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Jan/Feb 2018 Mind Matters: Stage fright and symptoms: cause or effect?


When you think about your stage fright, what are two or three fears or anxieties that come into your mind?

When musicians contact me about this painful problem, I typically hear two prominent complaints among many others. These are anxiety about having (1) memory slips and (2) technical failures. As we talk about these anxieties other topics evolve which include looking stupid, feeling embarrassed in public, letting other people down (teachers, parents, friends, self), and not accomplishing the desired goals of doing well in performance. Control of muscles and memory are lost at the very time the performer needs security and to feel in control. Despite hours and months of practice and preparation, it feels like there is no guarantee that security and comfort on stage are elusive. Self-esteem plummets and often the performer speaks about feeling insecure and conflicted about ever walking on stage again. The stage has been set for experiencing anxiety.

As you realize, understanding and making performance anxiety manageable is very complex. In fact, music performance anxiety is not specifically about performing music. Stage fright comes alive on stage (which is a trigger), but it is not caused by going on stage. It is a feeling that has been brewing in the mind and life experiences of the performer for a long time.

For those people who choose to explore their stage fright in a therapeutic setting before it becomes chronic and impedes enjoyment and reaching personal goals, we typically discover that anxiety complaints represent symptoms of stage fright - not the cause of it. This is surprising for many people who think managing stage fright is getting rid of their unwanted symptoms – preferably quickly. Managing stage fright is more complex when thinking about it as a symptom of underlying conflicts that surface under the stress of performing.

For example, cold hands (if not due to some physically diagnosed medical issue) can represent more than temperature changes in the fingers when one is in a cold room. One can have cold hands in warm rooms as well. Cold hands can represent a physical response to underlying anxiety and stress when blood flows away from the fingers to the larger organs to prepare for a "fight". Sometimes this "fight' is stage fright. The room itself does not specifically cause cold hands.

Sue spoke of her cold hands and also her mother's depression and emotional distance. She recalled that often her mother would retreat to her room and close the door. She did not understand why, and also developed the (incorrect) idea that her mother wanted to get away from her for some unknown reason. She found comfort in music and a sense of competence in playing the piano since she did not get positive messages or explanations from her mother. While she knew, on some level, that her mother loved her very much, her mother also was emotionally cold and unavailable.

As we unraveled Sue's thoughts, feelings, and fantasies about what it meant to be "cold", gradually we came to understand that Sue wanted a warm response from her teachers, audience, her mother, and from her therapist. To gain this approval, she believed she had to play perfectly because this would bring the love and affection she craved. To give a flawless performance (an impossibility) confirmed in Sue's mind that she was not a failure or had not done something wrong to alienate her mother.

Our work helped Sue untangle her expectations of herself, come to terms with her mother's sadness which was kept secret behind the closed doors and never discussed in the family, and to find a new level of self-appreciation that was not dependent on her public performances. Her memory slips and technical difficulties on stage diminished, her hands felt warmer, and she found pleasure in playing music and sharing it with audiences. Sue realized that her sense of herself was not dependent on a "perfect" performance and that her cold hands were connected to her experience of her "cold" mother which raised her anxiety about feeling wanted and appreciated. Her mind did what is typical when we not understand what is happening, it filled the "gap" about not knowing with her own fantasy.

With her teacher's help, Sue also developed some coping tools (such as "jam plans" which gave her insurance about alternative ways to recover her place in the music – or skip to another place in the score - in case her memory slipped. She also practiced some deep breathing daily to calm her as part of her warm-up at the piano as we worked psychologically to gain a new understanding about what it meant to her to have cold hands.

As Sue found both understanding in our work and ways to cope with her stage fright at her lessons, she realized that her symptom of cold hands represented a life story she had devised in her mind since she filled the gaps in her childhood understanding her mother the only way a child could – through filling the unknown about her mother's seeming aloofness - or coldness - with her own (incorrect) reasons.

Mystery solved, stage fright managed. Self-esteem boosted. Sue was able to tolerate the idea that she was interpreting her mother's moods as her fault and therefore her "problem". Sue was lucky to have an insightful and interested teacher who knew that stage fright encompassed more than the right notes and was able to introduce some coping strategies into the music lessons. This helped Sue feeling wanted. Sue also had the courage to seek professional help, on her teacher's advice, when practicing longer hours did not warm her hands nor improve her stage fright.

The list below offers some performance anxiety symptoms, which are instructive for teachers and students in order to describe psychological and/or physical discomforts. The list is illustrative, not inclusive or diagnostic. No value judgments are attached to symptoms. They are neither good or bad. Symptoms typically are categorized as psychological, physical, and/ or cognitive (thoughts). Often, they are expressed behaviorally as actions such repeatedly arriving late to lessons, forgetting to pay, not correcting notes, finding excuses to miss sessions.

People can experience any symptom singly or many symptoms simultaneously. Tea-chers need to remember that some symptoms, particularly when chronic, are the overt manifestations of underlying anxiety. Symptoms are not anxiety itself but can be caused by anxiety – or can lead to feeling anxious. By understanding what fuels anxiety symptoms, teachers can be in a better position to assist students to better manage anxiety.

Making the studio or class a safe place to talk about anxiety is very helpful for students and teachers. It is important to normalize a feeling that is scary – though both normal and expected. It need not be kept "secret". Practicing harder will not automatically increase emotional security on stage. While not trying to cross a boundary and be a therapist to their students, teachers can teach some coping ideas. These include focused deep breathing and how to listen closely to the negative things students say about themselves. Teachers can help students realize that how they think about themselves and about performing can either raise or lower anxiety.

It is much more helpful to realize that there are no perfect performers, perfect teachers, or perfect parents. Perfection is a wish for magic. Helping students realized they are unique individuals, each with special qualities, and that they are striving to be as good as they can be can be extremely helpful. This does not preclude trying to become better and more accomplished, but it does diminish one's harsh demands for perfect technique, brilliant interpretations, and no memory slips. The ability to have self-confidence and self-esteem goes a long way toward managing stage fright.

I would love to hear from you about your thoughts and experiences and what is helpful for you. 

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