The Solution to Performance Anxiety

I have struggled with performance anxiety since I was six years old. My first on-stage musical performance was singing Sing the Word songs with my dad and sister at a small local church. While I sang, I looked at the ground literally the entire time. In high school and college, my symptoms included (but were not limited to) extreme nervous breakdowns, depression, sleeplessness, and lots of tears before and after performances.

Any six-year-old might be shy about performing on stage in front of strange people. But performance anxiety is something that every professional musician I have met struggles with. Did you know that most professional classical musicians take beta blockers (medication that calms your heart rate)? Nerves are a real problem for performers, myself included. I can't give a solution for the body's response to stimulating circumstances--that's something that only beta blockers can solve, and I have chosen not to go that route. But in my four years at Eastman, I have noticed two vastly different attitudes toward performing and seen how those attitudes affect performance anxiety:

1. My performance determines my identity. Some of the symptoms: extreme fear before performances; constant worry that other people won't like how you play; depression if your performance isn't perfect; crying before and after from uncontrollable feelings of anxiety and fear; feelings of worthlessness if the performance doesn't go how you wanted it to; before, during, and after the performance, obsessing over small details/technical passages that you might miss/did miss; feeling paralyzed on stage instead of excited; forgetting what music is about and making it into a game of perfectionism

2. I am firmly rooted in my identity, despite my performance. Signs: excitement before a performance; spontaneity, creativity, and new ideas during a performance; confidence in your own musical choices, despite what others may think; during performances, a focus on making music and creating drama; quick to forgive yourself and others for performance mistakes; not crying before and after every performance (I mention this because I used to do it!); a sense of worth that comes from something deeper than how you perform

These lists are not exhaustive by any means, but these are very real things that I have seen time and time again. People who perform closer to 1 struggle with deep personal insecurity, so they turn to their music to affirm themselves. People in category 2 have a deep sense of worth in something greater than music. Category 1's must play it safe when they perform, because mistakes reflect badly on them as people (so they perceive). Category 2's can afford to take risks when they perform--they can afford to fail, because they are grounded in something that far surpasses the approval of others.

If you are playing to gain the approval of others, you will experience crippling performance anxiety.

If you are playing for something bigger, if you know who you are and why you are a musician, you will still experience physical symptoms of nervousness--but you will be free before, during, and after performances.

I can say this because I have been on both sides of the spectrum. For most of my life, I have struggled with finding my identity in my performance. As a Christian, I knew that my identity was in God and His love for me, but I had trouble applying this directly to performance situations and finding freedom. This has been a journey for me. God has been bringing me out of insecurity and into the freedom of knowing that I am secure in Him. I still don't perform perfectly. Sometimes, my heart races and my hands shake during auditions. But now, my mind and heart are calm and free. I am no longer controlled by the level of my performance.

I tried the self-help methods: breathing exercises, concentration games, forced positive thinking--sometimes those were helpful, but they never transformed my insecurity. No outside method can transform insecurity. Only knowing the truth about who you are--precious, valued, and loved in the sight of God--can transform you. Any other solution is temporary.

Do you really want to spend your entire life at the mercy of how you perform? Experiencing flashes of depression and happiness depending on how your performance goes on any given day? I didn't. So I sought God to free me, and He has.

Unless you have a solid identity outside of performing, you will never experience freedom from crippling performance anxiety. Seek after God today and make it your life's goal to know His great love for you--that alone is true freedom.


Wow Naomi - you are so insightful. I noticed for myself personally as a singer my style is more interpretive than note to note bar to bar as the music is written. In this I get nervous keeping up with the rhythim of back-up tapes - hate them. God bless the piano player - s singer's best friend. I love hearing my voice in the shower - but, on stage, it is a constant battle of thoughts running through my head of , "I hope I sound O.K.", 'I hope I'm not making a fool of myself, etc. Truly the enemy getting in the way. Thank you for this wonderful counsel and confession of and encouragement of the fact that these symptoms are not mine alone but that of a true professional - that is what I want to be.

Thank you for this article! I am asked to sing at my church often and do it because I want to be a blessing; it often affords me opportunities to invite co-workers to church to hear the Gospel as well, so I feel Good wants me to continue to perform from time to time.... But I get soooooooo scared! I'm trying to find some Godly advice in how to deal with it and this article was a good start. For me, I don't worry too much before or after; in fact afterward I usually feel greatly relieved, regardless of whether I performed perfectly or not. It's just DURING the performance, mostly, my heart is racing and I can't breathe well and it puts such a damper on how I sing (since singing well depends so much on good breathing!)
Other than (or perhaps through) changing your perspective on your worth in Christ, do you find any habits that help you? For example, focusing on your audience/lyrics/ , praying throughout, breathing excercises (although I know as you said this doesn't address the root cause)?

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