Notes from the Piano

Performing Anxiety

In recent years much has been written on the subject of performing anxiety, and after so many years of musicians and other performers being very reluctant to discuss this, with it almost being previously viewed as something embarrassing, an almost shameful weakness, we now feel that we are able to be more open about it.

Whereas once we might be hesitant to admit to experiencing any degree of performance anxiety, which led to many people feeling that it was something abnormal and unique to us, not realising that many of our colleagues were experiencing the very same anxiety, it is liberating to be able to discuss it and of course the outcome of more open discussion and acceptance is that we can now explore solutions to overcome or mitigate the ‘nerves’.

One excellent book which I have found very helpful and often recommend is Barry Green/Timothy Gallwey’s ‘The Inner Game of Music’ which focuses on the psychology of performance. Other helpful books include ‘Music from the Inside Out’ by Charlotte Tomlinson, an international teacher and pianist who specialises in helping musicians overcome severe performance anxiety. Eloise Ristad’s ‘A Soprano on Her Head’ also explores performance anxiety and its physical manifestations. These are just a few of the books which I have found helpful, but there are of course many, many more to explore. Additionally, the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) run clinics, workshops and also offer advice for professionals and full-time music students on the subject, as do various professional organisations such as the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

With much more awareness of mental health in general and support being available for students and experienced performers it is possible for everyone to try and seek a solution which suits them be that diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, hypnotherapy, mindfulness, medication, self-help books, or a myriad of other techniques and suggestions, not least ‘normalising’ performance, the support is there for us to seek and explore.

Many musicians use a combination of techniques to help with performance nerves but with an acceptance that a certain amount of nerves may always exist and can actually help us to have a sharper performance, it is about the level of anxiety, acceptance and coping mechanisms.

For myself and for my students, I find the most helpful tool of all for performance anxiety is ‘normalising’ performance. I try to offer my students as many opportunities as I can for students, with concerts, workshops, masterclasses, and festival entries, as well as exams of course for those who want to take them.

The pandemic of course meant that performing on all levels came to a halt for many months and I know many musicians and students are feeling an increase in performance anxiety as they return to performing again.

For our students who wanted to continue taking exams during the pandemic, digital exams were of enormous help and also provided a way for students to give a ‘performance’ however, without the live element, some of the aspects of performance which induce anxiety are removed and for those students whose nerves have been a real obstacle in performance, these exams offered and continue to offer a good alternative.

Lorraine Augustine is a Pianist, teacher and adjudicator based in Bedfordshire, with over 40 years’ experience of teaching and performing she teaches piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and runs a busy private practice in Bedfordshire.