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Dealing With Performance Anxiety

If there is one thing classical musicians wish never existed, it ought to be performance anxiety.

Eight years on, I still shudder at the thought of my first choir solo. I was so nervous that I choked on my entry - a soloist’s worst nightmare. In front of a crowd of 40, I struggled to muster the energy back to my trembling lips and what came next was just a blur.

Eventually, I got better at managing my anxiety as I performed publicly more, and even became comfortable singing for 3,500 people. Here are some things I learnt during my performance years which may help you overcome your anxiety.

Public performance can be nerve-racking, but it is a great platform to spread classical music! [Illustration: William]

#1 Pre-performance: be comfortable and healthy

Keeping fit prior to your performance is arguably the best thing you can do. I always place the performance repertoire to be the least of my worries and focus on getting sufficient rest and a healthy diet. Once, I only gobbled a brownie 10 mins before a night concert and it was awful to deal with gastric discomfort during the performance. Sleeping well also enables us to retain our memory better and energizes our body for the long hours on stage.

#2 Mindful breathing

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I do this every time before stepping on stage as it keeps me relaxed and be more at ease with thousands of pairs of eyes staring at me. While there are various prescribed breathing techniques by therapists, I refrain from following any kind as they often involve counting down seconds which ironically triggers more anxiety. I simply breathe slightly deeper than normal, just as we do naturally when falling asleep. Breathing calmly also serves as a mental reset mechanism for me, handy in preparation towards my next set of contrasting or thematic pieces.

#3 Embrace the uncomfortable

While performing in an acoustically foreign hall or a public space, it is normal to feel jittery as our body releases stress hormones when perceiving an event as challenging. Knowing this, I make the best use of rehearsal time by embracing the whole atmosphere of the venue. This means walking around sections of the stage beyond my performing position, peering into the endless stretch of seats, looking towards the walls and ceiling, and observing how my instrument sounds. It may be counterintuitive for some but the more I explore the new environment, the greater my confidence becomes - just as how you gain familiarity in a new school or workplace. In rare occasions where rehearsals are unavailable (eg. flash mobs, strict scheduling), I would mentally prepare by visualizing the performance and noting the potential acoustic change based on the environment.

#4 Set a focal point

It goes without saying to follow the conductor, but in a small ensemble or solo performance, our physical focus may shift towards the players, the audience, or even ourselves. Setting a focal point on the furthest wall or chair is also extremely helpful in both projection and concentration. A focal point may also be an imagery, or an emotion - find the connection between yourself, the audience, and the music. I realize that understanding the history and cultural significance of a piece is helpful in establishing an emotion and tone to dwell upon while performing. Immerse yourself in the music and your anxiety will be lifted.

#5 Release body tension

Doing several simple body stretches before performing will improve blood circulation and transfer more oxygen towards your brain and limbs. I find myself less likely to tense up with a proper pre-performance stretch than if I did not. During long hour performances, I have the habit of wiggling my toes and pulling back my shoulders between movements – nobody would judge you for making slight movements. These small actions combined with regulated breathing allow me to be much more relaxed.

Enjoy the music

No matter how experienced we are, almost all of us still face anxiety during a performance. Even accomplished musicians like Frédéric Chopin and Glenn Gould had huge issues with performance anxiety, but they never failed at presenting the best of their playing. Performing is a splendid avenue to spread the joy of classical music and touch the souls of people of all manner of life. Be ready, smile and perform true to yourself and the music.

Be kind & keep striving!

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