Performance Anxiety – What is it? Where does it come from? What can we do about it?

I had an question recently regarding how to deal with performance anxiety. I answered their query directly but wanted to flesh out my answer more here, as they are not the only singers struggling with performance anxiety.

What is performance anxiety?

In short, it’s a heightened sense of worry or fear associated with execution of a particular skill, e.g. going on-stage, or having to output something where you feel judged by others. This could be performance of a sport, a speech, exam, etc as much as it something to do with music. It’s anything where all your work has built up to a specific execution of your skill, and you will be in some way judged or have an opinion formed of you by others based on said performance.

Where does it come from?

In my opinion, there’s two main components: the passive component, and the active component.

There is firstly a passive component, which is a component associated with simply turning up and being in front of other people. This is biological/physiological and can’t be eliminated easily.

Even just going to a large party for many can trigger this kind of response. Even if someone knows they don’t have to perform a specific task, simply appearing in front of people demands an opinion be formed of them. This inherently provokes a biological response, namely because it involves risking your self-formed identity, and people might reach a conclusion about you based on nothing but appearance alone (amongst other things). It can be scary, but also totally normal.

The active component is somewhat different. When we perform in some way, we are choosing to present our chosen skill to the standard we believe we have crafted it to be at. We know we’ll try to get better in the future, but as of right now, this is where we think we are at. This is more than just appearing in front of people – this is actively inviting explicit assessment of your ability.

The most critical aspect of this active component that worries people is “what if I screw up? what if I get something wrong?”

“What if I screw that note up?”

“What if I get hoarse half way through?”

“What if I just sound awful?”

Here’s the tough love part of today’s article: by the time we get up to perform, it is already too late to worry about those things. If there is any serious chance of any of these things happening during a performance, then you are not ready to deliver that performance.

“I just need more confidence”

I hear this from people a lot. But consider this…

If you are legitimately good and capable of something, i.e. competent, you inherently have certainty that you can do that thing. This certainty of one’s ability = confidence. My response to people saying they just need more confidence is almost always that confidence is a by-product of competence.

How do we solve the problem of performance anxiety?

When it comes to that active component of performance anxiety, if you are fully competent in your ability such that you could deliver a performance 99% perfectly 99% of the time, morning or night, then the whole “what if I screw up? what if I get something wrong?” question isn’t even a thing anymore. We transcend that issue of performance anxiety by way of technical development. We don’t do it by gee-ing ourselves up or through bravado, or hoping for a hail mary come the night of.

Without that consistent ability and certainty thereof, you are always playing the “hope I make it this time!” with a following tail-wind. This is the inconsistency in people’s voices that destroys the confidence in their own ability, and massively damages their performances. Notice that the source of this issue is technical, the psychological component is a symptom thereof. If you’re fighting this problem, in whatever form, get yourself booked in and we can show you how to trust your voice again.

DISCLAIMER: Let me clarify something
No matter how competent one gets, we all make mistakes. Even I fluff notes or lines from time to time. However, when you are sufficiently competent and well-practiced that you get something 99% right 99 times out of 100, you don’t take it at all personally when you DO miss a note, even if it’s on stage. You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can do that thing, and that a minor error isn’t an indictment of your ability, it’s just one of those things.

Once the active component has been eroded, the passive component also tends to diminish. From there it’s a matter of learning how to use that nervous energy to channel it into your on-stage presence to generate a compelling performance.

It’s a truly freeing experience to suddenly find that you’re never worried about whether your voice will do what you need it to do, that you won’t lose it half way through a song or gig, and you’re certain your tonal quality will keep up the whole way through a set. Any questions about this, let me know.

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