This weekend I’m going to an awards recital. My daughter will be performing and I will also be accompanying my singing student. This situation has the potential to be terrifying… As a student, as a parent and as a teacher, many times I have braved awards recitals when my level of anxiety was very high. But why would I be nervous? The evaluation is already over – the award has been won, so really this performance ‘doesn’t matter’. But it feels like it actually matters more. I understand first-hand how performers, and teachers and parents who are passengers on the ‘performance train’, feel pressure and performance anxiety at awards recitals. And now, I have strategies in place to help me transform my anxiety into excitement.
For me, compassion and acceptance are so important. The struggle is real. But even though performers are nervous, music is made. They deserve credit and appreciation. Here are three areas that often affect performers when they are anxious.
Comparison. Performers sometimes worry that their performance of a piece doesn’t measure up to the ‘standard’ or isn’t as good as their peer’s performance. When two or three musicians perform the same song, it is so hard for the audience and the performers not to compare. Comparisons also happen around ethnic, social and economic differences. Comparison makes anxiety worse.
Perfectionism. Even though the performance is good, or excellent it isn’t perfect. Music can’t be perfect and it shouldn’t be. Perfectionists commonly see minor mistakes as a disaster, and strive for unrealistic standards. They judge themselves harshly and have fear about how others will judge them.
Fight-Flight-or-Freeze Response. Our dinosaur brains (our amygdalae) are hard-wired to protect us from danger. When the pressure is on, like at an awards recital, this can push a performer out of his or her comfort (safety) zone enough to bring on a full-blown, reptilian brain, fight-flight-or-freeze response. The performer might experience dry mouth, shaking, racing heart rate, impaired hearing, tunnel vision, frozen memory, flushed face and muscle tension when the brain releases stress hormones. Obviously this interrupts the flow of performance.
So if you are a passenger on the ‘performance train’ at a recital, maybe think about how you can be more compassionate and accepting. If you notice that a young singer has flushed cheeks and squeaks her high notes; rather than pity her or worry for her, send her love. If you see a piano player with shaking hands who wiggles his leg while he plays, congratulate him on his energetic performance. If a violinist accidentally bounces his bow across the strings and has a stiff frozen smile throughout his performance; instead of telling him he’ll sound even better when he relaxes next time, compliment him on how he is thinking carefully through the phrases.
If we can find an authentic and positive way to engage with performers, we show that we accept and appreciate where they are at in their performance journey. This kind of encouragement does wonders for musicians as they continuously develop their confidence and resiliency. How can you be a ‘cathedral builder’ audience participant, rather than a wrecking ball of good intentions? Remember, even though X was happening for the performer, music was made. What a gift to the audience, and to the world.