Performance Anxiety

VoiceCouncil Magazine has asked leading psychotherapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel to share practical ways forward for the vocal artist with regard to performance anxiety. Here is our interview with America’s foremost creativity coach:

Many performing vocalists know that they suffer from anxiety, but they just get on with the job—a little less happy, but they face the stage.  Do these capable people really need to work on performance anxiety?

I think you’ve answered the question.  They get on with the job, certainly, but what is the cost? A lot of vocalists know that their performances are harder and less joyful than they ought to be.  Then there are those who are on the edge of giving up: ‘Is one more performance worth all the sweat of this internal drama?’ There are a great number of people who are about to leave the whole enterprise for no other reason than that it makes them anxious.

Is anxiety any different for vocalists as opposed to other performing arts?

What is most absurd or saddest about performance anxiety is that it strikes where it harms you most.  If you are a singer it strikes in your vocal chords. If you are a dancer, it strikes in your movement and so on…

OK, I’m convinced: so how do we strike back?

Let’s back up a minute.  I want readers to realize that performance anxiety is not something one experiences solely on stage; it may permeate the whole build-up to the performance.  When people say things like “I’m not ready”, “I don’t feel like it”, “I don’t feel well”,  “I can’t think straight” or “I can’t do it”, these may be rational statements—OR they may indicate the presence of anxiety that needs to be dealt with, so that life before the performance can be more productive and joyful.

Do you recommend one strategy over others in the process of reducing anxiety?

Many people don’t know that there is an entire arsenal of time tested techniques and strategies.  I use any number of a dozen when working with clients and groups.  For instance, there are simple relaxation techniques like rubbing your own shoulder, breathing and meditation techniques, breathing exercises, reorienting exercises, visualizations and cognitive affirmations.  I present all of these—and more— to my clients; they can take away what works and develop their own program.

If you are a performer and are looking at a long-term career for yourself I think there are maybe 3 things you would want to build into a personal life-long program:

* You would want to engage in awareness training:  be more mindful of what triggers performance anxiety in you.  Keeping a notebook and observing what is going on is smart. You might find that your anxiety about a performance crops up long before you get to the stage.

*Developing an awareness of basic issues relating to creativity would be wise.  For instance, there is a connection between blockage, procrastination and anxiety.·

*Finally, see anxiety as something to be embraced, not avoided. It is part and parcel of the creative life.

From these basic areas anyone can cobble together a self-help program that will build into an effective strategy over time.

Let’s pick up on that last point, because that sounds like an unusual thing to say:  embrace anxiety?

Well, I mean this in a couple of different ways.  First of all, by accepting that you are anxious and then watching your anxiety at work you are going to learn a lot that is going to help you to move ahead.  Second, I think that we have to remind ourselves that we have worked very hard to get to the place where we can experience performance anxiety!  So we can turn the whole experience of anxiety into a benefit instead of a loss.

Eric, what strikes me about your book is that it is eminently practical.  Do you ever think it is helpful to engage in analysis, to explore the ‘root’ causes of performance anxiety?

Well, even though I am a qualified therapist, I have laid this aside to concentrate on coaching. On the coaching path we simply don’t get into all the therapy issues.

But is there a reason you took this path? Do you think that more in depth therapy can sometimes be unhelpful?

Well, we all have a personal story about why we have performance anxiety. It might involve childhood experiences, past failures, broken promises—whatever.  We can tell this story to ourselves over and over again.  I think it is actually more productive to interrupt a client’s stories and move onto biting the bullet of moving ahead.  Therapy can sometimes be about colluding with a story rather than creating a new story. As a coach, I focus on solutions and new ideas.

Any tips for working vocalists?

I think musicians are always carrying a perfected sound in their ears from the recorded music they are listening to on their iPods.   But this music has been doctored.  I mean, there are 9 other tracks in the background that wouldn’t be there in a live performance.  I think it is very hard for live musicians to accept the sound of their own live music compared to the purified music they listen to at other times.  So, a part of the strategy is to remember what live music really sounds like and to adjust our expectations.

Can you take us behind the closed doors of your private coaching sessions and share some themes that come up that might help all of us?

I’ve noticed that there is a strong connection between preparedness and performance anxiety. This, in turn, is related to how we begin our days, the first things we do when we get out of bed.  Often when we put off doing what is most important to us, a tendril of anxiety enters our psyche and begins growing to huge proportions.  I work with many clients on developing new habits about restructuring their days.  It can take several months to develop new habits and part of coaching work is providing accountability.  When those I am working with make positive alterations to how they handle their mornings, for example, there are big pay offs in terms of positive performances.

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