid even though I know it’s not a rational fear?’ Well that fear of making mistakes or being judged is actually a very primal fear. It is an evolutionary response from the times of tribespeople where social rejection means you may be cast out of the tribe, and potentially die because of it.
The nerves you feel on stage (the stress response) is wired to make you take action, so if you try to talk yourself out of it or push it away it will come back even stronger. It is trying to get you out of danger! A better response would be to welcome it and instead focus on the useful properties of that adrenaline. This is easier said than done, I know – which leads me nicely onto the next issue…
3. You Believe That Feeling Nervous Means That You Are Nervous
‘Hold on a second!’ I hear you exclaim. Before you think I’m crazy, please hear me out with this one. What we feel in any given moment is influenced by many different factors. Yet what we feel, is a result of the meaning we give that feeling.
Everything we experience in the world is always our brain’s best guess. Notice the butterflies you might feel in your stomach when you’re nervous. Do you get the same feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you are excited, too? Perhaps you call it something else, but it’s the same feeling. Scientifically speaking, the physiology of nerves and excitement is exactly the same. How do you know when you are nervous, and when you are excited then? Well that’s entirely down to context.
The feeling you experience in your stomach may be excitement in one context and nerves in the other, but it is the result of the same chemical – adrenaline. You only know how to experience that adrenaline based on the context of your experience. So if you are at the airport waiting to go on holiday, you may feel excited. If you are waiting to go on stage to perform piano, you may automatically recognise that adrenaline as nerves.
How is it then that you think you are nervous? Maybe you’re telling yourself that you haven’t prepared enough, that you’re going to make mistakes, that you’re not a very accomplished pianist – all of these are just best guesses. The fact that you make meaning out of your experience like this only serves to strengthen those thoughts which make the feeling stronger, and so you become caught in the negative loop.
Instead, try simply observing your feeling of ‘nerves.’ Take a step back, tell yourself that it doesn’t mean anything about how prepared you are, your ability as a pianist, or even the fact that you are even nervous. There is a wonderful theory which the neuroscientist Dr Jill Bolte Taylor calls the ’90 second rule.’ It states that emotions in their chemical form take just 90 seconds to course through the body and dissipate. Using this time to feel the fear at full strength gives your body the chance to process it without holding onto it. After that, if the feeling is still there it is because you are holding onto it psychologically.
So take some deep breaths to allow this process to happen naturally. If you do this without giving meaning to the fear then it becomes less important to your conscious mind, and it should start to subside. It feels scary, but it will dissipate.
4. You believe that you’re too shy, anxious, or lacking in confidence, and therefore not a natural performer
In discussions I’ve had with countless performing artists and those who work with artists, the general consensus is that some people are more susceptible to nerves and anxiety than others. People tend to relate shyness or nervous disposition to performance anxiety. However, one problem in making this assumption is that there aren’t causal links in the way we might imagine. There are many shy performers who completely open up on stage, and other seemingly confident performers who are consumed by nerves. So how is that the case?
For one thing, anxiety, or any other psychological issue is entirely context-dependent. There are many amateur pianists for example, who are great at public speaking but crumble on the concert platform. Both are performances, but the context is different.
The second thing to note is that shyness, low confidence and anxiety are not personality traits, nor are they fixed flaws. They are patterns of behaviour which may have become habitual, but which are reprogrammable. Yes, some people might have a genetic predisposition for anxiety, but environment largely dictates whether those genes become activated.
Personality is entirely fluid, and ever-changing. You are definitely not the same person today that you were when you were little. Question the belief that you are naturally shy, anxious or lacking in confidence, and you may start to notice that it’s a subconscious belief with firm roots in childhood.
5. You try to ‘manage’ your problem, using tools, techniques and coping strategies
Most people talk about ‘coping with’ and ‘managing’ performance anxiety without realising that it requires a different approach. The whole context of the situation needs to be taken into account. Nerves (or adrenaline) are a natural part of performance and it is our subconscious response to those nerves and our habitual patterns of thought and behaviour which need addressing.
Using tools and techniques to manage anxiety is a bit like building on weak foundations. You can build all you want but the cracks will just reappear. Instead, work needs to happen at a deeper foundational level to create a solid structure which can more easily weather the storms.
A key part of that foundational work is in addressing the root cause of your anxiety. Work should be done with a professional trained in hypnotherapy or other modality. Once the root has been addressed, work can be done to change your perception of adrenaline and fear, and on redefining your beliefs about who you are. With a solid grounding, those tools and techniques you were using before become much more effective, because you have reprogrammed your subconscious response to fear and anxiety.
The message I want you to take away from this article is that performance anxiety is not something you should just put up with. There is a reason you are experiencing it, and there is a way to free yourself from its shackles.
I have created a bespoke hypnosis download which is designed to kickstart the foundational work and help to rewire some of your negative pathways. So if you want to get out of your head and into flow, click here to start your journey.
Christina Cooper is running a Transformational Retreat for Pianists at Finchcocks in Kent from April 25-29, with pianist Niklos Stavlas and chef/coach Emma Broome. Further information and booking here
I invite you to step out of your busy and stressful life, and join an intimate group of pianists in the Kent countryside. Learn how to tune out of the noise of your inner critic, to play piano with greater freedom and ease. Reconnect with your passion, with fellow pianists and with yourself. Experience more confidence in yourself and your abilities as a pianist. Experience inner peace and the freedom to just be you.
Christina Cooper is a performance coach, cognitive hypnotherapist, pianist and speaker, specialising in helping performing artists with performance anxiety. She runs retreats, coaches groups and individuals, and give talks and workshops around the globe in performance anxiety and all aspects of the psychology of performance. She is currently in the process of writing her first book: ‘It’s Not About The Stage fright – how to flip the coin from fear to flow,’ – aimed at helping performing artists in all disciplines.
She holds a diploma in Cognitive Hypnotherapy and Master Practitioner of NLP from the Quest Institute. As a pianist (LTCL) she performs regularly in venues across London, as well as teaching piano to adults and children of all levels. She studied double bass at the Royal Academy of Music and The Juilliard School (BMus LRAM), and has performed in many different orchestras and ensembles such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera North, English Chamber Orchestra, English National Ballet and English Touring Opera.