FOCUS on PERFORMANCE
The Various Faces of Performance Anxiety
by Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas
based on their book for Oxford University Press:
Power Performance for Singers:
Transcending the Barriers
To the performance psychologist, anxiety is a complex emotional state. To the general public, anxiety is synonymous with worry, fear and forebodings. To a singer, it is public enemy number one!
Is there anything good about anxiety?
When singers freeze or commit a blunder in a big performance moment, anxiety is either the root cause or the outcome. For the most part, anxiety is the result of other unsolved problems. Performance, by its very nature, places stress on performers and makes demands on their mental and physical energy. But it also offers the participants a challenge, great opportunities, and a chance to push back their own personal boundaries, all of which can be very liberating. Yet it does produce some uncertainty, some doubts–how will it go? Consider anxiety as a reflection of uncertainty. Yes, this powerful combination of stress and uncertainty is the villain, but it is the kind of villain that could turn out to be a blessing as well.
What kinds of anxiety are there?
Whenever a performance is imminent, what thoughts run through performers’ heads? How important it is? How much it means to them? The probable consequences of the outcome? Do they ask themselves certain questions? Will I do well? What might happen if I blunder? Will the result mean something great for my future? If I don’t do well, will that diminish my reputation?
Not only singers have doubts. Anxiety, characterized by worry and tension, is a demon for everyone. These doubts and worries can either make a performer anxious or free from anxiety. They can add to their confidence or they can crush it. How they perceive any performance, what they say to themselves about that performance--these things will trigger their emotional reactions.
But....if they were able to change their way of thinking about what the performance means to them....if they were able to change their way of viewing their own ability....if they were able to deal with the situation in a positive way, then they could transform their emotional responses. The only change would be in their self-perception or their interpretation of the performance. It could, in short, be the means to free them from fear and anxiety.
Anxiety is Internal
Some performers manage to sing well, stay confident, maintain their focus without too much anxiety. It is possible. It is possible because anxiety is not an evil ogre waiting out there. Anxiety is internal. It does not exist outside thoughts, outside the performer’s own head.
Stress resulting from anxiety is not imposed by other people or by the situation. One
might feel anxious about certain circumstances, but it isn’t mandatory that one become anxious. It’s not the situation that is anxious. It’s the performer! Ultimately, anxiety is always under one’s own control.
Anxiety results from one’s perception of an imbalance between what is demanded of him/herself and feelings regarding one's own capability to achieve what is being demanded.
Example: If someone views a performance as very important and if, at the
same time, he/she does not believe that the repertoire offered is “perfect enough,”
if he/she is convinced that it cannot reach the required level, then the imbalance,
the difference between the two, causes the performer to be anxious and stressed.
To remain in control of their anxiety, performers must keep the two sides in balance--that is, they must balance their perception of the performing situation and their belief in their own ability to handle that situation.
A certain level of anxiety is necessary to perform well, but too much anxiety can exert a negative influence on performance. It’s OK to feel anxious, but it’s not OK to be unable to manage this anxiety. To perform in an ideal way the performer needs some anxiety, just enough to feel excited and ready for performance. The ability to perform at an optimal level of anxiety or arousal at each performance is a skill that can make or break the ability to perform consistently.
Two Kinds of Anxiety
The relationship between performance and the performer’s arousal level is the result of the interaction between two kinds of anxiety: cognitive (mental) anxiety and somatic (physical)
Cognitive anxiety results from concerns and worries about the demands of the situation. This fosters a lack of confidence and self-belief, and an inability to concentrate. As a rule, this type of anxiety manifests itself days or weeks before the performance.
Somatic anxiety results from the information given to the performer by the body: butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, muscle tension, and frequent visits to the bathroom. This type of anxiety shows itself much closer to the beginning of the performance, might even disappear after that. An eminent British psychologist, Lew Hardy, has discovered that performance depends on a complex interaction between your two levels of anxiety. Given a relatively high physical anxiety but little worry, performance can have a steady decline. Given a high level of mental and physical anxiety, your arousal will reach an optimal level, after which the bottom will dropout, hence the word catastrophe in the title of Hardy’s study. Recovery from catastrophe takes longer than recovery from a slow decline.
The term “arousal” describes the result of interaction between the two types of anxiety. This interaction will produce either a state of emotional readiness or one of instability. At one end of the arousal scale the performer will be highly charged and “psyched up,” perhaps even aggressive. At the other end the performer will be calm and very relaxed. There is no standard ideal level of arousal for everyone. Each person requires a specific arousal level of his/her own to perform well. The first thing performers should do is to identify their own ideal level of arousal. This could vary depending upon the nature of their coming performance.
EXERCISES FOR ANXIETY LEVEL CONTROL
Before applying any strategies that will help manage and control anxiety, the symptoms of both physical and mental anxiety must be recognized. Therefore, use the first two self-awareness exercises to help reveal your choir’s pattern of anxiety and the symptoms that accompany it.
Think back to a performance that was ideal, one in which you performed very well. Recall all the things that were done before the performance: the travel arrangements, the time of arrival, the kind of warm-up, etc. Note all the details that can be remembered. This performance represents the ideal arousal zone and will also give an idea of how it was achieved.
Check the following list of symptoms to see which you exhibit. Not all somatic symptoms are negative. Pounding heart, increased respiration and adrenaline need not be negative signs. However, the presence of physical symptoms together with mental symptoms may mean that the level of arousal has gone too high. Then you will have to lower the level.
Mental Symptoms Physical Symptoms
Indecisiveness Pounding heart
Feeling overwhelmed Increased respiration
Inability to concentrate Decreased blood flow to the skin
Feeling out of control Increased muscle tension
Narrowing of attention Dry mouth
Loss of confidence Trembling and twitching
Fear Nausea, loss of appetite
Irritability Increased adrenaline
Imagery is a potent method for coping with mental anxiety. Recall your ideal performance (as in Exercise 1) and watch yourself in imagination performing as well as you can. This is a very effective way of reducing mental anxiety. If it is done often, it will be a reminder of how it feels to perform really well.
Reducing mental anxiety can also be done by thinking about images that produce great calm and relaxation, such as running water for example.
Breathing is a fine way to reduce anxiety. Inhale evenly through the nose, taking four or five long, deep breaths. Then exhale to the same count through the mouth. While exhaling, focus on your relaxed hands. Repeat the process, but this time focus on relaxed shoulders, jaw, or neck.
This is known as ratio breathing. The length of the exhalation should always be double that of the inhalation. It combines relaxation and concentration. This method is useful both before and during performance. Inhale deeply through your nose to the count of 5. Exhale through the mouth to the count of 10. During the exhalation the focus should be on watching yourself perform well.
For those who must deal with too low an arousal level, this exercise can be helpful. There are three possibilities:
1. Do a short physical workout like running in place. This will raise the heartbeat.
2. Use inspirational music to make ready for performance.
3. Use strong verbal cues to life the energy:
This is tough music; I love it when it is hard.
I thrive on pressure. Let’s go.
I’m ready. Let it come!
©Shirlee Emmons and Alma Thomas