Managing Performance Anxiety: What is it? How do we face it? hero

Managing Performance Anxiety: What is it? How do we face it?

Posted Saturday, May 4th 2024 by Abby Payne
All singers face this at some point in their vocal journey. In this article, Abby breaks down what performance anxiety is and discusses strategies for managing it.

Performance anxiety is something that all singers face at some point in their vocal journey. This can range from a minor nuisance to a debilitating problem that prevents great singers from performing at all. I believe that if you have the desire and urge to share your voice with the world, you should not let performance anxiety stop you!

Performance Anxiety Is Anxiety

It can be helpful to understand that performance anxiety is anxiety. You can give it a fancy name (like “stage fright”), but it adheres to exactly what the Oxford Dictionary says it is: “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” For me, this makes performance anxiety a little less precious, a little less of an affliction. This doesn’t diminish the struggle involved, but anxiety is an incredibly common issue shared by probably everyone you know. There are many tools and techniques geared towards general anxiety that may help, such as meditation (I like the Headspace app’s course on managing anxiety), breath work, or yoga.

There is No Magic Cure

You should also understand that there is no magic cure for performance anxiety. You can’t force it to go away. In fact, the more you focus on trying to banish it, the more you are feeding it, thereby causing it to grow. Instead of trying to get rid of anxiety, I recommend learning to live with it. This may be easier said than done, but it is a skill that can be practiced and improved. For example: if anxious thoughts arrive prior to or during a performance, the common instinct is to think “Oh, no, here we go...”, letting these thoughts take us on their wild, unhelpful journey through many unfounded stories of failure and embarrassment. Try instead to treat these thoughts like an unexpected rain shower or a subway rat. You can’t make them disappear, but you can choose whether or not you go out into the rain shower. You can choose to walk further away from where the rat is having a snack on the subway platform rather than walk towards it (no offense to our rat-loving readers). Acknowledge your fearful thoughts as just that, and move your focus to the music.

“The music will get you through..”

When I reached my early twenties, I had been a performer in some form or another for most of my life, living for and loving the spotlight. But when I booked my first solo show where I’d be performing my original songs and accompanying myself on piano for the whole set, I was paralyzed with fear. This was new, and it was very, very, personal. I took a piano lesson in preparation, and my teacher gave me some comforting words that have served me well ever since. He said, “the music will get you through.” So simple and basic, and yet so true. These were songs that I had written, and they were deeply meaningful to me. Thinking about the words I was singing, the meaning I was conveying instead of whether or not I was going to mess up helped narrow the focus, and made the performance so much more enjoyable for me. I also just love the way that he said it. We do this for the love of that magical thing called music, right? We can trust in that magic and that love to carry us through. If we are prepared.

Be as prepared as possible

It should probably go without saying that you should be as prepared as possible for a performance. Learn the music, rehearse it every day, go to your voice lessons. If there is a passage of a song that feels a little iffy, shine a light on it. In service of preparation, anxiety can actually be somewhat helpful and informative. Are you concerned about hitting a certain note in a certain song, or remembering the words? Drill it. Doing all you can do to prepare will give anxious thoughts less credence. As I said, you can’t make the thoughts disappear, but preparation for a performance is absolutely something that you have control over.

Singers are humans, even Stevie Wonder.

Sometimes, mistakes happen in a performance even when you’ve done all the preparation you can do. That’s just part of being human. And I am glad to say that these mistakes don’t have to ruin the show. Most of the time, the audience won’t even notice, particularly if you are focused on the song and present in your performance. But sometimes there will be a big gaff and that’s ok. I was lucky enough to see the amazing Stevie Wonder perform at Madison Square Garden on his “Songs in the Key of Life” tour several years ago. It was an early stop on the tour, and he forgot the words to one of the songs. So, he sang out “I forgot the words” to the tune, and the audience loved it. It was so inspiring to see one of the greatest living performers own up to not being completely perfect. He showed that he is human, just like the audience, and gave the concert an extra moment of levity.

Performance anxiety is real, and it’s no fun. But if it is something that you experience, you are not alone. Be kind to yourself and focus on doing what you love. It will be worth the work!

Abby Payne

Voice Teacher Associate

Abby Payne has been teaching and performing in New York City and beyond for nearly 20 years. She holds a bachelor of music from SUNY Purchase (Jazz Studies) and has completed the NYVC Voice Teacher Training and Certification program. Abby specializes in teaching all levels in contemporary styles of voice, piano, and songwriting.

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