Performing under pressure and with an audience. We’ve all had to do it. It probably started when you and I were quite young.
Tell me, how did you deal with the butterflies and the anxiety?
First of all, you should know that you are in good company if you don’t feel comfortable when you’re being watched closely.
Musicians like Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, and Luciano Pavarotti all struggled with performance anxiety at various points in their careers. It never stopped them from becoming masters at their craft, though.
It turns out, anxiety is pretty common amongst professional musicians. In one survey, 96% of the orchestra musicians surveyed admitted to anxiety before performances. So, if you don’t feel any butterflies before a performance, you’re pretty weird!
READING OUT LOUD
As I kid, I learned to read at a very early age. Since my father was a minister, we always had people over for some sort of church meeting. When my mother told them proudly I could read fluently, no one believed her. A child that young, reading “Alice in Wonderland?”
So, to prove the point, my mother asked me to come down and perform my circus trick to the astonished elders of the church.
Was I nervous, you may ask? To be honest, I have no idea because nobody had introduced me to the concept. It’s like Brussels sprouts. If no one tells you they don’t taste so good, you might actually love them. Kids who hate them are usually very well programmed by their parents and friends.
What I did feel when I was about to read for grown-ups, was excitement and a desire to do well. I knew my mom would never give me a book I hadn’t read before, so I always felt prepared. I also knew I had read that book out loud in front of people before, and that gave me confidence.
What I didn’t know at that time, was that my mom was setting me up for all the other public performances that would become part of my life. When I was five or six, I took part in my first nativity play (with a speaking role, no less). After that I learned how to play the piano, and I had to take part in recitals. And then it happened.
MESSING WITH MY MIND
Right before the first recital my teacher told me: “Don’t be nervous. You’ll do just fine.”
Unknowingly, he planted a seed of doubt in my mind that threw me off. As I was playing, I made a stupid mistake which confirmed that the nerves had infiltrated my brain. After that, what I had previously labeled as excitement, became nervousness.
Is nervousness always a bad thing, though? When you really think about it, it is nothing more than an evaluated sensation with a negative label stuck to it. When you experience symptoms you label as nervousness, it means you care about what is going to happen.
Let’s assume you don’t feel anything, no excitement, no rush of energy…. do you think you’ll deliver your best performance? No! It is likely to fall flat because you lack that extra bit of adrenaline you need, to be on top of your game.
Feeling relaxed, calm, and comfortable is nice in the yoga studio, but it doesn’t always work in your favor when you need to be at your best.
At the same time you don’t want your nerves to get the upper hand and paralyze you. One of the best ways to feel less anxious can be summarized in one word: Preparation. If you know what you are about to do, you can rely on your muscle memory to guide you. The people who are the least prepared, are usually the most nervous.
Preparation has to do with competence. Nervousness can also come from a lack of confidence. The thing with confidence is that you don’t become self-assured overnight. Confidence has to build over time. It comes from a series of positive experiences that tell you: “I can do this because I pulled it off in the past.”
If you wish to increase your confidence, put yourself into situations that are challenging and a bit stressful. Prove to yourself you can handle these moments, and you’ll see your confidence grow like a strong tree.
Lastly, practice being and staying in the moment.
HERE AND NOW
As a performer, whether you’re a (voice) actor or a musician, your job is to focus on the script or on the score. It’s not about you. You are but a conduit; a servant, if you will.
When you’re busy feeling nervous and sorry for yourself, the focus is on you. On your fears and your anxieties. Your energy flows where it should not go.
When you feel that happening (and we’ve all been there), stop thinking of what has happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Those are hallucinations anyway. Say to yourself:
BE HERE NOW
BE HERE NOW
Take a deep breath, smile, and focus on what’s in front of you.
I spent many years battling performance anxiety, until I unexpectedly revisited my childhood in a dream. I could see and hear myself, ready to read from “Alice in Wonderland,” surrounded by grown-ups.
I remembered the excitement I felt when they asked me to read out loud, and I recalled how well prepared I was for my “performance.”
In that dream I also noticed something else.
My performance wasn’t perfect, but my audience loved me anyway.
And you know what also helped?
I didn’t take myself too seriously.
I still don’t, and I’ve got to say: it does take the pressure off!
Joshua Alexander says
One of the things that was most important to my wife when we were dating was “being present.” She had apparently had incidents where things were happening around her and she didn’t feel like a participant; she felt removed, disconnected, and inconsequential. When we first started dating we were out for a walk and I asked her if I could hold her hand. She actually declined! She declined because she wasn’t ready yet, and she really wanted to be present. Well, eventually we held hands, and she was present, and she was there. Being present factored into that walk, into important, deep, vulnerable conversations we would go on to have, into our wedding ceremony, into so many other things in our marriage. I get it now. You have to be present. I loved the “BE HERE NOW” double exhortation. That’s something that I have to remind myself of here and there when I’m rushing through auditions or I’m rushing through marketing…or just rushing. Thanks for the great message as usual, my friend. Thank you for always being present!
Paul Strikwerda says
Thank you for sharing this story, Josh. In a time where we’re constantly bombarded by meaningless distractions, being present is one of the greatest and rarest gifts we can give one another.
Randy Mahoney says
Thanks for the timely message, Paul. I experience that anxiety frequently when performing in a group. I can feel the eyes, all focused on me. It takes me out of the moment. I have to struggle to breathe, to center myself, to remind myself to Be Here, and only here, Now.
Craig Williams says
Paul, this really struck a nerve with me. Up until 2 years ago, I suffered from severe performance anxiety on live sessions, online. Heart racing, poor breathing and cotton wool mouth. It was a spiral that started from my preparation.
With some great advice and mentors, I learned to turn that feeling into excitement. It’s amazing how changing the mental attachments to a physical feeling can have such an effect. I also stopped taking it so seriously. I am a perfectionist by nature and I had to learn that creativity gets lost in the desire for perfection.
Great post as always!
Michael Apollo Lira says
When I catch myself getting stressed out, worrying, fretting, or just having an unsettled mind…if I’ve got the wherewithal to remember, I’ll ask myself “Where are you right now?”. That’s usually because I’m somewhere else, exactly as you described. A hallucination of somewhere other than here and now, worrying about something that hasn’t happened and probably won’t even happen. What an unfair expenditure of emotional energy!
You give great advice. I’m going to keep trying – and included with that, trying not to take myself too seriously!! Thanks Paul!!
Patricia Corkum says
Hi Paul – thanks so much again for hitting points that truly make them work for ME! Especially the one about HERE AND NOW; BEING PRESENT!
I’m just about to wrap up a full year (yes 12- months!) of training based on the system developed by Sanford Meisner. Our instructor is ferocious about being “TRUTHFUL, HONEST, IN THE MOMENT” while working in “IMAGINARY CIRCUMSTANCES…”.
I’m understanding more and more how this applies to [voice] acting, and hearing the same things from you, make me realize how essential on-going training is. Thanks again for your gracious time and memorable moments!
Kind regards, Patricia
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
Being present in the moment, “TRUTHFUL, HONEST, IN THE MOMENT” while working in “IMAGINARY CIRCUMSTANCES…” is exactly what I needed this morning.
I’m a novelist, so the imaginary circumstances are all in my head, but I forget sometimes that anything I produce for readers has to be part of what I am, where I come from – but applied in the current scene somehow. I’m having a bit of trouble finding the right ‘take’ on the current scene – because it cuts a little closer to the bone than I usually allow, but I think that’s the key to getting it written today.
Paul Strikwerda says
At the end of the day, everything happens between the ears. We can’t see anything, that is not us.