Sunday, July 10, 2011

What’s the worst that can happen? Dealing with performance nerves

The OK Chorale are not a performing choir (yet!), but after two terms of hard (but fun!) work, we’ve invited some friends and family along next week to hear some of the songs we’ve learnt.


Photo by Melissa Segal

I’m trying to keep it very low key as it’s the first time many people will have performed so there will be a lot of nerves about. How can we deal with these anxieties?

I came across a great post on Bob Woody’s blog Being musical. Being human the other day:

5 big mistakes in dealing with performance anxiety

Two mistakes that jumped out for me were:

1. Treating the symptoms instead of the cause


5. Avoiding performance


what are you afraid of?

Bob notes that the symptoms we experience – nausea, blurred vision, shallow breathing – are natural physical “fight or flight” responses to a perceived threat. Rather than addressing these physical symptoms, we should look at what the underlying perceived threat is: what are you afraid of?

I’ve written before about performance nerves (as part of a series of posts on Getting the best out of your choir) and pointed out that a lot of fears are about failing in some way:

You want to:

  • get things right and not make mistakes;
  • please and entertain the audience;
  • make everyone like you and think you’re wonderful;
  • support your fellow performers and not let them down;
  • please your choir leader and make them proud;
  • appear skilled, professional and in control — you don’t want to make a fool of yourself!

But what exactly is there to fear?

If you make a mistake or let down your fellow singers or look foolish or disappoint your choir leader, what then? What’s the worse that can happen?

Our fight and flight response stands us in good stead when faced with a charging rhinoceros or woolly mammoth. If we don’t respond appropriately, we will get trampled and die.

But somewhere along the way we’ve got our wires crossed and now equate failing in a public forum with dying (literally).

A lot of these fears are justified: we do want to do our best, we don’t like failure when we’ve worked so hard, it’s great to fulfil expectations and make our friends and family proud. There’s nothing wrong with caring about these things, so what we need to get into perspective is the consequences.

What’s the worst that can happen?

You might look foolish or sound a bit off or irritate the singer standing next to you, but none of these are life-threatening and you will soon move on to the next performance and forget these feelings.

letting your fear get the better of you

OK, we all get a bit nervous and skittish before a performance, but we usually just get on with it and the nerves are soon forgotten.

However, in the extreme, nerves can get the better of you and you will start to avoid the situations that make you nervous.

You begin by opting out of public performances, then you don’t perform in front of others at all, and finally you stop going to choir entirely because of how the other singers might react.

As Bob Woody points out,

“the path to overcoming [performance anxiety] ultimately involves performing more. So perhaps the worst mistake is to avoid performance.”

That doesn’t mean you just jump in to the next concert regardless of how high profile it is. Pick your (fear) battles well. Start off slowly and build up.

Gradually overcome nerves by starting off with the kinds of performance that you feel produce the least anxiety, and work up from there. This will be different for every individual, so don’t compare.

This is basically an approach called systematic desensitisation, a type of behavioural therapy often used to help with phobias. The idea is to work your way up by exposing yourself to the least fearful situation, then when you feel comfortable, move onto something slightly more fearful and so on.

it gets easier – honestly!

Believe me, it gets easier the more you perform – whether you’re the musical director or a singer in a choir.

When I did my first ever performance as the leader of a choir, the whole thing went so fast it was over in minutes! I gabbled to the audience when announcing the songs and looked at the floor rather than at them. My heart was racing so much that every song went twice the normal speed.

But now, nearly 15 years later, I am totally comfortable in front of an audience (and choir). I take my time, crack a few jokes and keep a light touch.

I’ve learnt that if anything goes wrong the earth will not swallow me up, I will not die, and after all, in the greater scheme of things: it’s just a gig.

have you died on stage?

Can  you relate to any of the experiences I’ve described? What do you feel is the worst thing that can happen? Have you discovered helpful tactics that help you overcome performance fright? We’d love to hear from you. Do drop by and leave a comment.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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