Overcoming Musical Performance Anxiety

A Q&A with Wendy Nixon Stothert

Can’t breathe? Butterflies in your stomach? Afraid to open your mouth? Here are some strategies to combat Musical Performance Anxiety. 

Many singers have experienced one or more of these uncomfortable symptoms at an audition, while singing a solo, or before a big choral performance. Chorus America spoke with Vancouver singer and choral director Wendy Nixon Stothert who has studied this phenomenon.

Chorus America: So this thing that happens to so many of us has a name. Have you experienced Musical Performance Anxiety personally?

Wendy Nixon Stothert: Not when I'm conducting, but definitely when I've been singing. I sing with an a cappella quartet and sometimes also as a soloist. When singing with the other three women, I don’t feel it very much. I feel like I have a safety blanket. But when singing by myself, I experienced it in a pronounced way, to the point where it became really inhibitive to my performance. That got me interested in the topic, and I decided to write my master’s thesis about it.

And for you as a soloist, what were the signs of the anxiety?

Musical Performance Anxiety can exhibit itself in two different ways: physical symptoms and psychological symptoms. The physical symptoms for me included a little bit of butterflies in my stomach and reduced breath capacity. Mentally, I was afraid of forgetting my words or the notes, or of forgetting to come in. I would sometimes have this weird sense of calm—it was an eerie calm, not a real calm. I would finish a song and have very little memory of what just happened. That inhibited my ability to be in the moment while I was performing. There was a lack of concentration and focus. I felt outside of my body.

The other part of it was that I had this feeling that I was going to disappoint people. They might walk away and say, “Well, she doesn’t sound so good. What is she doing leading choirs?” It was an unrealistic fear, because I feel totally supported by my community. That was my own self-doubt talking.

Wendy Nixon Stothert

We all have experienced how anxiety can be inhibiting. I wonder if anxiety can ever be a good thing, spurring you on to do even better?

There is a something called the Yerkes-Dobson rule. It is a bell curve: if there is too little anxiety, the performance will fall flat. If there is too much anxiety, the performance will feel frenetic. But if you get it just right—like Goldilocks and the three bears—then the performance can be magical. It has that right amount of sizzle to it.

Sometimes the feeling of anxiety and the feeling of excitement can be similar.

Right. You want to be excited but not scared. When you get into that fight or flight mode, those feelings take you to a place where they can negatively affect the quality of your voice. You want to be alert, but not want to run away!

I think most choral singers have experienced the kind of anxiety you are describing while auditioning. How can singers prepare themselves?

There are definitely things you can do to help. In my study, three things popped up as being most important for preparation, whether before performing or auditioning.

Number one is trust. Trusting yourself is really important. We need to learn to identify those negative self-talk tapes that are always running in our heads—“I’m not good enough. I’m not going to make it. What if I fail?”—and replace them with positive thoughts and affirmations like “I am a good musician” and “These people want to see me do well.” Nobody goes to a performance just waiting for you to screw up! Peple want to see us do well--it's very uncomfortable for them if we don't.

You also need to trust the people you are about to sing with. Whether it is a band, an orchestra, an accompanist, or the rest of the choir, trust that they will be supporting you, that they know what they are doing, and that they want you to succeed.

Number two is being prepared. It is important that you know your piece backwards and forwards. Remember that if you practice in small amounts over a period of time, it is more effective than cramming the night before. You want to be pacing yourself, so that you are practicing something so much over time that it becomes automatic. The muscle memory is there, so you can trust that your body and mind are prepared enough that they will be able to go on automatically even if you get anxious feelings.

Number three is taking care of yourself physically before you go into that situation. If it is possible,organize your day leading up to an audition or performance so that it can be as stress free as possible. Taking a nap, meditating, going for walk in nature, and eating well can all be helpful. Make sure you drink plenty of water all day beforehand, so that you are hydrated. That will counteract the dry mouth symptom that many people say they experience. Wear cool clothing that is comfortable and not restrictive and flat shoes so you feel really grounded. Then do some physical warm-ups—general stretches, neck rolls, shoulders rolls, and some deep breathing.

All of these are helpful for releasing tension on the day of the audition or performance.

Can warm-ups in rehearsal also be helpful?

Definitely. Doing gentle stretching is great. Also having a massage line or circle, where singers massage each other’s shoulders can help. People start talking to each and laughing and it breaks down barriers. You feel like you are connected and part of a group—and you are actually massaging stiff muscles, which is good too!

There is a lot of awareness these days about connecting gesture and the voice. Doing warm-ups where you move are important. I will tell singers to “fluff the pillow” or “bowl the bowling ball” while doing a vocal exercise. Or put your hands on your rib cage to remind yourself to keep lifted, or show phrasing with your arm in a rainbow shape, or bend your kneesand sway your hips while you sing—all of these kinds of things can loosen the body up.

There is also a thing called progressive muscle relaxation where you tighten and then relax one muscle group at a time, moving from the bottom of your body all the way up to the top of your head. That can be really helpful for letting go of tension and anxiety. [Note: Follow the links for a script and audio that will lead you through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.]

Have you noticed differences in the way adults and children express Musical Performance Anxiety?

I have taught both adults and kids, and I think it is pretty much the same. I’ve had kids come up and say, “What if I forget my notes?” Children have a little bit less of the psychological negative self-talk than adolescents and adults. For teens, the fear of peer judgment can be really strong, so they need to feel confident and proud of what they are presenting. The conductor needs to be upbeat, affirming, and positive. They can’t come down on their choirs right before they are about to perform.

The conductor’s role is quite important then. Are there particular things conductors can do to help their singers get ready to perform?

The conductor must model calm and confident behavior and realize that their job is to pump up their singers and help them feel ready for what they are about to do. You hear stories of tyrannical conductors, who throw their music or slam their fist on the music stand or stomp off or yell. Things like that are not helpful. They make people afraid, and when people are afraid, then they feel tense, and then they don’t sing with a free voice.

"Mirror neurons” go between the conductor and the singers. Singers will tend to mirror what they see in the conductor. As a conductor there is one of you and multiple people in front of you. If you model stressed-out behavior—a furrowed brow, clenched fists, or tension in the jaw—then singers will unconsciously do those things too. And that kind of tension is bad for producing a good vocal sound, not to mention that is is not enjoyable.

In my study, I found that the trust piece has to go both ways. The conductor has to trust that the singers are going to do the best that they can. It might not be perfect, but when is music ever perfect in every single moment? It is one of those things, as musicians, that we have to accept. There are too many variables. It is a live art. It is not like a painting, where an artist can work on it and work on it, until he or she says, “Ah, it is done.”

How can conductors foster that sense of mutual trust?

The best way is to be respectful of the singers, so there is a shared understanding of what we are about as a choir. Have fun and make it fun for the singers. Be your authentic self in front of them as much as possible. That creates a safe environment where people can be themselves and take chances. Some conductors tend to feel like they are separate from the choir, but choir members really want to feel like you are a part of the choir. You are a leader, but you are not separate from them. You are together, an entity. Your mutual goal is to make wonderful music and enjoy yourselves while doing it.

Conductors also need to walk the talk. You ask your singers to do certain things. You as a conductor need to be doing those things too, whether it is taking care of your voice or going through your own de-stressing routine before you perform.

Also being competent in what you are doing really helps people trust you. Be organized and follow through on your commitments and your words. Make eye contact with your singers and keep your eyes out of your own score as much as possible. Singers want to see your face encouraging them along, not you looking down. 

Another thing that conductors can do is really open up about their own musical performance anxiety experiences. “I have been in these situations and this is how it felt. Lets talk about it and put it out there.” When people know that they are not alone in feeling those things, it reduces the anxiety.

Wendy Nixon Stothert completed her Masters in Educational Leadership at Vancouver Island University, in B.C., Canada. Over 17 years, she has taught music at all levels of school. Wendy directs the Just in Time Vocal Jazz Choirs, three adult community ensembles, and has guest conducted. Her research regarding Music Performance Anxiety is informing her constantly evolving teaching practice and her personal performance. Wendy now runs a company called  Choral Valley that offers community choir retreats, workshops, and festivals in the Comox Valley, BC. She is available for conferences and presentations. Contact Wendy at [email protected].