Mastering Your Musical Performance Anxiety

This article is a contributed piece from Erin M. Phillips, vocal teacher, and Roger E. McLendon, M.D., a neuropathologist. Learn more about the Erin M. Phillips Voice Studio at this link.

At some point in their careers, musicians will experience performance anxiety. This can affect performers of any capacity, whether on stage, in classroom, or on the field.

Most commonly, this experience happens early in a career; particularly, prior to a first public performance (i.e.; the first recital). However, recurrent episodes of anxiety are not uncommon, and may precede taking the “next big step” in a career. Many performers relish this feeling of exhilaration, even stating that, “if I ever lose this feeling, I’ll stop performing.” Such statements reflect constructive self-rewarding, resulting in increased self-confidence. Indeed, self-confidence is the opposite of performance anxiety.

Where does this anxiety come from? offers a good overview of the destructive critical thinking that is found in persons with musical performance anxiety:

  1. Black-or-white thinking: “Either I’m perfect, or I’m a failure.”
  2. Overgeneralization: “Tonight was bad, because I’m bad.”
  3. Mental filter: “My mistake ruined the whole performance.”
  4. Disqualifying the positive: “My good performance tonight was just lucky.”
  5. Jumping to conclusions: “The audience was quiet, so they must have hated me.”

Crossing the line from exhilaration to dread turns a performance into a battle with one’s mental self. Debilitating stage fright is the subject of numerous studies in medical literature, and affects not only musicians, but public speakers, athletes, dancers, and even surgeons. Debilitating anxiety may require skilled psychological intervention, if the process is to be helped and the performer wishes to return to the stage. However, a number of preparatory activities can help a performer overcome milder aspects of stage fright.

First, let’s talk about the origin of stage fright. discusses a person’s “fight or flight“ reflex as a trigger to performance anxiety. This is a primitive reflex built in a person’s automatic (autonomic) nervous system that causes him or her to become anxious and vigilant in the face of perceived danger, caused by a release of adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream. Signs of this reflex included a quickening pulse, muscle tension, an increase in breath rate, and surging energy levels, as the body prepares to either engage in combat or run away. For singers, this means a lack of breath control, tone control, and overall confidence in the note or phrase they are about to sing. Rather than avoiding the “fight or flight” reflex, voice lessons can help singers focus on embracing the fight aspect, by finding what about that note or phrase is challenging – breath support, posture, range, or other factors. This helps a singer make the proper adjustments, and to gain confidence in their own skill and vocal instrument.

Increased self-confidence and improved performance can come from extensive training and practice, which increases dexterity, vocal range, and overall vocal quality. With voice training, it is the duty of the instructor to analyze your unique voice and find where improvements can be made, technically and mentally. This helps you to gain knowledge of your body’s correct sound, and how to make the proper adjustments when needed.

It should also be noted that stage fright and performance anxiety do not “disappear,” and can occasionally come back into play when the performer goes on “auto-pilot” (i.e.: singing a song so many times, that the mind begins to wander). Often, this can lead to lackluster performances or bigger distractions, which is why it is important to have regular check-ins with your teacher.

Confidence in technique and controlled breathing leads to confidence in your performance. Once you begin to trust proper technique and it becomes second nature, performance anxiety decreases in conjunction with an increase in performance quality.

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