Performance Anxiety Breakthrough

By: Jon McGarry

Performing in front of an audience can be one of the most crippling, terrifying experiences we will endure as musicians. While there is no simple "cure" for this anxiety that we go through, there are certain things we can try out to help ease the stress. Last summer, I specifically had a gigantic breakthrough in performing.

While attending Tanglewood Institute, I played all the time for other people in studio classes, recitals, and practicing in front of other horn players. This is a huge thing to get used to: playing for other people is a great way to break down the wall of feeling judged or not good enough. It might feel cringe-worthy at first, but you have to put yourself out there! Horn players, cellists, your mom, etc. Play for anyone and everyone.

My performance breakthrough came from a studio class that summer. We were all asked by our teacher, Eric Ruske (Boston University Horn Professor), to memorize specific Kopprasch etudes and play them in front of our entire studio while transposing them to another key of his choice, accompanied by a drone and a metronome. This was probably the most vulnerable and crippled I've ever felt playing for other people. And, we were all terrified. I personally was so anxious to the point that I was shaking from head to toe, and felt like I had tunnel vision.

While it doesn't seem like a big deal now, it can be so easy to withdraw from reality before a performance. I stood up for my turn, and needless to say, it was a train wreck. I was totally devastated and embarrassed. Eric worked with me very intensely on details, and pointed out one thing specifically: I became so focused on the music, transposition, and playing accurately that my shakiness and nerves completely went away. That's when I realized that having so many things to think about while performing can be an amazing tool. Things like score study, subdivisions, character ideas, ear training techniques, etc. These can all be applied to a memorized piece of music to help you feel more confident in something that you have prepared. They give you somewhat of a blanket of security so you have something to get back to when your thoughts wander. It can be so easy to let your mind go into a panic mode in such a high-stress environment, but you have to combat it.

My next time playing for my studio class, I used this technique of heavy preparation and while my next performance wasn't perfect, it was tons better than my former one. Some things, apart from the obvious technical things (such as notes, rhythms, subdivisions), that you can look into include the composer, history of the piece, solfege, and so much more. It's really up to you how prepared you want to feel. I can guarantee the more you know about your piece (on top of good, regular practice habits), the more secure you will feel when you get thrown into a stressful performance experience. Keep your train of thought flowing with encouraging thoughts and mental bookmarks throughout the music. I hope my experiences will help ease any tensions you have going into your next performance! 

June 21, 2017