“What a great performance – were you nervous?”

“You seem so calm on stage – how do you not get nervous?”

“There’s nothing to be nervous about – you’ll be great!”

Well-meaning parents, teachers, and fellow students often commend us on our poise and ability to keep our cool in performances from a young age.

Yet these best of intentions often backfire, as innocent remarks like the ones above send the implicit message that there is something bad or wrong with being nervous. That we shouldn’t feel that way, and if we do, that it’s a sign of trouble.

Feeling those butterflies and pre-performance jitters is not much fun, but is anxiety a reliable predictor of poor performance? Or is this just a myth?

Meet Yuri Hanin

In 1975, Yuri Hanin, a Russian sport psychology researcher, was invited to work with a group of Russia’s top divers preparing for the Olympics. At the time, the prevailing belief was that a moderate amount of anxiety was best for optimal performance. But what he observed amongst the elite athletes at this competition did not seem to fit.

Curiously, he noticed that some athletes were calm, relaxed, and confident, but did not perform up to their abilities. While other athletes were extremely successful at relatively high levels of anxiety.

What?!

This seeming paradox led him to study hundreds more elite athletes in the hopes of figuring out just what the relationship was between anxiety and performance.

What he found was that there was no one-size-fits-all rule. It all depended on the individual athlete.

The IZOF model

Hanin’s data suggested that every athlete has an optimal zone of anxiety in which they are likely to have their best performances. If they are in their optimal zone, they will probably perform well. If they are out of their zone, they will likely perform below their abilities.

And believe it or not, calm is not always better! A surprising number of individuals perform their best when they’re quite high in anxiety.

In one study of elite female distance runners, researchers found that 30% performed their best when anxiety was significantly elevated. In a study of collegiate track and field athletes, it was found that 51% of men and 48% of women had their best performances when anxiety was high. Studies of athletes in other sports have found similar types of variability in ranges of optimal anxiety as well.

Though there isn’t a lot of research on musicians and their optimal zones of anxiety, at least anecdotally, Hanin’s IZOF (Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning) model seems to be pretty reflective of what I’ve observed in class. Whether it’s a pre-college student, grad student, or seasoned musician, very few have reported having their best performances when totally calm and relaxed. Most peak performances have occurred when their anxiety, energy, or activation was in the moderate to high range.

Is it pleasant and comfortable? No, not particularly. But does the anxiety help them “bring it” and mobilize their focus? Absolutely.

Think back to your own two or three absolute best performances. Where would you put your anxiety on a scale of 1-10?

1-3? 4-6? 7-10?

Getting into the zone

The good news is that we don’t have to leave things to chance. For one, we can learn how to gain more control over our natural fight or flight response. Developing a pre-performance routine, learning how to control our focus of attention, and gaining more control over our physical response are all learnable skills.

Plus, we can learn to expand our optimal zone of functioning – to play at a higher level even when we’re feeling nervous, our hands are cold, and our muscles are tight. Again, not comfortable, but practicing with pressure can help us perform better with pressure.

The worst thing we can do is send the wrong message to our young performers or buy into this myth ourselves that being nervous is a bad thing. Actually, in many cases, not being nervous could be a sign that we might be getting a little overconfident and ought to worry a tad more.

Take action

If you haven’t experimented with pre-performance routines, that would be a great place to start (here’s one to try).

Mock auditions and performances can be a huge help too.

Because at the end of the day, as violinist Midori explains in this video , trying to bring the practice room to the concert hall doesn’t work so well in the long run.

Work on bringing the concert hall to the practice room, and you’ll find yourself in a much better position to thrive in real pressure situations!

The one-sentence summary

“It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation.”  ~Unknown