Is It Possible to Increase Your “Immunity” to Nerves?

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I was listening to an entertaining This American Life podcast episode this week1, and unexpectedly learned something curious about cats (the episode was not about cats).

What I learned, is that you can’t just take a cat to a different home and set them free like you would a dog. They need to be acclimated. Or else, to quote comedian Mike Birbiglia, they ''will explode'' .

This made me think about performing. And how often it is that we explode (or implode?) on stage.

So does this mean that we are all cats that need to be acclimated to the stage? 

Is this even a thing? What would it look like? So many questions!

There’s a study for that!

Fortunately, the practice-performance gap/on-stage exploding phenomenon is as much a thing for athletes (or surgeons or public speakers) as it is for musicians, so researchers have been curious to see if there might be a way to “inoculate” us to pressure. To practice in such a way that we can maintain a high level of performance even when the anxiety kicks in.

Dutch researcher Raôul Oudejans has conducted several studies in this area. And – spoiler alert – they suggest that yes, we can indeed train ourselves to perform well even when we’re nervous.

And how, exactly?

A Dutch basketball study

One study (Oudejans & Pijpers, 2008) involved two comparable Dutch national-level basketball teams.

Both teams started off with a baseline test of their free throw shooting abilities. Just 20 free throw attempts under regular no-pressure practice conditions.

Then, they repeated this test – but with some pressure thrown in.

To get the players to feel at least a little bit of nerves, each team was split into two smaller teams, which competed against each other for a prize of €25. Their shooting performance was also videotaped, and they were told that experts would be reviewing the footage to evaluate their shooting technique. They were asked to imagine that each pair of free throws were the decisive points in a close game. And the coach and other players watched each shooter throughout the test too.

Then, 96 practice shots…

Over the course of nine practice sessions in the next five weeks, both teams took an additional 96 practice shots (which worked out to basically a few extra free throws after warmups, and a few more at the end of practice).

The only difference between the two teams, is that one of them (the anxiety-practice group), practiced their free throws under the same anxiety-inducing conditions as their baseline test.

While the other team (the regular-practice group), practiced their free throws in normal practice-like settings.

…and another test

Then, the athletes redid the shooting tests that they did at the outset of the study. So 20 shots, in regular practice conditions with no pressure. And then 20 shots under a bit of pressure, with the competition, videotaping, and other anxiety-inducing elements added back in.

So…was there any inoculation effect of practicing with pressure?

Results

During their baseline test, both teams performed worse when anxious, just as you’d expect.

The regular practice team regressed from 75.4 points to 70.2 points2. And the anxiety practice team went from 77.1 points to 72.7 points. Both with the same ~5-point drop in accuracy.

After five weeks of training however, things changed.

The regular practice team again performed more poorly under pressure – 73.1 without pressure and 67.9 with pressure. But the team which practiced free throws under anxiety-provoking conditions not only did not regress under pressure, they actually performed even better. Specifically, they went from 71.3 points with no anxiety, to 78.0 points with pressure.

A dart study

The researchers then did a second study, this time with expert dart players.

The players started with a baseline test of 24 throws at a target. And then, they made another 24 throws – but with a little twist.

Specifically, the participants were asked to make the throws while standing on a climbing wall, their feet on footholds about a foot off the ground.

Then, one group of players (the no-anxiety group) took an additional 48 practice throws at that same low position on the climbing wall (as in the photo below on the left).

darts-setup

But the other group of participants (the anxiety group) took their 48 practice throws much higher up the rock wall – with their feet on footholds 12 feet up, and one hand clinging to a handhold 17.5 feet up (as in the photo on the right above).

Finally, everyone took a final test. One set of 24 throws at the low position, and another set of 24 throws at the higher, more anxiety-provoking position.

And how’d they do?

Results

Both groups of participants performed comparably when tested at the low position on the wall.

But when they were tested at the higher, nerves-inducing position, the players in the no-anxiety group struggled to maintain their level of performance, and saw their performance at the high position on the wall suffer.

On the other hand, the players who trained with anxiety did equally well at both positions, even when anxiety kicked as they clung to the wall at the higher position.

Takeaways

I would be curious to see how this training translates to performance in real competition settings – not just in experimental settings.

However, there is certainly a good bit of anecdotal evidence about this sort of practice, so I think there’s probably a lot to be gained by looking for ways to acclimate to performance even in our daily practice. Instead of waiting until the week of a performance or audition to start acclimating our cat selves to pressure, as we’ve all probably been guilty of on more occasions than we’d like to admit. 😅

Take action

The dart study in particular made me wonder what creative strategies musicians might already be using to create a bit of pressure in the practice room.

Whether it’s practicing in a moving car3, to busking in the subway, to a run-through on China’s scariest new walkway 4, what are some of the best strategies you yourself have tried (or heard others try) that help to induce a bit of pressure in the practice room? Please share below in the comments!

BTW, if you’ve been meaning to do more “inoculation” practice, but haven’t been able to get over the hump or find people to play for, stay tuned – I’ll have some news to share next week. 😁 (Or, you can take a sneak peek here if you’d like.)

A version of this article was initially posted on 8.7.2016; revised and reposted on 9.18.2022.


References

Oudejans, R. R. D., & Pijpers, J. R. (2009, August). Training with anxiety has a positive effect on expert perceptual–motor performance under pressure. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62(8), 1631–1647. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470210802557702

Footnotes

  1. This American Life - The Radio Drama Episode /* <![CDATA[ */ jQuery(document).ready(function($){ $(function(){ var width = $(window).innerWidth(); var setwidth = 640; var ratio = 0.5625; var height = 360; var link = 'https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AagGcXs3_IQ&rel=false&width=640&height=360'; if(width */
  2. Each shot was scored from 0=5, ranging from an airball (0) to misses off the backboard (1), rim (2), and makes off the backboard (3), rim (4), to a clean swish (5). Based on this scoring system, a perfect score would be 100.
  3. Yes, this has really been done – a horn player colleague once told me of a time when they practiced in the back of the minivan while their partner drove.
  4. This has not been done as far as I know – and for obvious reasons, is probably not the greatest idea…

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.

Comments

31 Responses

  1. I have five kids, ages 10 and under. I do practice after their bedtime in order to hear specifics like intonation and consistent tone quality. However, there are times I specifically practice focusing in the midst of distractions. Energetic kids are the perfect fit for that training room!

  2. Nothing exciting or new at all about this method of producing performance-like anxiety, but it’s often very effective: press record! There is just something about that little red light being on…

    I had a teacher who said, “If you think you’re having a great day in the practice room, record yourself.” Meaning, if you are feeling good about your performance level in the practice room, get out your camera or phone and press record, and you will see where your performance level really lies.

  3. My day job is as a surgeon, and I can remain calm, even in the midst of a surgical complication. No butterflies when speaking in front of 300 colleagues, which is essentially an expectation of academic medicine. In any audition situation I am a basket of nerves. Clearly, I need to get the anxiety to a useable level in this situation.

    1. Is it that the training for surgery is so in depth, so “stuff is gonna go sideways” that you are so cool? I know for me, when on stage and my fingers do the unexpected because my mind has wandered I get startled, not on small errors easy to cover up, but on things like missing a chord and all of a sudden I have lost what comes next. Ugh.

  4. I am tennis player and your insights has helped me a lot. I practice hitting on the wall inside my house trying to hit a specific target all the time. Anxiety and pressure always increase when my wife watches me do the practice and my hitting accuracy drops at least 10-15%. Sometimes when my guests(I mean more eyeballs here) ask me to show what I do in practice, my accuracy of hitting further deteriorates. So for me somebody watching me practice certainly creates more anxiety.

  5. “Hit record” definitely induces anxiety for me! The other one I’ve heard, and this is an old classic, is run up and down the stairs a few times to raise your heart rate and simulate the physical aspects of anxiety.

    1. Yes! That simulates the shortness of breath and difficulty getting my voice-the very thing that happens with stage fright!

  6. To get ready for a performance, I sit in my living room and “perform” while my husband slams doors, turns the tv on and off, walks around and takes flash photos, anything to cause a distraction.

  7. Having my husband listen while I’m practicing is a stressful situation. He has no problem telling me when anything doesn’t sound right, but will also let me know when I am doing well.

  8. Recording myself helps me out because I feel pressured to play well. I have also found that practicing to perform with lots of noise around me also helps me to focus in a performance setting. I’ve found this out because I recently put together a piano recital independently and was practicing for it in my family’s house. On the recital day I was able to focus no matter how nervous I was.

  9. Dear Mr. Kageyama,

    I think it’s worth investigating if playing under any tension-inducing circumstances (such as riding in a car), really has a substantial effect on playing under the specific kind of pressure involved in live performance. If not, I would categorize this as a sub-category of being in performance mode, wouldn’t you agree?

    Apart from performance mode strategies and those others have already mentioned, I recommend playing in front of your teacher(s), and students if possible (for me the latter is much more straining). Also, playing with, or for, other musicians. Playing after mentally going through how your performance day looks like, how you enter the venue, etc.

    Thanks for the interesting writing, as always!

  10. I had a terrible audition experience once where one of the other candidates was sitting outside my warmup room and chatting with someone. I was so nervous about her hearing me play I could hardly warm up. The other day, I was practicing while my daughter had a friend over. I decided to use this opportunity to practice some of the Courage strategies while they were there. They worked! I think I’ll take the opportunity to practice more often when she has friends over.

  11. I’d say record yourself playing and also post what you recorded somewhere on the internet. It always stresses me even more to know other people will see/hear that.
    Practicing with other people listening always makes me nervous too. Sometimes (if the time of day allows that) I play near a window because I know people passing by my house will listen.

  12. A bit special, but often effective method is to practice, even if you really have to pee. It’s pretty hard to concentrate – and it is precisely the exercise.

  13. As a church organist, I practiced while playing a YouTube video of crowd noises to simulate performance conditions.

  14. I practice running fresh concert programmes when I’m not yet warmed-up. So as soon as I sit down, I play through the first half, take a short intermission and keep going. This usually gives me a good idea of what is solid or not, and what will hold up in front of an audience.

  15. I did it only once, when preparing for a graduation recital, and I think it worked well. I practiced each day in a different place. Subway stations, parks, shopping malls, even cemeteries were places I found useful for this purpose. And the different feel in each one of these places helped me to improve in different aspects.
    Thank you for the post and for all the shared comments!

    1. Wow, what an interesting way to practice! Just curious, were these “practice performances” (playing through your repertoire) or were you doing slow practice and stuff like that?

  16. Sometimes I record myself (which can bring a little pressure to do it right) and then I send it to my teacher. It gives me more pressure than just practicing alone, but isn’t as much pressure as a performance.

    On a side note, I really enjoy playing violin in the car. To me, it isn’t stressful, but a fun way to ride in the car. 🙂

  17. I agree with the conclusions, but I don’t think the studies support the conclusion. Both studies split people and train them in setting A or setting B. Then they measured all of them in setting B. Guess what, those that trained in setting B did better than those who didn’t train in setting B!
    If I could practice 2 hours a day while on stage with an audience listening, I also would perform better on the day of the concert!

    I buy into the idea of practicing in anxiety inducing situations, but to prove it, I’d say they need to measure the athletes in a performance environment (say a competition!)

  18. When I was working on auditions with Dr. Don Greene ( who I know was also your mentor) I created a “worst-case scenario” distraction/adversity training practice routine. My wife recorded me practicing excerpts and we created a mix so I could simulate the “warm-up room” experience. I would then blast that recording, the TV and the stereo at the same time (pick things that you will notice – don’t put on a boring TV show you can tune out, rather something that interests or enrages you). For me, 10-20 jumping-jacks right before you pick up your instrument gets the heart-rate and respiration going, and remember to set your music stand at an odd angle, or too low, or position yourself in an uncomfortable place in the room. Then do your focus routine and go for it!

  19. To simulate performance anxiety, I put my instrument down in the “Practice Space” turn on a video camera and walk out of the room. If there is a door to the practice room or space, I close it. I then close my eyes and imagine I am about to perform in the biggest venue I can imagine and it’s solo Bach. (The worst!!! haha) I imagine the audience and expectations that come from myself when performing for large audiences. I then deliberately increase my breathing rate (false hyperventilation) to increase to idea that there is some stressor. Once I feel some anxiety I then walk into the practice room, take a bow and focus on calming myself down (focus on breathing) while focusing on what I want my music to sound like. I then try to set a goal for myself like, “give broad dynamics”. I then take a breath and dive in. This has helped me a lot to get into the mindset of not trying to rid myself of anxiety but utilizing different strategies to control it.

  20. I’m performing a set at my grandmother’s birthday celebration where all my family and relatives will be. To prepare I rehearse outside as if busking.

    One of my cousins performs in the Lion King on London’s West End and I’m performing a song she knows very well. So I practice outside the theatre where the cast, crew and many audience members know the songs well. This is great practice for dealing with anxiety.

  21. Interesting – just now reading “The Chimp Paradox” by Prof Steven Peters. He’s well known this side of the pond as a sports psychologist – possibly does other stuff too. Performance nerves may well be a matter of ‘chimp control’.

  22. I agree with the person above who suggested recording yourself. I used to take auditions (I’m 60 now, and it would be too difficult to move and find another job for my wife as well even if I did get something, for how many more years) and I would randomize the lists, perhaps breaking them into groups of 6 or so excerpts, and record myself playing the groups, or even the whole list. Then I’d sit there with a pad of paper and take notes while I listened. I would make an arrow next to the particularly tricky ones, or ones which I had goofed on. This was something for every day of practice. The auditions I got using that method (St Louis, Rochester and Utah) were all with a feeling like I was just playing the music, not trying to specifically “do” anything to impress, for example. The numerous ones that I didn’t get were more like I was trying to do great, this time I’ll show them, which didn’t work! I still work this way for chamber music or other things I work on, though I’m not using the pad of paper for this stuff. Playing for your own listening is playing for the most critical audience of all, so it’s going to give you some pressure!

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