Unpacking your Performance Anxiety

Raise your hand if you can perform a piece beautifully in the privacy of your own home, but when you stand in front of an audience, what comes out of your mouth makes you feel like you haven’t practiced at all.

I remember at my first voice recital feeling my heart rate going up exponentially as I listened to each student perform one by one before my turn. By the time I got up to sing, I felt as terrified as when I was 8 years old giving a book report in front of my class. Thank goodness that the piece I had chosen to sing had two verses, as I was pitchy and squeaky on the opening notes but somehow miraculously mastered my nerves enough to hit a few good high notes by the second verse.

I often wish there was such as thing as a free pass – being able to run through a piece once and not have it ‘count’, and then be able to perform it again ‘for real’. However, this concept of a ‘do-over’ doesn’t exist in the real world including my weekly lessons, so I had to find another way to deal with my performance anxiety.

So why is it that things don’t always go as well as we plan?

What’s getting in the way of us singing our best?

I remember feeling hugely disappointed at the recital. First of all, in myself, given all the hard work I had done to prepare my piece. I also felt I had let my teacher down by doing such a terrible job.

Each of us needs to discover what our inner voice is saying. You know, the one that undermines us with its negativity, what I fondly refer to as my gremlin (from the book Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson). Not surprisingly, I discovered that my inner voice is a critic, and not a very nice one.

“You sang the wrong words in the second verse, why is your memory so awful.” “That G was totally flat, your technique is so bad.” “You forgot to take a breath, such a rookie mistake.”

The problem for most of us is that our inner voice is reinforcing a “judging” or “fixed” mindset. First of all, judging often is dichotomous: the performance was either good or bad, with little gray zone in between. Secondly, judging often applies these same labels of being good or bad on the person, not just the performance, and they tend to be hard to remove.

“No big surprise that you screwed up, yet again.”

Now compare this to a ‘learning’ or ‘growth’ mindset. Instead of judging where the performance went wrong, we can offer ourselves different questions.

“What went well this time?”

“How close did I come to what I set out to do?”

“What has improved since the last time?”

The inner voice is now less of a critic and more of a coach or cheerleader. The other benefit is that we might even enjoy performing rather than dreading it, because we are embracing it as an learning opportunity where feedback is welcome.

By consciously shifting to a growth mindset, we can see ourselves on a continuous journey with ups and downs but always moving forward. I am still anxious about performing, but I am also excited about the next opportunity now that I am giving myself permission to be less than ‘perfect’.

Ellen Tsai – Singer, Guest Blogger