“If you’re not nervous, then you’re not paying attention” – Miles Davis
“I wouldn’t give a nickel for an actor who isn’t nervous” – David Belasco
Music Performance Anxiety as Transformation
My doctoral research in music performance anxiety has led me to a thought-provoking conclusion:
Your performance anxiety is a new and interesting musician trying to get out!
I work by finding out how your performance anxiety can transform you as a musician. We can work with your performance anxiety to find out what it means for you. We won’t suppress any symptoms, we will bring them out, play with them, take them on a ride to find their hidden message - a message that could help you be the musician you always wanted to be! Performance anxiety can be the key to your artistic development!
Tested by research!
My PhD uses concepts of anxiety from psychoanalysis and existentialism in order to develop a new conception for music performance anxiety that:
- Explains the reasons for particular symptoms;
- Suggests ways for using performance anxiety to improve performance;
- Respects the history, resilience and embodied wisdom of the musician who has
The research tested the conception in coaching musicians with performance anxiety and in my own performance.
Have you noticed how some musicians say they can’t perform because they have nerves and others that they need nerves to perform well?
Some people interpret nerves as excitement, others as being unpleasantly out of control. In fact a range of different responses to performance anxiety is possible:
“My knees are shaking” vs. “I’m quivering with excitement”
“My muscles are stiff” vs. “I’m wound up, ready to unleash on the music”
“I’m scared of what so-and-so might think” vs. “so-and-so is such an inspiration”
“I can’t keep tempo in this bit” vs. “I love the timelessness here”.
It has also been pointed out that performance anxiety has many of the symptoms of being in love: strong heartbeat, shaking, heat, fantastical thinking...
Perhaps we can adjust our attitudes to this very common problem, perhaps learn a more helpful response. “Positive thinking! Come on, you can do it! You’re great!” However, it is difficult to change thoughts from negative to something that seems more positive. And sometimes positive thoughts can be shallow and not really truthful, like whistling in the dark.
Instead, we can use the symptoms of performance anxiety to find something that really is true about ourselves, perhaps something we have forgotten or not dared hope for. This can be done by welcoming the symptoms instead of suppressing them.
A violinist said that nerves give him a rough sound. I suggested making it more so. After initial reluctance, the greater contact with the string used to make it rougher transformed the tone into something he had always wanted - rich and expressive - but had long given up hoping to achieve.
A horn player developed a ‘head-wobble’ when under pressure. Encouraging her to play like this deliberately resulted in a pronounced vibrato. A story emerged that as a child she had always copied her string-playing family members in using vibrato as an expressive tool. At music college this vibrato was forbidden, but now she felt she could reclaim it as a personally expressive style.
In these examples I did not know how the performance anxiety might transform into something beneficial. With different people the same symptom might mean something different. There is no sense of “wobbling means vibrato”. I have also known it to transform into excitement at performing; muscular looseness; and ornamentation. The important thing is to start afresh with each person, exploring the symptoms with respect for the individual and reverence for the process that is unfolding. It can be magical...and fun.