It’s been decades since that day I stood in front of a panel of faculty at Curtis for my college audition, but I still remember it as one of the most anxiety-provoking moments of my life.

I had never met any of the musicians who sat and looked at me from behind the table. I knew them only by name and reputation – and even then, wasn’t sure who was who (needless to say, this was before Google and Facebook had been invented).

I’m sure they were all perfectly congenial and friendly people, and heck, it’s very possible that one or two may even have smiled at me, but in the heat of the moment, all I saw was an intimidating row of stern, somber, serious-looking faces.

Needless to say, my nerves shot through the roof.

Whether it’s a college audition, juries, competition, or the unscreened round of an orchestral audition, what are we to do when we come face to face with the people who can meaningfully shape the future course of our lives with just a few marks of their pens?

Is there anything we can do in that moment to buoy our confidence and keep our nerves from getting the better of us?

An attentional bias

There is some research in the area of social anxiety which suggests that socially anxious individuals have a tendency to experience their surroundings differently. Specifically, their attention is biased towards negative stimuli – often focusing on things in the situation that confirm their fears and maintain, rather than reduce, their anxiety.

If you’ve ever gone out with mismatched socks or discovered you’d committed some other fashion faux pas too late to do anything about it, you may be able to relate a little to the feeling of being overly sensitive to your surroundings. Even though, logically, you know that the quiet laugh behind you and the smile of a stranger passing by have nothing to do with your subtle fashion mishap, it’s difficult not to be a little more sensitive to these things and wonder if they are in fact a response to your appearance.

A study of public speaking

Curious to see how this plays out in performance-like situations, an international team of researchers put together a study to explore this further.

Forty-four students were recruited to participate. Twenty-two of them scored high on a measure of social anxiety, so they comprised the high social anxiety group; the other twenty-two scored low on the same test and were designated the low social anxiety group.

Each participant completed a variety of paper/pencil anxiety measures, and was then hooked up to a heart rate monitor and an eye-tracking device. Then, they were asked to prepare a 3-min speech on the education system in China (which at the time, was a popular topic of debate on campus). Of course, the task wasn’t just to prepare a speech, but deliver the speech as well – to 12 audience members, who would be connecting live via Skype to listen and evaluate their speech.

In actuality, the audience was pre-recorded, and consisted of university students who were trained to provide positive, neutral, or negative facial expressions and behaviors. Positive stimuli, for instance, involved nodding, smiling, and leaning forward slightly. Neutral stimuli included looking ahead without smiling or frowning, and making slight adjustments of one’s head and body. Negative stimuli consisted of frowning, rolling one’s eyes, shaking one’s head, yawning, and looking away.

So how would the participants react to their audience? And would there be any important differences between the low-anxious and high-anxious participants?

3 key findings

As expected, there were a few interesting differences between the two groups.

1. Perception of speech performance

The low-in-social-anxiety participants (hereafter referred to as LowAnx) seemed to feel more positively about their speeches, rating them higher (5.75 out of 10) than the high-in-social-anxiety participants (HighAnx) who didn’t seem to feel so good about their speaking (3.94 out of 10).

This seems to speak to the “self-evaluation bias” or the tendency for how anxious we feel to color our perceptions of how well we are performing (which you can read more about here).

2. Negative/positive bias

Using the eye tracking device, the researchers were able to measure not just what participants were looking at, but for how long.

And tallying up the total amount of time spent fixating on positive, neutral, and negative audience reactions, the researchers discovered that the LowAnx participants spent significantly more time attending to positive audience members than the HighAnx participants – 29890.05 milliseconds vs. 14670.06 ms.

In addition, the LowAnx group spent significantly less time fixating on negative audience members than their HighAnx counterparts – 12869.70 ms vs. 26014.67 ms.

Fundamentally, they found that the LowAnx participants had a “normative” negativity bias; a tendency to direct their attention towards positive audience members and away from threatening stimuli. Conversely, the HighAnx participants did not demonstrate such a protective bias. If anything, they did the opposite, focusing more on negative reactions than anything else.

3. Anxiety response

The HighAnx group’s tendency to focus on negative audience members appeared to have physiological consequences as well.

While both groups’ heart rates increased from baseline (measured before being informed of their speaking task) to the 3-minute period while delivering their speech, the HighAnx group’s average increase (85.27 bpm baseline to 112.22 bpm during the speech) was significantly greater than the LowAnx group’s increase (79.482 baseline to 93.57 bpm during the speech).

What does this all mean?

Altogether, the data suggest that the more time one spends looking at negative audience members, the more anxiety one is likely to experience.

Or, to extrapolate a bit, the more worried you are about what an audition panel thinks, the more likely you will be to seek feedback about your performance in the moment, and will tend to focus disproportionately on negative feedback, which will tend to increase your anxiety, and make you tighten up, and worry more, and cause that downward spiral of doom we have all experienced.

Take action

So on one hand, yes, this is sort of an obvious finding. Of course looking at a sour-looking committee member is going to make you feel more nervous and doubt yourself.

But it’s an example of one of those things where knowing is only half the battle. Actually keeping your focus relentlessly directed towards positive stimuli under pressure is easier said than done. It’s a little like trying not to look at roadkill. We know we’re totally going to regret looking, but dang, it’s just so hard not to.

In an ideal world, while you’re in the middle of an audition (or performing in general, for that matter), it’s probably best to avoid looking for any sort of feedback, positive or negative. After all, at least in the moment of performing, it’s more important to focus on what we want to say, not what others might think. As Thoreau once said, “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion.”

But if you do have to look at the panel at some point, make it a point to play to and mentally connect with the positive, confidence-enhancing people on the committee who make you feel more comfortable and supported.

Unfortunately, I think most of us have this perverse tendency to dismiss the friendly faces and worry more about the frowns we see. But there are lots of ways to practice reversing this habit – and it can be sort of fun to do as a personal experiment. From picking out friendly faces in a restaurant or social gathering, to selecting one or two especially engaged audience members to play to in a performance setting, we have opportunities around us all the time. The key, of course, is to get better at embracing positive cues around you before the day of an audition or performance.

And who knows – maybe cultivating this habit will make the world feel like a slightly friendlier place even outside of auditions too.

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.