By David Dawson
Are your palms sweaty? Knees weak? Arms are heavy? Well it sounds like you are suffering from performance anxiety! Anxiety of this kind is something that most people will likely experience at some point in their life, whether it is the pressure to deliver an impactful speech, or to write a good article! For most musicians anxiety becomes part of the job description, showing up for every audition, performance or exam. The real question is how much does this anxiety actually affect us? We have all been comforted with the classic “its good to be nervous”, but is that true?
First of all, let’s discuss some of the influencers of our anxieties as a performer. One of the main reasons for me is the context of the performance and the pressure levels of the situation, for example I may feel more at ease performing or speaking to 1000 people than to one or two people who will be scrutinising me for an assessment or audition. There is often something riding on performances in this situation therefore it is completely natural for a performer to feel the extra pressures that come with this as the potential of failure feels particularly daunting.
Another factor may be whether the performance is solo or not, I find that I feel much more comfortable playing in an ensemble than on my own as it feels like the eyes are not always on you. The feeling of vulnerability in a solo performance can be overwhelming. Also, whilst obviously preferable to not make mistakes an ensemble gives a safety net feel in which the whole performance is not reliant on you therefore one or two small mistakes are unlikely to derail the whole thing (and if you work on your poker face can often go unnoticed!).
Another factor is that of the Yerkes-Dodson law, this stipulates that simple tasks are best performed with high arousal whereas more difficult tasks are best performed with low arousal, or simply put, when doing easy stuff it is best to be fully engaged and attentive whereas when doing harder stuff it is often better to be more relaxed. The idea here is that a well prepared performance should actually be a relatively simple task and therefore a high level of arousal (being stressed or anxious) is actually the best approach, and that all the hard work of perfecting the performance was actually done under more relaxed rehearsal circumstances and would be completed with a lower arousal. Therefore, and many musicians would agree, the best scenario for rehearsal is to be much more relaxed, avoiding any pressures and stresses that may ruin your progress, whilst during the performance it is best to be on a higher alert to keep you on your toes and to get the best results.
So, can anxiety be treated?