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Performance anxiety, part one...

Have you ever been in a situation where you have prepared some music to perfection, feeling like you could play the prepared pieces blindfolded, while standing on your head or bungee jumping off a bridge (well maybe not that last one!), then when it comes to walking on stage in front of an audience, things start to go wrong. For example, your hands might start to sweat and shake so you can’t control your fingers or you might lose your place part way into the music or even go completely blank and forget how to begin the first piece. Just how each individual reacts to the situation can differ depending on their training and attitude. Some people really thrive on performance experiences without experiencing any problems at all. However, for some musicians performance anxiety can be quite crippling.

This is actually quite a complex topic and I am not able to cover everything in just one writeup. However, I will make a start and try to follow up with further details via separate posts.

Most musicians are aware of the body’s ability to produce adrenaline as a response to stressful situations and the concept of ‘fight or flight response’. Adrenaline (a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands) will start to flow while you are leading up to and anticipating a concert performance, particularly an important one with special guests, people you might highly respect or be in awe of. ‘Fight or flight’ refers to a physiological change within the body that prepares a person to either stay to fight a battle (in this case survive the performance!) or escape the situation as rapidly as possible.  Understanding and accepting how you are affected by adrenaline can help you overcome performance anxiety.

Symptoms of stress vary but commonly involve fingers sweating, hands shaking and having a dry mouth. Anxiety can also slow the heart rate down rapidly, causing a player to freeze and even faint! I have experienced the affects of performance anxiety and sometimes still do. The thing is, it can be hard to predict when you are going to be affected and depends very much on the situation. You learn by experience and putting yourself in different performance situations, gradually learning how to cope.

Over the years I have come to realise how important it is to remember to breathe before and during performances. The simplest way to think of it is, if there isn’t enough oxygen being drawn into your lungs, your brain will start to shut down. So before, during and after you walk on stage to take your bow, remember to take nice deep breaths. On the other hand, don’t hyperventilate as you really must avoid feeling dizzy and fainting!  It's also most important to remember to breathe while you are playing.  The process of playing and breathing with music is a whole topic of its own which I won't discuss just now.  However, the concept is easy to appreciate.

Another important thing to remember is to make sure you are well hydrated before a performance. In other words drink plenty of plain fresh water. This should help reduce dryness in your throat and is just good for you, full stop. It’s also a good idea if possible to have a glass of water on hand, perhaps on a table next to you during the performance. There are times when a sip of water will help especially if you are having to speak and introduce your pieces.

Nervousness can also put a person off eating and this is another problem area. It’s important to be well nourished before a performance (going in to battle!) so at the very least try to eat a substantial and healthy breakfast and lunch that will sustain you throughout the rest of the day. A small snack before the performance is also a good idea. Many musicians will eat a whole or half a banana before a performance which is a convenient and reasonably nutritious option. I personally prefer to have avocado on toast depending on availability of the fruit. I’ve head that avocados are packed with every nutrient your body needs. I also find that an egg or omelette is a good option but others will have their own preferences and theories as to what is best.

Sugar is a touchy topic these days due to the concerns over problems caused by having too much of it. That said, the body needs a certain amount of sugar (you can look up what kind of sugar is best) to function properly. It is said that the brain is the most energy-demanding organ in the human body, using half the sugar energy in the body. So that being the case, and considering the extra demands of a concert performance, it might be helpful to eat something sweet before a concert. I’m sure a little bit of something containing sugar won’t do you any harm and it might even put a smile on your face. :-)

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