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Performance Anxiety: a few contributing factors

My performance coaching work at different schools, universities and conservatoires along with my own private practice, is constantly teaching me how musicians of all ages can have a multitude of triggers that contribute towards anxiety around performing. I have seen the influence of bullying teaching under the guise of high standards, impact sensitive young musicians in a way that they are terrified of not being perfect enough. Most often, this shows in a reluctance to play or a heightened anxiety when playing in front of people who they think might judge them.

I have seen other young musicians find their own form of lucky charm, such as an insistence on warming up for much longer than is really necessary and then putting the success or failure of a performance down to the amount of time given to warming up. That lucky charm then becomes a way of coping, a way of externalising an inner anxiety, but of course, if the lucky charm is lost or the warm up can’t happen, panic ensues.

Equally I have seen musicians who appear emotionally relaxed say that they don’t suffer from performance anxiety. What happens is that their anxiety shows itself instead in a physical locking down. It may be that a violinist has an obviously shaky bow, a stiffness in the wrist or elbow, or might struggle to manage certain tricky technical passages, that work in practice but not in performance.

What musicians need when dealing with any form of performance anxiety is some help in remembering that they’re ok. It’s amazing how strong the Inner Critic can be and how deep the need is in so many musicians (and human beings generally!) to be accepted, valued and appreciated.

Cartoon of cellist and her Inner Critic

I feel that my role in my coaching is to cut through that individual’s own negative ‘stuff’ and see who they really are and what they have to offer musically and expressively. So much of the time, they need soothing and reassuring so that they can let go of the emotional stress or physical locking down, and feel safe to be expressive without fear of being judged. When they can do that, the changes can be extraordinary. With no extra practice, no more sorting out of notes, rhythms, phrasing and more, their playing can change on a dime which I find utterly thrilling and exhilarating.*


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