Most classical musicians have experienced some type of performance anxiety at one point or another in their careers. Maybe it’s that feeling of dread in the gut, racing heartbeats, or a little excessive sweating of the palms before a performance.
But for some musicians, the symptoms of performance anxiety are much more severe. It can get to the point where they’re unable to perform at their regular level.
According to a survey of more than 2000 professional musicians conducted by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), 24% suffered from performance anxiety, and 17% reported depression .
But what is it that makes some musicians more likely to experience extreme performance anxiety than others? Is it talent, preparation, or levels of success? Or does it go deeper than that?
Here, we’ll take a closer look at musical performance anxiety (MPA), it’s symptoms, as well as why so many performers experience MPA. We’ll also delve into some fast-acting solutions to help you overcome anxiety symptoms the next time you have to perform for an audience.
What it musical performance anxiety (MPA)
Musical performance anxiety (MPA) is a type of anxiety that some classical musicians experience before, during, and/or after the show. The fear is typically around the perception of negative judgment from the audience, and the potential negative consequences of that judgment .
MPA is a subset of social anxiety disorder (SAD), which is a type of anxiety that causes fear of certain social situations, including performing for an audience.
For some people, musical performance anxiety can be severe enough to the point where it affects their ability to perform. Unfortunately, some musicians end up quitting performing for audiences because of the intense nature of their MPA symptoms.
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What are the symptoms of musical performance anxiety?
The symptoms of MPA can vary from person to person, depending on the severity. But in general, we can categorize performance anxiety symptoms into two groups – physical and cognitive .
Physical symptoms of performance anxiety
The physical symptoms typically manifest right before, or when you’re about to go on stage to perform.
If you’ve experienced performance anxiety in the past, you may have noticed some of the following physical symptoms .
- Tense muscles
- Cold hands
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling and shaking
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
These symptoms are a result of your body going into survival mode, also known as fight-or-flight. Our adrenaline hormone spikes, causing our heart to pump blood with greater force.
Our ancestors, faced with real danger, such as running into a lion in the jungle, had to develop the instincts to either fight, or flee, to survive. Although we’re no longer living in actual danger anymore, for the most part, we’re still hardwired to respond in a similar manner when we perceive threats.
For performers, the threat could be humiliation, rejection, or loss of reputation.
Cognitive symptoms of performance anxiety
The cognitive symptoms of musical performance anxiety can occur well in advance of your performance. It can also linger after you’re done .
- Lack of confidence
- Loss of focus
- Memory loss
- The expectation of poor audience reaction regardless of preparation
- Assuming the worst without evidence
The cognitive symptoms are often ongoing, and they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your anxiety causes you to perform poorly, which you then take as evidence that validates your fears, making it more likely that you’ll experience MPA again in the future.
Why do musicians experience performance anxiety?
Let’s start by noting the fact that performance anxiety can affect any musicians, regardless of talent, preparation, or even popularity.
Frédéric Chopin, the nineteenth-century Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, is till this day recognized as a leading classical musician of his era.
But he only performed in front of a large audience thirty times in his life.
According to Franz Liszt, who wrote the biography “The Life of Chopin“, he was intimidated by an audience. Chopin said that an audience made him feel “asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralyzed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces.”
According to a review on MPA done by the University of São Paulo and the National Institute of Sciences and Technology for Translational Medicine in Brazil, performance anxiety can be cognitive, behavioral, or even physiological .
The report also points out that performance anxiety symptoms can vary within the same individual, depending on the specific task and situation.
But in this section, we’ll focus only on the personal characteristics that may cause one to be more likely to experience MPA.
Cognitive causes of performance anxiety
The cognitive causes can include traits of one’s personality, self-esteem, or upbringing.
If you had parents that were over critical, or one’s that showered you with excessive praise, both could have caused too much pressure on you as a child and might be contributing to performance anxiety as an adult.
If you have low self-esteem due to past events or other factors, you’re also more likely to be critical of yourself and be more prone to MPA .
Behavioral causes of performance anxiety
This one has to do with your past experiences with performing for an audience. If you’ve had a negative experience, even as a child, you might have been conditioning your mind to believe that you’re a lousy performer.
Your beliefs cause you anxiety, which impacts your performance, and you take that as evidence that your MPA was justified. As we mentioned before, this can be a negative self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps you trapped in anxiety about performing for an audience.
Physiological causes of performance anxiety
Your physical symptoms of MPA are directly related to how you respond to stress. If you’re better able to handle stressful situations, you’ll be able to remain calmer, which will then allow you to focus on delivering a better performance for your audience.
A regular yoga practice is one way to improve your body’s stress response abilities, but we’ll also discuss some solutions below that are more fast-acting .
What are some solutions to musical performance anxiety?
Musicians take a variety of steps to deal with performance anxiety, and with the general demands of a career in music. Some try to optimize sleep, exercise, and diet, and others turn to harmful substances like alcohol and illicit drugs.
Below, we’ll discuss some popular and fast-acting solutions to overcome the physical symptoms of MPA.
Beta-blockers are a type of prescription drug that block the effects of adrenaline hormone, and therefore prevent the physical symptoms of performance anxiety.
While beta-blockers can be useful, they don’t support your brain or body to become more resilient against stress. It will always be a temporary solution. What’s worse, is that if you take them too often, there’s a chance you can become reliant on them to function normally.
Breathing exercises, and specifically deep belly-breathing, can act as a “natural beta-blocker“ before a performance.
When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, you’ll notice that your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. If you can consciously switch to slow, deep breaths into your belly, you’ll be able to deactivate the survival mode, and you’ll notice that your heart rate is also slowing down .
Being able to calm yourself physically will have a similar effect to beta-blockers without the potential for side-effects. Not to mention, you don’t need a prescription to breathe.
PerformZen promotes calmness and mental focus
PerformZen is a brand new natural supplement that is designed to help musicians remain calm and focused during a performance.
Unlike beta-blockers, PerformZen works by supporting your brain and body to be able to handle stress better, and become more resilient against anxiety symptoms over time.
The primary ingredient in PerformZen is GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which is a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness . Low levels of GABA have been linked with an increased risk of social anxiety.
PerformZen also contains magnesium and vitamin B6, the combination of which has been shown by research to improve cognitive function .
So, not only can PerformZen help you calm the nerves before a performance, but it can also enhance mental focus so you can perform at a higher level.
Other ingredients in PerformZen, L-theanine, theacrine, and ginkgo Biloba, all work synergistically to promote calmness and a clean boost of energy.
Final thoughts on overcoming musical performance anxiety (MPA)
If you feel like performance anxiety is holding you back from becoming the performer that you know you can be, you must understand that you are not alone.
Musicians at all levels of talent and success have been dealing with performance anxiety for centuries.
You should also know that you can take steps to address and overcome your anxiety symptoms.
For the cognitive causes of performance anxiety, consider speaking to a licensed therapist to see if cognitive-behavioral therapy is right for you.
If you need a fast-acting solution for the next time you hit the stage, give belly breathing, and PerformZen, a try.
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Products mentioned in this article
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