Performing Music

Performance anxiety is a thing: How to deal with it

Let’s explore three ways to deal with anxiety at all levels of performance.

First, what is a “performance?”1

I define it as any time you appear in front of an audience – a group of people whose attention is on you.

This could include singing, playing an instrument, or acting. It could include speaking, teaching, sharing your testimony. It could also include recording and filming. How? Because the crew are watching…

Second, what is “anxiety?”2

Nerves. You’re nervous, scared, worried, or concerned. Sometimes you don’t even know what it’s about, but it’s usually about messing up, missing a beat, saying something silly, or falling over. I grew up with anxiety being called “butterflies in my tummy” because of the uneasiness that made me feel I was about to vomit. Butterflies are cute, gentle, fragile, and need handling very carefully. They make us smile. Hey – it worked for me!

1) Know anxiety is coming

The first way to deal with performance anxiety is to know it’s going to happen. If it doesn’t happen, it might mean you are losing your edge, you have nothing impactful worth saying, or your care for others has just about dissipated.

Acknowledging that anxiety is part of your performance could cause you to be anxious about anxiety, which is much worse.

But it is going to happen, so there’s no surprise, nothing to worry about, and like eating with your arm in a cast, it’s just another aspect of the activity.

2) Define your purpose

Why are you even there in the first place, putting yourself in front of a crowd of folks who may have even paid to experience what you have to offer them?

Because you have something to share.

What they do with what you share isn’t up to you. It isn’t even really your concern!

  • If you know something that others don’t, share it (That’s how I approach teaching).
  • If you’re good at something, let others experience it (That’s how I approach music).
  • If you’re the only one willing, do it (That’s how I overcome the thought that there are others better than me in the audience)!
  • Your audience of one (This is just for them – all others are spectators).

You can probably narrow down your purpose for performing/ speaking/ teaching to one of those four purposes. Pick one. Stick with it. And remember it. What happens next is irrelevant.

Performance anxiety is a thing: Choose your focus

3) Choose your focus

Most of the time, anxiety is fueled by what might happen.

It is good to consider options and alternatives to possible incidents. In project management, that’s called Risk Management. A Risk Management Plan includes ways to deal with possible incidents, scenarios, and things not happening. We mitigate potential disasters such as earthquakes to running out of pencils, key personnel hospitalization to no screen for a presentation.

However, performance anxiety tends to focus on “little” in-the-moment details.

And fears.

Hence the problem:

  • We haven’t figured out what we’d do if the music stand falls over. I choose to laugh, pick it up, and either carry on or start again. No big deal… it happens.
  • What if your dress or tie gets caught on a chair, table or lectern? I choose to smile, and turn it into part of the act. Then we can carry on or start again. No big deal… it happens.
  • What if I faint? I choose to make sure I’m suitably fed and watered beforehand to minimize the chances of that happening.

But I’m getting lost in potential scenes of embarrassment and total failure.

Interestingly, note how none of those risks actually has anything to do with my purpose – my music, my speech, or my willingness to share.

So how do I deal with anxiety? I choose to focus on what could go right. That doesn’t mean it will, but it could. And because it’s only a possibility, I’m not upset if it doesn’t happen.

For example:

  • What if I actually played all the right notes in the right order at the right time? That would be quite the accomplishment!
  • What if I remembered more of my speech than I realized, and could look at the audience while speaking?
  • What if someone I don’t know came up and thanked me? Or mailed me a thank you card? (It happens!) Or years later quoted me? (That’s happened, too!)

If I’m going to think about anything other than what I’m doing, those are the sort of thoughts I’d choose to think about. Of course, all those items could make it into a Risk Management Plan as well: Risk can be positive things that impact a project, as well as negative.

Expert strategies

So there are just three simple ways I’ve learned to deal with the inevitable performance anxiety. Whether I’m thumping on a piano in a little rustic church service, showing executives the cost of a likely risk, or speaking at a charity gala event, I know I’m going to be nervous, I know why I’m doing what I’m doing, and I choose to focus on what could go well.

Do you deal with anxiety in those ways, or differently? I’d like to hear about it. Send me a message here.

  1. “performance.” Oxford Reference. ; Accessed 3 Jan. 2024. ↩︎
  2. “anxiety.” Cambridge Dictionary. ; Accessed 3 Jan. 2024. ↩︎