Let me be very clear: performance anxiety is NOT the same as getting nervous. Absolutely everyone who performs has always and will always get nervous to some degree before every performance no matter how famous or good they are. It’s because they care! Performers put so much time, effort, and soul into the preparation so they can share something very personal and vulnerable with an audience, putting themselves out there to be judged on a daily basis. Nerves are very normal.
Some people have the ability to focus that adrenaline into their performance to help make it exciting! I used to be able to do this. Then I started college as a music major and everything I did in my playing was put under a microscope. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, obviously I want to improve as a musician. But my brain started shifting into overdrive. Nothing was ever good enough and I already had the tendency to be hard on myself. Eventually my thoughts while performing became a how-to-play-the-oboe-correctly manual and all of that adrenaline was focused toward potential mistakes. Obviously I would make these mistakes, because that’s what I would envision. <Cue self deprecating thoughts.>
Performance anxiety seemed like the elephant in the room I desperately wanted to address whenever I performed. At least that way people knew I was battling something instead of thinking I was a bad player. Especially when the symptoms went from being internal (like a foggy mind, silly note mistakes, or robotic playing) to external (literal shaking limbs, uncontrollable embouchure, and clunky fingers).
What I wish people understood about performance anxiety is that it’s not “being nervous” to perform. Instead it’s being anxious about getting anxiety at the absolute worst time and the effect it has on my performance. You can begin to see the circle of anxiety that would be easy to fall into. If you become anxious about anxiety, the anxiety is literally feeding itself and over time will get worse. From the first moment you feel this loss of control, it can be easy to fear it happening again. And it probably does, because now you’re hypersensitive to it. Performance situations just happen to be the catalyst because of all the risks involved.
I can’t speak for everyone of course, but for me, there are many different layers to my anxiety. It’s the fear of not being in control (especially with an instrument like the oboe), the fear of not being perfect, and even the fear the attention of playing well could lead to. When it comes down to it though, when I think about performing, I fear how the anxious sensations will hinder me from playing my best and enjoying myself. However, despite my worst experiences with performance anxiety, I never thought “performing” was the problem and that “maybe I should stop.” I’m very prone to awkwardness anyway, so that would not deter me.
But… I had teachers question exactly that when all the typical advice about nerves wasn’t seeming to work for me. “Maybe since you get so anxious you should find something else you enjoy doing.” Can you imagine your deepest, ugliest thoughts being said out loud to you by someone you look up to and thought was helping you? It did not feel very reassuring, but I don’t resent my teachers for saying that to me because it kicked me into gear. It’s definitely not the encouraging words people would normally use to lift spirits, but that’s when I decided enough was enough! Time to focus all of my energy on starting to get past this. What I really had to do was pay more attention to taking care of myself mentally.
The lack of confidence I had in my playing bled into my everyday life. Music is what had defined me and if I was no longer good at that, who was I anymore? I could go on and on about the reasons why, and how, I developed performance anxiety. Instead, I strongly suggest anyone struggling with this to do their own soul searching. You’d be surprised how quickly things start to fix themselves after you understand your own life better.
Dealing with performance anxiety, and really any anxiety, is definitely not a steady slope upwards. I had to learn to ride the waves. Sometimes I’ll forget I ever had to deal with it and that’s when it comes creeping back, maybe even worse than before. But that’s ok and to be expected.
At least for me, my journey with performance anxiety has not been about the audience or high stakes. It’s been about learning how to be kinder to myself.