How to Reduce Performance Anxiety

Published 09 Sep, 2019

So picture this.

You have been practicing this piece over and over again during the preparation for your performance. You've been making sure that it is as meticulous and squeaky clean as it should be when you play in front of your audience.

And as you walk on that stage and the audience greets you warmly with a polite applause, suddenly...your mind starts to race. Your heart begins to beat a whole lot faster than usual. Your hands begin to stiffen and shake like crazy. You struggle to compose yourself to give a performance that's worth the time your friends, family, teachers and peers gave to see you. And as you start playing, you begin to stumble and worry what notes are coming next. Your mind gradually turns to a complete and utter blank as you recalled that you witnessed nothing but a complete mess within your performance.

This is what performance anxiety (also known as “stage fright”) is and this is exactly what it does to you. Every performer who witnesses performance anxiety encounters the infamous ‘fight or flight’ response, where butterflies start to flap around in their stomachs. And fear not, a number of you who are reading this article are not the only ones who experience this. I did back then and I still have it from time to time. And lots of people involved in any kind of profession that involves a public showcase of their skills do have performance anxiety. Musicians, dancers, athletes, actors and even public speakers in general. While this stifles your ability and the way how you express yourself on stage, it is not something that cannot be controlled. I do not expect you after reading this to convince yourself that you will have 100% control over your emotions because it is a progress that takes time to develop. And persist.

So what causes performance anxiety?

To put it simply, it’s the immense pressure of performing in front of a crowd of eyes completely fixed on you. This can be determined by the amount and quality of preparation towards the event, fear of confronting your vulnerabilities and your mental wellbeing. To expand on the third one, it is based on your capability to bounce back from copious amounts of stress and to reinforce this as a driving force of showcasing your full potential. Sure, nerves can be a good thing, because it will show your drive towards your work ethic and your desire to perform at your very best. But at the same time, you’ll need to keep your cool.

So how can we control it?

I don’t intend this to be a step-by-step guide to completely abide by and to be whipped out each time you start to panic when you are about to perform, but I hope my personal experiences can start giving you a bigger sense of self-empowerment as you continue reading along. I took a number of classes based on performance anxiety and learned quite a number of interesting points that I found quite helpful and still use them to this day to keep myself in check. Sure, while I have learned the piano for eighteen years and decided to pursue it as a profession, the amount of training alone is not going to guarantee that I feel 100% in all my recitals. So these are a number of points that I have learned and I am happy to share it with you all.

Structuring your preparation well and holding yourself accountable.

When you’re about to prepare for an event, make sure that you structure down in your planner the time you are willing to give to practice in order to develop the best outcome to the day of your performance. Two hours, four hours, maybe even half an hour, just make sure you write it down. This can guarantee you the best quality in your practice and helps you to be completely focused. Also, don’t forget to give yourself breaks. We are only human and not even designed to go on and on like a machine in a factory.

To hold yourself accountable, grab yourself a piece of paper and even your phone or tablet and write down your goals. What you hope to gain from your preparation, and what you can develop on at the next session. Sure, give yourself lots of goals but make sure they’re attainable and at least, reasonable. Don’t dread if you have not met all of your goals, the effort of striving to reach these goals is what's going to ensure a performance that is worth the time you have invested into. You can always try again on another day and continue developing on your skills and expertise. It’s not about “getting it all right” at the end of the day, it’s all about the progress.

Be the most positive psychic you can be.

By all means, feel free to whip out a crystal ball if you have one. Or if you actually have that power in your disposal. The point I am making here ladies and gentlemen, is how you can visualise your success and turn your negative thoughts to positives. Be the best self pep-talker. ‘I got this in the bag. I have worked up to this moment and I am going to smash the living heck out of it!’ Or something like that. It seems quite weird, I know but at the same time you shouldn’t need to feel negative at all. It’s unnecessary!

While you are preparing for that performance, just close your eyes and see yourself shining your talents on the stage, having utter control of your audience, engaging with them organically and even aweing them. Now open them. Doesn’t that feel a bit better? This sort of mental preparation may feel pretty weird (it was for me when I first tried it), but this will help you feeling positive about your performance and even your vision will come true on the day! It’s all about living in the moment, getting to control how the audience is feeling and having fun. Just think of the sheer entertainment you’re capable of providing for the audience and who knows, you might find yourself unveiled with a wild applause.

Take care of yourself. Treat yo’ self!

We mean it. Take some time to yourself. Get fancy and make a nice slice of avocado toast for yourself in the morning. Have a jog in the park or go to the gym and get yourself a good night's sleep . Make time to read your favourite book or even get yourself these new shoes you have always wanted to buy! As I mentioned previously, we don’t completely run our batteries 24/7. Sure, you need to make time to practice but when you incorporate this with the little things that keep you happy, this can boost your self-esteem and leave you feeling more inspired and motivated as you step into that practice room again! Definitely bound to make your practice session less daunting or boring as it needs to be.

Now we’re all familiar with the following phrases, ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, and ‘all play and no work makes Jack a mere toy’. Of course, spoiling yourself can be rewarding, but you obviously do not want to make your self-rewarding to fall into a line of procrastination or even self-sabotaging behaviour. Rather than scooping a spoonful of ice cream into a bowl, gorging down the entire ice cream container wouldn’t be as beneficial, right? Which brings to my point that the best things come in small packages. Self-care is all based on ensuring your physical, social and mental health is kept intact and balancing accountability and a sense of ‘self-love’ (acknowledging your own worth). 

Practice performing.

Now you do not want to stop with just developing on your motor skills. This is not just about showing that you have talent, it’s also connecting with the audience and controlling the atmosphere within the environment you perform at. Run a number of practice runs in front of your mates. Your family. Even your cat. Or whoever that provides a judgeless impression towards you. And don’t forget to ask them to even simulate a high pressure environment to test your capability of coping well with the pressure from your audience on the big day. This can help you to feel more comfortable with handling the similar level of atmosphere your audience will give you on the day and find it easier to cope with.

Use a routine that helps to calm your nerves.

I mean it, you’ll feel a whole lot better once you have one before your performance begins. Incorporate some breathing exercises. My favourite one is with the ‘3, 3 and 3’ method: breathing in slowly through your nose for three seconds, holding your breath for three seconds, and breathing out slowly through your mouth for another three seconds. And repeat this a few times. Give that a try! And you can also practice doing this into your daily routine to calm your nerves in any kind of situation.

Don’t hesitate to try a bit of yoga, pilates, meditation or even body balance! I don’t know if most of you would have the fourth one more often, but any kind of physical activity that involves quite a bit of movement and control of your breathing will do the trick. 

Be yourself.

We love seeing originality. We love seeing what makes you awesome. What makes you, ‘you’? Have a think and jolt down all of the positive things about you and use these to your advantage. You can surround yourself with lots of your friends and family and while they can help you bring a better ‘self’ from you, they can’t make you who you are. So it’s up to you on how you can express yourself, facing your fears and making the audience dig you. Everyone has those traits, they just need to acknowledge them.

And most importantly, let loose and have fun.

Honestly, who cares who you’re trying to please on stage? The only person that’s only worth pleasing is that one person who’s giving the best of their efforts up there. You. The audience is looking to be entertained and enamoured by your greatness. Brush off any mistakes because at the end of the day, nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. My fingers slipped into the wrong keys from most of my performances anyway. Focus on the atmosphere you’re trying to create for the audience without having to worry about the details in your motor skills. And most of all, aim for a performance that’s worth even aweing yourself! Dedicate this performance to yourself. You’ve earned it through all the hard work you have been putting up to this moment!

As you’re feeling a little more positive, at the end of the day it all comes to the amount of preparation that you put in through practicing your craft and how your mindset is. When you’re off to practice, make sure that you know that you’re not alone. Everyone in your social life will be rooting for you, even strangers in the audience will too! But most importantly, you have to root for yourself. Tell yourself that you are GREAT. Tell yourself that you are pretty awesome. Because I think you are too. Even if I may or may not know who you are.

Written by Chris Wong