Tuesday 14th December, 2021

The Silent Assassin: Performance Anxiety Post-COVID by Emily Dodd

 

I have struggled with performance anxiety ever since I started performing. My hands shake, my breath becomes short and shallow (rather problematic as an oboe player), I sweat, my vision becomes blurry. At its most extreme, I blackout. To combat the anxiety, I started taking beta blockers in high school. At one point I needed to take them before every rehearsal, every lesson. Now I need them just before high-pressure concerts. It took me a long time to reach this point, and my need for support to manage that anxiety has had it’s ups and downs. By the time I began my third year of university, I only needed blockers very occasionally, in a very public concert or recital. Any progress I had made, though, was completely extinguished by the extended break in performing we all experienced as a result of a little thing known as the COVID-19 pandemic. Returning to performing almost nine months later was like starting from scratch. I had completely forgotten almost all the strategies I had developed to cope with my extreme performance anxiety. Now, over a year on, I feel like I am back to where I was before the pandemic: I am enjoying music-making instead of fearing it. 

Performance anxiety is something all musicians deal with to some extent. It’s almost as universal as the act of reading music. It affects everyone from those beginning their journey in the third clarinets of the primary school concert band, all the way up to the musicians of professional symphony orchestras. Today when there is a high awareness of our mental health, we have ready access to psychological support and modern medicine; most importantly, we have the language we need to talk about mental health to an extent we have not had previously. But is performance anxiety itself talked about enough for classical musicians? I feel there is still some level of shame surrounding performance anxiety. Anecdotally, people talk about beta blockers and other medications used to combat performance anxiety as something weak, or an easy way out. That they would rather just learn to deal with the anxiety than rely on medication. And perhaps this is possible for some people. But for others, life without beta blockers would mean not performing at all.  

Has COVID-19 made performing more difficult? Perhaps for some, performing without a live audience and just for a camera made it easier. We have all missed going to live concerts, seeing an orchestra or ensemble or soloist with our own eyes and being in the performance space, feeling the energy and tension in the room before it begins. Going on that rollercoaster of music with every other person in the room, before being spat out at the end, the tension broken, and applauding the musicians for their efforts in transporting us. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Does this absence place any extra pressure on the musician, whether from the audience or from themselves? Playing in a post-COVID world will be challenging for a number of reasons, logistically and financially. But what impact will it have on performance anxiety? Will exacerbated performance anxiety be a symptom of a pandemic that has ravaged the whole world? We do not have a vaccine for that, irrespective of any mishandled rollout. 

Whilst performance anxiety has a mental impact, it can also have a severe impact on playing. For string players, they can have a shaky bow; or wind players, a shaky embouchure. Musicians of every kind might have shaky hands, impacting on fingering and positioning. As a wind player, one of the impacts of performance anxiety for me is that I don’t feel like I can get enough air. I breathe shallowly, the exact opposite of what I should be doing to support my airflow. My tone is compromised, I get chopped easily, I get a severe headache. But how does it affect other musicians?I spoke to four professional wind players to get their perspectives on performance anxiety and the way it impacts them.

For some of them, performance anxiety is almost a purely mental game: negative self-talk, shutting down in the hours before a concert, losing faith in who they are and their career at large. For others, it was much more physical and included shaking, sweating and shallow breathing.  Keeping that in mind, what are some ways that the musicians manage their performance anxiety? There were three key strategies that popped up in nearly all of the interviews: preparedness, physical fitness and self-talk. 

Let’s talk about this first strategy of preparedness. For the musicians, preparedness is both practical and mental. Obviously a key element of the practical side of preparedness is practice, and knowing the repertoire back to front. For the Principal Piccolo of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Kate Lawson, practice is key to managing performance anxiety so that mentally ‘you know you can do what you do.’ The mental side of preparedness includes visualising the audition or performance room, getting to the venue early, running through the day leading up to the performance in your head and picturing yourself in the performance space with the people you will be sitting near or performing for. 

The second strategy is physical fitness. This is often talked about as a method to offset the physical toll that playing music has on the body. But it is also an important aspect of mental fitness and managing performance anxiety. QSO’s Principal Cor Anglais, Vivienne Brooke, uses running to manage performance anxiety. Particularly important for wind players, physical fitness encourages recognition of breathing and breath control. Kate Lawson also advocates for yoga and other physical mindfulness practices that emphasise deep breathing. 

The final strategy is self-talk. Having to teach yourself to put the negative voice back in its box is not an easy feat but is something that all the musicians strived to do, either through reading books that discuss positive self-talk, or using other strategies, including the ones mentioned above, to prove to their own mind that they are able to do what they can do.

All the musicians agree that while there isn’t necessarily a negative view of performance anxiety itself, there is still some stigma around taking medication like beta-blockers. Beta-blockers block the effects of adrenaline, a hormone released when we are in a state of fight or flight. It works mainly by slowing down the heart. Beta-blockers are useful for performance anxiety because they minimise some of the physical symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, trembling or shaking, sweating and dizziness. Beta-blockers are used pretty much exclusively for managing short-term anxiety related to a specific event, such as a concert or an audition. They are not used for long-term, more generalized anxiety. 

Three of the four musicians I interviewed have had experience with beta-blockers. One takes them only before auditions whilst the other two take them whenever they feel like they need them: for chamber music, solo recitals or symphony orchestra rehearsal or concerts. For the two that need them the most frequently, discovering beta-blockers literally changed their lives. For the first time, it felt like they were in control. If anything, the mental reassurance that beta-blockers provided -- that they could do it and they could play their instruments, that it wasn’t their fault and there was another way -- gave both musicians the confidence to play without them. For the QSO’s Associate Principal Oboe, Sarah Meagher, taking beta blockers, ‘gave me back confidence in my body.’ After a period of intense performance anxiety, using beta blockers allowed Sarah to trust her body again, to know that she didn’t always have to experience debilitating physical anxiety symptoms. 

A key commonality between the musicians, all of whom have studied at major Australian conservatoriums, was that performance anxiety was not really talked about much at a tertiary level. If anything, at a professional level, these musicians find performance anxiety is far less taboo than it was when they were studying. All the musicians experienced their worst levels of anxiety during their studies. For Sarah, managing performance anxiety was not part of her musical training. It was ‘never talked about’ during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide in the ‘80s. Kate Lawson believes that there is increasingly more support offered in universities now. During her time at the Sydney Conservatorium in the 2000s, some psychological strategies were taught to combat performance anxiety, a far cry from the method of ‘just performing until you get over it’ that was proposed to the other musicians I interviewed, all of whom were older than Kate. 

Professional music organisations, on the other hand, have endeavoured to cultivate a supportive environment to deal with performance anxiety. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Managing Director, Vincent Ciccarello, says that the mental health of musicians is ‘a responsibility at the human dimension and at the workplace health and safety dimension.’ The Australian Research Council’s Sound Practice report, released in 2017, aimed to fully investigate the state of the occupational health and safety of Australian orchestral musicians. The report, led by the University of Sydney in collaboration with eight of Australia’s leading professional symphony orchestras, aimed to address the health and safety of musicians from a multidisciplinary perspective, including physical, auditory, psychological and nutritional components. Funding from the Australian Research Council ‘allowed the team to develop and implement the first comprehensive, multidisciplinary and specific series of occupational health and safety assessments and interventions for orchestral musicians within the major state Australian Orchestras.’  Clearly, corporate culture around mental health and performance anxiety is changing. Organisations which would once not even acknowledge the existence of performance anxiety have now played a key role in the creation of a full-blown research report into the issue. We have come a long way. 

All the musicians I interviewed have had largely positive experiences from the corporate side of organisations. Mental health is seen as part of the holistic picture of a musician’s health, with orchestras offering counselling sessions as well as yoga and employing mental health first aid officers. But has the stigma really changed around performance anxiety, in spite of all of these external factors? For the musicians I interviewed, having these support mechanisms in place at a professional level is helpful but perhaps not entirely effective. For QSO French Horn Player Lauren Manuel, this kind of support ‘is almost too late, at a professional organisation level.’ By the time musicians make it to a professional orchestra, they most likely would have been forced to deal with their performance anxiety and develop strategies. For people whose difficulties with performance anxiety were never resolved, performance anxiety is still a taboo topic in the classical music world. 

So where do we go from here? Who can really change performance anxiety? In effect, no one can. Performance anxiety is natural, every musician experiences it to some degree at some point in their lives. In some ways, I am glad that I have experienced performance anxiety and have learned to manage it. I feel I am much more in touch with my body. I notice lots of things about performances and rehearsals that I think I would otherwise miss. Now that I do have some strategies in place to deal with it, I feel I am much more able to enjoy music. Having experienced music from a place of such fear, I absolutely love when I am experiencing music from a place of joy.  

If we accept that performance anxiety is probably always going to happen, then the question becomes: how can we create an environment where anxiety doesn’t thrive? One in which we are able to talk about performance anxiety in a way that doesn’t exacerbate it, accepts its reality and encourages strategies instead of minimisation? For the musicians I talked to, it all starts with teachers. For Vivienne Brooke, ‘mental preparedness is part of the teacher’s job.’ Running students through what to expect on the day, ensuring that they are ready to perform, both practically and mentally, before putting them onstage. Sarah Meagher thinks that we should be open in the way that we talk about performance anxiety, but not so that students anticipate anxiety from an early age. Sarah encourages talking about strategies to cope with anxiety for when the situation arises, not to preempt a particular performance. Lauren is concerned about ‘paralysis by analysis,’ by anticipating and overthinking anxiety. Sarah also wants to spread the word about beta blockers, encouraging teachers to start talking about medication at an early age, and approaching it pragmatically as something a lot of musicians use. Sarah’s experience was defined by a lot of secretive trial and error, something she thinks could have been avoided if there were more out in the open about beta-blockers and other medications. 

Kate encourages the normalising of performance from a young age. Younger students may not get many opportunities to perform, and are then asked to perform more frequently as they get older, when there is more at stake. At the same time, Kate also advocates teachers using judgement and putting students in positions where they are likely to succeed. For Lauren, however, ‘we have to remember that teachers are also not generally trained in performance anxiety either’.

I came to the interviews wondering if the musicians had the same experience as I had with returning to performing after COVID. They didn’t really. It probably had something to do with the fact that they had only roughly four months off ensemble playing, and a lot to do with the fact that performing in orchestras is their job. Any anxiety was counterbalanced with the excitement of coming back to play music again after an unexpected break. My sample size was, however, all from Queensland, where we have been (relatively) extremely fortunate when it comes to COVID. The story of musicians in Sydney and Melbourne will be completely different. 

The way that we perform music is changing, and the anxiety that comes along with that will inevitably also change. With the restrictions on audience and stage capacity, many orchestras turned to the internet. Virtual concerts, through mediums such as  Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, became an important fixture of the COVID performing scene. The accessibility that comes with such platforms has expanded the reach of orchestras -- into the homes of their regular subscribers, but also into the lives of those who would have found it difficult to attend in-person concerts even without COVID restrictions, due to mobility or sensory restrictions, or their location in rural or regional Australia. 

For some musicians, the increased recording of performances, and their subsequent widespread publication on social media or digital concert hall-like sites, has changed their feelings towards performance anxiety. Music is a mental game as much as a physical or performative one. The change in environment will surely impact the psyche of musicians in the years to come. For Vivienne Brooke, it adds another layer of anxiety as there is that feeling that ‘anyone could hear this and anyone could see this.’ As everything is increasingly recorded, with musicians posting practice videos on their personal social media accounts, the ability to forget performances that did not go the way as planned is largely gone. 

As COVID and advancing technology continue to play a role in the way we experience music, they will also inevitably change the way we experience performance anxiety. Practice accounts and the like will feed into long-held feelings of insecurity and comparison amongst musicians, particularly young musicians. As the growth of diverse technologies enables comparisons and competitiveness, increased social rhetoric about mental health will also change the way in which performance anxiety is considered and approached. Indeed, all the interviewees reported a growth in the discussion of performance anxiety in universities and professional music organisations over the years. Gaps and disruptions to performance schedules will inevitably impact the physical and mental fitness of musicians. 

This begs the question: are there any benefits to performance anxiety? For every musician I interviewed, the answer was to some extent, ‘yes’. A level of anxiety reflects care about the performance and about the music. It lets you know that you appreciate the role you play on the stage. But there is a fine line between what is healthy and what is not. Some musicians will find this balance easier than others. It does not reflect the ability of the musician; in fact,  performance anxiety was present throughout the musical careers of all of the musicians I interviewed. As a young performer, it is incredibly helpful to know that what I experience is really common. I’m optimistic that the conversation around performance anxiety will continue to grow, that strategies to combat it will become common knowledge and that the whole subject will become less stigmatised. Let’s talk about performance anxiety. 

 


 

This article presents the views of Emily Dodd as a practising musician. The opinions expressed in this article should not be taken as advice on use of medications. Anyone concerned about their mental or physical health is encouraged to consult a medical professional.


The Arts Wellbeing Collective is a preventative health initiative provided by Arts Centre Melbourne. 

Lifeline provides crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services.
Call 13 11 14, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Eheadspace provides mental health and wellbeing support, information and services to young people aged 12 to 25 years and their families.
Call 1800 650 890, 9am-1am AEST, 7 days a week.

Beyond Blue aims to increase awareness of depression and anxiety, and reduce stigma. Call 1300 22 4636, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Online chat service available 3pm–12am AEST, 7 days a week.

 


 

 


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