I think there are two types of people in the world. 

Roller coaster people. And non-roller coaster people. 

Roller coaster people are the ones with their hands in the air, smiles on their face, who scream, woo-hoo, and look excited and happy after the ride.

Non-roller coaster people (like me) are the ones who apply a death grip to the seat belt/bar/anything for dear life, have fear in their eyes, try valiantly to calm themselves down and avoid freaking out, and look relieved when the ride is over. 

I’ve learned that trying to calm myself down before roller coasters, demon drops, bungee jumps, and other such death-defying modes of “entertainment,” is pretty much an exercise in futility, and guarantees a miserable experience form start to finish

What does this have to do with performing? 

As it turns out, trying to calm down before a performance may not only be similarly futile, but counterproductive to boot. 

Arousal and activation

As we wait in the wings, or walk out on stage, our heart starts beating faster and we feel increasingly jittery. We know it’s normal, but that doesn’t make us feel any better, and we start worrying that this is going to derail our performance.

We generally refer to this unpleasant experience as “nerves” or “anxiety,” but technically, those terms are not accurate. 

Officially, this heightened physiological fight-or-flight state is known as “arousal” or “activation” by sport psychologists (you’ll see why in a moment). 

Our instinct is to try to calm ourselves down and downshift the heck away from this higher-energy state. However, the state of being physically activated is in and of itself neither positive or negative.

It’s the emotional component on top of the arousal state that makes it either positive or negative, helpful or hurtful. 

Anxiety vs. excitement

Anxiety, for instance, feels bad, tends to disrupt performances, and involves a negative emotional component. (i.e. anxiety = arousal + negative emotion)

Excitement, on the other hand, entails a similar physiological experience, but feels much more positive and tends to enhance performance. (i.e. excitement = arousal + positive emotion)

Sport psychologists have know for some time that successful performers tend to interpret pre-performance activation as excitement. That they’re pumped up and ready to tackle the challenge ahead of them. 

A recent set of studies suggest that being “excited” does indeed lead to better performances. Even more interestingly, it appears that switching from being anxious to being excited may not be as difficult as one would think. 

Singing performance

In one study, subjects were asked to sing Don't Stop Believin' by Journey on a karaoke program, in front of an observer, where the amount of money they received would depend on their singing accuracy score (volume, pitch, and note duration).

Before singing, they were asked “How are you feeling?”

One group was required to respond by saying “I am anxious.”

Another group was required to respond “I am excited.”

And a third group wasn’t asked how they were feeling at all.

Singing accuracy was highest in the “excited” condition (80.52%) and lowest in the “anxious” condition (52.98%). This was significantly worse than the group which wasn’t asked about their feelings at all (69.27%).

Public speaking performance

Another group of subjects was asked to prepare a 2-3 min speech on a specific topic, which was to be delivered on camera, and later judged by a panel of their peers.

The subjects were asked to say either “I am excited” or “I am calm” out loud, and then delivered their speech.

A 3-person panel then viewed the speeches, and rated the subjects on a variety of factors.

The “excited” group was rated as being more persuasive, more competent, more confident, more persistent, and interestingly, they also gave longer speeches – 35 seconds longer on average.

Math performance

A third group of subjects was tested on their ability to solve a series of difficult math problems under time pressure.

One group was urged to “try to get excited.” Another group was urged to “try to remain calm.” And a third group was told nothing at all.

The “excited” group scored the highest – with an average score of 45%. The “calm” group and the group which was given no instructions at all both scored significantly lower – 36.75%.

Take action

So the next time you have a performance, and the fight-or-flight response starts to kick in, don’t tell people you are nervous! And don’t stress out if you aren’t feeling as calm as you’d like.

Try saying “I am excited!” to yourself – even out loud – and see what happens when you embrace the energy and heightened focus that comes with the adrenaline.

photo credit: Au Kirk via photopin cc

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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