Performance Anxiety: general top tips used in Lockdown
What extraordinary times we find ourselves in! It’s just under three weeks since I last wrote, and the world has changed dramatically in that time and continues to do so. Writing about performance anxiety feels as if it pales into insignificance in comparison with the anxiety people across the globe are feeling about the uncertainty around jobs and earning, and their physical and mental health. But perhaps the strategies we use to manage our performing anxiety as musicians could be put to good use to manage our lives in the middle of a global crisis, the likes of which very few of us have ever experienced.
Simple strategies that straddle all sorts of anxieties: physical
Here are a few things that I find myself constantly saying to nervous musicians in masterclasses, and each and every time, they have a dramatic impact. I need to do them myself too – in fact, just reminding myself of them has helped already!
Breathe: Breathing can make a huge difference to us when we’re anxious. When the fight-flight-freeze response kicks in, we, meaning musicians who don’t need to breathe to make a sound, tend to breathe in a very shallow way and often hold our breath. Learning to breathe deeply unlocks the ‘freeze’ and can rapidly calm a jangled nervous system, sometimes in mere seconds or minutes. There are plenty of ways to work with the breath (as in Yoga for example) which are all very valuable, but right now just keep it simple: open your lungs and breathe consciously and deeply.
In the case of woodwind, brass and singers, freeing up the body and any physical tension, such as shoulder tension, helps allow more space in the lungs. And of course, breathing before and after playing as a calming mechanism is helpful anyway.
Breathing deeply and consciously is one of the best ways I know to calm us especially in times of crisis such as this, when anxiety is probably more infectious than the virus itself!
Connect to the ground: If someone is playing standing up and I see them playing on tiptoes (violinists do this a lot) or carrying a lot of tension in their shoulders, as woodwind and brass players can often do, I will encourage them to put their feet flat on the floor. This means taking off high heels for women. Then I encourage them to imagine they have roots going down from their feet, like a tree, deep into the earth. I will sometimes suggest they also slightly bend their knees, Tai Chi style. I have discovered through my own experience (no scientific evidence to back this up, mind you) that nervous energy goes upwards. By sending it downwards in our imaginations we can counteract that. It must be a bit like earthing electricity. I find this incredibly helpful, especially when my mind is racing.
Shake out excess adrenalin:This is a technique that I use very rarely but it’s great to have it for the occasions that it’s needed. Sometimes our adrenalin gets totally out of control and there’s a feeling that if we could just get rid of the excess we would feel better, which is exactly what wild animals do when they’re safe from their predators. Any form of aerobic exercise is also good, but that’s not always possible.
Stand with your feet firmly on the ground and shake your whole body! Do until until you feel better. That could be 30 seconds or maybe a couple of minutes.
I used this to great effect when I had a minor car accident a few years ago and I recognised I was in shock. Shaking for a couple of minutes enabled the shock to dissipate within about fifteen minutes.
Simple strategies that straddle all sorts of anxieties: emotional
Feel that it’s easy: once a musician is breathing when playing and feeling more solid on the ground, the next thing that really works is to tell yourself that what you’re doing is easy. What you’re playing may actually be technically very difficult, but if you worry about that or demand perfection from yourself, you’re likely to tense up and make things worse. If you tell yourself it’s easy, allow it to go wrong until you find a way through, you tend to free up more and then you allow your natural ability to come to the fore.
The way this might connect to our life right now in this crisis, is not to fight or resist what we find difficult to deal with, to relax and let all these new ways become the new normal, despite the huge challenges they may bring with them.
Kindness: Musicians free up and learn at an incredible rate if they feel accepted and not judged. Having an atmosphere of kindness and acceptance in the room as a teacher or in a masterclass is so important. And, of course, kindness to ourselves is essential. One of the positives that appears to be coming out of the woodwork at the moment is a need to pull together, help each other and find some form of community even if it needs to be online.