For many musicians, the day of a big performance or audition has a familiar, and uniquely uncomfortable feel to it. There’s that unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach. It’s difficult to sit still. Your mind seems scattered, with visions of memory slips zipping through your head. And a part of you wishes you could skip forward in time about 12 hours to the point when you have arrived back home and are basking in that post-performance high, feeling relaxed and normal again.

Sometimes we can get ourselves so worked up, that we’re emotionally exhausted and psyched out before we even arrive at the concert hall. Which makes everything more unpleasant, and the performance becomes even more of a struggle than it needs to be.

So how can we better manage our day-of-performance stress and keep our thoughts and emotions from spiraling into the bad place?

Dorell Wright

Dorell Wright is a basketball player, who played for 4 NBA teams over the course of a 12-year career – and once held the record for most three-pointers made in a season.

A few years ago, I read an article about his various game-day rituals and superstitions (like having to eat 2 grilled chicken sandwiches from Pot Belly – while driving). One of his key must-haves are text messages from three people in his life. His mother, his brother, and his girlfriend.

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but recently came across a study which made me wonder if perhaps there is more to these texts than mere superstition.

Hugs, phone calls, and a video

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin studied the stress response of 61 girls aged 7-12 years old.

Each child was put in front of a panel of strangers and instructed to give a speech and complete a series of math problems, which caused their stress hormone levels to shoot up.

Immediately after this evaluative performance, a third of the participants were comforted by their moms – in person – with hugs, etc. Another third received a phone call from their moms. And the last third watched an “emotion-neutral” video for 75 minutes.

Oxytocin

The researchers found that both the in-person comforting and phone calls led to similar increases in the release of oxytocin – a hormone that can decrease anxiety and help counter our stress response.

On the other hand, the girls who watched the video did not experience any change in oxytocin levels, and their stress levels remained significantly higher an hour following their stressful speech/math test.

Social inclusion

The researchers explain that oxytocin plays a role in attachment and bonding, and that it seems to be associated with buffering social stress. Which seems to speak to one of the core elements of performance anxiety – fear of negative evaluation. Or in other words, the fear of damaging one’s reputation and experiencing social rejection.

Whether it was being the new kid in school, discovering you’re the 5th wheel, or not being invited to lunch at work, we’ve all experienced what it feels like to be on the outside looking in at some point in our lives (here’s a quick video reminder if you forget what that’s like). And it sucks. It makes us question our worth, our value, and our place in the world. And in darker moments, whether anyone would care or notice if POOF – we just disappeared one day in a cloud of smoke.

So perhaps in times like this, a reminder that we do matter, and that we have the unconditional support and love of people around us no matter what happens in a performance, audition, competition, interview, test, presentation, or match, can help to remind us of the bigger picture. That we are much more than just a singer or harpist or clarinetist. That we are complex individuals who make a difference to the world in many more ways than just the skills we bring to the stage.

Because playing our instruments is challenging enough without adding the pressure of needing to prove our worth in the world on top of it all.

Caveats

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a leap to connect the dots from this study to Dorell Wright’s pre-game rituals. After all, the study only looked at 7-12 year old girls and their mothers1. So it’s not clear what the results would be with boys, with older individuals, with different family members, friends, or significant others.

Furthermore, the comforting contact or phone calls with participants’ moms occurred after the stressful experience, not before. So it would be interesting to see if the stress-reducing effects of a phone call would apply if they occurred before performances as well. And would texts or emails have a similar effect or is it something about hearing a loved one’s voice that makes a difference?

Takeaways

Nevertheless, it certainly can’t hurt to make a quick phone call or exchange texts with a loved one before/after performances and auditions.

And perhaps this really can help to ground us, and ensure we don’t get too sucked into our demoralizing vortex of doubts and fears before we walk out on stage. To get a quick reassuring reminder that we have a full life off-stage as well, and that whether we end up having a good day or a bad day at work, there are people in the world that value who we are, and will always remember to invite us to lunch, no matter what.

Footnotes

  1. Though it should be noted that there was a very specific and reasonable rationale for this. Mostly, to ensure that the subjects were as homogenous a group as possible with regards to reducing inter-individual variation in cortisol levels.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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