What do you do when experience uncomfortable feelings in music-making, a.k.a. performance anxiety? 

A performance is typically a mixture of feelings that range from joy and love to worry, anxiety, fear, and dread.  What happens when the later feelings arise as we perform in a lesson, at an audition or in the concert we have been planning for months? 

We often do our best to ignore the feelings and their accompanying sensations, by attempting to block them out.  This takes effort, actual muscular effort that is then not available for the many movements needed to create musical expression. 

If you have been wondering what to do because you are tired of what I describe above, here are three steps to shift your experience…

First, when you experience uncomfortable feelings, feelings you would rather not have, notice them. Acknowledge them in the moment, “I am feeling very agitated.” For me, I usually notice the negative chatter in my mind, like the warnings to “be careful.” 

Once you recognize these feelings, notice how you feel them in your body.  For example, I have been dealing with intense feelings surrounding decisions. Once I recognized the conflict, I noticed that my stomach was upset and that my shoulders were tight.  Allowing myself to be with the feelings and experience their physical responses, to stay present was really uncomfortable but it also revealed the opportunity to make choices about my next step.  

The key is choices. If we are paralyzed by strong uncomfortable feelings, we have no choice, our body is locked down, bracing for the worst. It uses tension to attempt to not feel what is happening.  Instead of attempting to block out the discomfort, which increases effort and tension and limits choices, be with the feelings.  Allow yourself to experience them in all of their complexity.

Now that you have noticed and stayed present, the second element is to tune into the breath. Notice the pace and rhythm of the breath.  Simply tuning into breathing brings you into the present moment, you are aware in real time, not the past or future.  You can then acknowledge the positive elements of the performance that you look forward to.  If the thoughts of super challenging, scary passage dominates your thoughts, you are performing from a place of fear that may or may not go the way you intend or are capable of.  As you experience the breath, acknowledge one of something that you love such as: the piece, excitement for playing it with piano and/or sharing it with the audience.  This puts the discomfort within the context of something bigger, including the breath which brings you into the moment.  (You have made a choice not to allow fear to dominate you.)

The third piece is one of the tools I teach in my Body Mapping course, organizing your playing around an intention.  The intention is something you can do in the moment that propels technique, expression, artistry. It allows you to shift the course of a performance when you experience discomfort or something gets off. For example, if you notice that intonation is off, or experience a technical fumble, get back on track stating your intention.  

How to create an intention…

As I prepare a piece I consider two things, the first is what I most need to convey my musical ideas, the second, places where I tend to overwork.  This may include, awkward arm motions or worrying about running out of air.  The intention I choose should bring me back to fluid whole body movement and efficient breathing. For both of the obstacles I mentioned, I could choose, “I am going to enjoy feeling the tripod under both feet as I play this.”  or “I am going to enjoy the movement of my ribs as I play this.” You might notice that both of these intentions do not hyper focused on the challenging element of the music, but are a big picture ideas that bring my playing and me back into the whole body, the whole experience.  

Amy Likar first introduced me to this idea of intention at SummerFlute.  I have explored it ever since.  It works because it organizes us around something we “can” do in performance that in turn facilitates movement, rather than focusing on what isn’t going well, which narrows focus and in turn limits movement.

I practice these three steps all the time.  Every moment is a chance to practice these steps which empower music-making. Remember, we are musicians 24/7, not just in the practice room, at a rehearsal or concert.  Think of how many uncomfortable experience present themself to you each day, this makes any and every moment a chance to practice. Maybe you will find that these three steps make life a little sweeter too, I know they have for me.