How to Combat your Performance Nerves

How to Combat your Performance Nerves

Are you one of those who tremble with fear before you are about to perform, even though it is just a small performance in front of your family or friends? There is a lot of advice available on how to deal with nerves before a performance, and in this article we will give you a couple of simple techniques you can use to decrease your nerves before performing.

Before we get to that, let us share some remarkable news with you on this subject.

Research shows that trying to calm yourself down before a performance will have the opposite effect of making you less nervous. When you try to calm yourself down, you are thinking about all the things that could go wrong, says Dr. Alison Wood Brooks, assistance professor at Harvard Business School.

Instead of trying to calm your nerves, try to get yourself excited by your performance. This will make you think about everything that can go well.

Astonishingly, Dr. Brooks’ research suggests that what we have been teaching our music students regarding fighting our nerves before a performance can be utterly wrong. By trying to calm ourselves down before an important event we are attempting to do something impossible. In practice, you are trying to calm your nerves by convincing yourself that it does not really matter what happens during the performance, and you attempt to treat it as one of your normal practise sessions. It can be very difficult to make yourself convinced that this performance does not matter. What if it is an audition for an important part, a college or university entrance or an ABRSM exam? When the stakes are high, why try to make ourselves believe that they are not and that what we are about to do on stage will not matter that much?

This has been tested and research has shown that people who make themselves excited by the performance and embrace their nerves perform better than those who try to calm themselves down.

And even though you believe that making yourself excited will not make you genuinely excited, think again, because it does have a real effect on you. If you say: “I’m excited” out loud a few times, your body will be tricked into believing that it actually is excited.

However...

Humans are complex beings and sometimes we can get surprised by how subjective we can be in our reaction to things. There is a lot of evidence to support the claims above, but you should not do things that according to research are supposed to make one less nervous - you should do the things that get you less nervous. So if you insist that only calming yourself down works for you, here is a couple of calm-inducing exercises you can try:

In her book “Finding Your Voice” The voice coach Barbara Houseman explains how moving your arms in slow backward circles can make your head clearer and calm you down. This can be a good quick fix in situations when you need to wind yourself down a bit. Try it out and see if it works for you. Look at the picture below to see how to move your arms.


Illustration from: Barbara Houseman, Finding Your Voice (London: Nick Hern Books, 2002), p. 44

Now try doing forward circles with your arms and see if it feels any different. Usually, this has the opposite effect and can make you feel a little bit stressed. It is probably best to stick with backward circles.

Try this breathing exercise that tricks your body into thinking it is relaxed. Breathe in slowly through your nostrils, then breathe out for twice as long as it took to breathe in. It is a good idea to count to four inside your head when breathing in and to eight when breathing out. According to the author and game designer Jane McGonigal this will make your body do a mode shift. You will go from a state of ‘fight or flight’ to the same state you are in when you are resting. In other words, you are fooling your body into thinking it is resting. This can get your hands to shake less when you need them to perform intricate movements.

You might discover that the worst part is in the last few minutes leading up to the performance. Once you have started, a lot of the nerves can disappear by themselves.

The best solution might be to find a way to play well even though you are nervous. Click here for a method of how to get yourself to perform successfully through your nervous state.

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