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Tips for addressing stage fright

No student comes to music lessons with a “clean slate.” An argument with a parent or friend, being bullied at school, the loss of a favorite pet, a disappointing grade on a test, an illness, a friend moving out of town, a divorce in the family, and numerous other life events can interfere with the student’s learning and pleasure in making music. Such occurrences compromise a student’s ability to concentrate on work and can lower self- confidence. They also can contribute to anxiety. Often, emotional distress will be evident through a student’s performance, attendance, and attitude, particularly in the guise of chronic, often debilitating, performance anxiety and expressions of self-doubt.

Music teachers, often “first responders” to students’ emotions, are integral to students’ psychological and musical development. They are in a front row position to assist students with strong feelings so that the music student does not become overwhelmed.

There are ways to think about stage fright from multiple perspectives with a goal of both understanding anxiety and managing anxiety. Both are important. While it is not possible to totally eliminate performance anxiety, this anxiety can be transformed and better managed.

Image credit: “Full frame of text on wood” Public Domain via Pexels.

Teachers can include psychological concepts in lessons, studio classes as well as in a variety of life situations. In that regard, teachers add appropriate psychological techniques to their pedagogy tool boxes. There is no perfect formula or model to use for managing the complexities of performance anxiety, but an “A B C model” can be very helpful as a teaching tool.

An A B C Model can help identify anxi­ety and is one important step toward recognizing feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and body sen­sations that raise performance anxiety. The focus here, and throughout the book, Managing Stage Fright, will be on “Letter B.” 

This recognition can lead to identifying and discussing thoughts, feelings, and ego defenses (all represented by Letter B) that contribute to higher (but also lower) anxiety and stress levels.

Remember, as we discuss Letter B, that it is not the presence or absence any thought or feeling, but how feelings are understood and effectively managed that can lead to lower performance anxiety.

Let’s try an ABC example.

What Does A B C Mean?

A: Performance

B: Your thoughts, feelings, physical reactions

C: Consequences (Quality of performance and level of self-esteem based on what you say to yourself at Letter B.)

ABC Part I

Recognize your anxiety:

  1. Think of a stressful performance.
  2. What did you say, think, feel? (letter B)
  3. Rate your anxiety (from 0-10).

ABC Part II

Rethink your anxiety:

  1. Think of a stressful performance.
  2. What did you say, think, feel? (letter B)
  3. Rate your anxiety (from 0-10).

Challenge “B” (statements, feelings, ego defenses – see examples below)

Re-rate your anxiety

Was your anxiety lower after you challenged your Letter B responses? (You will need to do this quite often and regularly as you become more tuned-in to yourself and your feelings – Letter B.)

After completing Part I, the teacher can help students identify Letter B responses of which they are unaware and how they may have led to a higher level of anxiety.

At first, the teacher points out how the student used unhelpful–not bad (anxiety-raising)–statements at Letter B.

Then the teacher can offer a range of supportive self-statements to substitute at Letter B.

For example, students could be asked to think about anxiety-raising responses and then generate anxietylowering statements (Letter B). Consequently (with mental practice as important as instrument practice), students can become tuned-in to how they use their mind regarding their emotional reactions to performance. Gradually, this will lead to an increased sense of personal control over anxiety.

Examples of initial responses for Letter B (which may raise anxiety.)

  • I am afraid I will have a memory slip and forget my music.
  • I do not want to look stupid if I mess up.
  • I do not play as well as my friend plays.
  • I am ashamed if I make mistakes in a performance
  • The audience will laugh at me.
  • I want to play as well as my friends do.

Examples of revised responses for Letter B (which may lower anxiety.)

  • I have prepared and practiced intelligently.
  • I have good reasons to believe I will perform well.
  • It is time to trust myself.
  • I cannot guarantee everyone will like my playing, even

when I play my best.

  • I will do my best.
  • The audience is coming to support me.
  • The audience is not coming to judge me. I must not judge myself.
  • I need not compare myself with anybody else.
  • Everyone plays differently. It is important to be myself.

Letter B and Ego Defenses

While the ABC Model is often used to identify thoughts, feelings, and behaviors on a cognitive (knowing/awareness) level, this Model can also be used to identify and modify ego defenses for a deeper level of the mind.

The ego is part of the psychological organization of the mind, a source of energy, and serves as a mental buffer zone between the conscious (thoughts and feelings of which one is aware) and the unconscious (thoughts and feelings of which one is unaware). The ego is also the mental mediator/ referee between one’s external and internal life. The ego is an important “moderator” of feelings, behavior, and self- concept. The ego is not a part of one’s biological anatomy. The ego’s primary function is to provide emotional adapta­tion (ego defenses) both to life in the outside world and to cope with thoughts and feelings that live deep inside the mind.

As an example in everyday life, when people know that weighing too much (Letter A) may lead to high blood pres­sure and other health hazards (Letter C), people typically “defend” (take care of) themselves with diet, exercise, and, at times, with medication (Letter B.) However, some people do not take the steps necessary to ward off potential illness. Some peo­ple put risk aside, or think “I’ll get around to this at another time,” (Letter B) or convince themselves, “I’m not going to get sick. I feel fine” (Letter B). When an underlying physical or emotional condition is not acknowledged seriously and dealt with appropriately, it will be repeated, and unfortunate con­sequences may be experienced.

Some people would prepare carefully (adaptive/helpful ego defense–Letter B.) Others may think that hard work is not necessary because “things usually turn out all right” (maladaptive/unhelpful ego defense–Letter B.) Sometimes things do turn out all right. Luck can be mercurial. To put something “scary” out of one’s mind does not make it go away. This form of denial (an ego defense–Letter B) actually increases the probability that the recital or audition will not turn out all right.

What are some ways performers can use ego defenses?

  • Projection: The belief that other people are thinking something (usually uncomplimentary) about you. (Example: “If I have a memory slip, the audience will not like me.”)
  • Rationalization: An attempt to minimize or explain away a thought or feeling, typically using common sense. (Example: “I was late to school because I had to make my lunch.”)
  • Denial: Believing that something does not exist. (Example: “I bet my teacher won’t choose me to play in the recital.”)
  • Reaction formation: Saying or feeling the oppo­site of what one really thinks or feels. (Example: “I don’t know why everyone else freaks out about performing. I am pretty relaxed about it.”)
  • Isolation of affect: The inability to experience or acknowledge feelings so that one talks about a highly charged topic with little or no emotion. (Example: “I had a memory slip in the last recital but that does not bother me.”)

By now you probably are getting the idea that it helps to become aware of your ego defenses and to use them adaptively. Identifying your ego defenses, or Letter B responses, and challenging unhelpful feelings, can help lower your performance anxiety.

It is not a big leap to realize that for performance anx­ious musicians, a fragile self is on the firing line every time they appear on stage. For performers who measure self- love primarily from external sources (audiences, teachers, parents, friends), positive self- esteem is pre­dominantly obtained through others’ approval and applause. There is difficulty in believing in your self-worth without the roar of the crowd, which hinges on some performers’ beliefs that they can control the crowd through a brilliant, sensitive, and technically “perfect” performance. That is scary – you cannot manage others. But you can better manage yourself. Such attitudes, or ego defenses and self-statements (Letter B) typically raise anxiety.

So take some time to think about how  statements can be friends or foes when you feel stage fright. Teachers are in an ideal position to help students do this. Performance anxiety can be managed much better when feelings as well as your music as better managed. Remember, too, you manage your stage fright over the long haul – you may not realize the progress you are making from day to day. It all adds up if you keep adding.

Good Luck–I’d love to hear from you.

Featured image credit: “Changsha concert hall stage” by kailingpiano, Public Domain via Pixabay.

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