Squinting through the stage lights, I could see most of the half-full crowd applauding politely.
I desperately scanned the faces in the audience, searching for any indication of how my performance had been received. After performing at maximum effort for over an hour, I could feel the early signs of exhaustion, doubt, and raw emotion creeping into my body.
Regardless of how I felt, I knew I still had to exit the stage gracefully. So I forced a broad smile and took a bow. I acknowledged my collaborators, dutifully took another bow, and then walked as quickly I could get away with toward the stage door.
Backstage, a few friends offered what seemed to be heartfelt congratulations and hugs. I trusted these fellow musicians — surely they wouldn’t lie to me — but that didn’t stop my inner monologue:
What if they’re just being nice? What if my performance wasn’t actually very good? Were they disappointed? Had I surprised them (in a bad way)? That one spot was pretty out of tune. And the rhythm in that one section wasn’t great…And that other spot…ugh.
I was overcome with the desire to go home, to escape these well-meaning tormentors, to forget about the whole experience, and to move on with my life. Maybe the next performance would feel better.
But I knew I couldn’t get away with bolting for the door.
So I stayed, chatting politely with well-wishers, friends, family, colleagues, mentors. While I smiled and accepted their praise, my internal dialogue maintained a constant stream of competing self-criticism:
“The first movement of your sonata was so exciting and intense!” Yeah, because I was barely holding it together and we should’ve rehearsed more.
“The intonation in your Bach was incredible! How did you do that?” Well, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, so I guess your ears are out-of-whack.
I knew better than to utter a single word of self-deprecation out loud, but that didn’t stop the shockingly negative internal dialogue from running non-stop.
Finally, mercifully, everyone had left.
I went home, sat on my bed, and cried. Overwhelmed with self-doubt, confusion, and exhaustion, I tried to figure out how to work with my emotions.
So what did I do? What breakthrough did I have?
Nothing. I did what so many of us do in the face of emotional challenges: I pushed down my emotions, I hid from my pain, I distracted myself in any way I could.
On top of all that, I ladled a heaping helping of guilt.
I told myself: You have no right to be upset. All those people told you how well it went. If you can’t be happy then there’s clearly something wrong with you.
You can imagine how much that helped.
Now, years later, I have a small sense of what was happening. In the face of a high-intensity performance experience, I wasn’t ready for the rush of emotions that came from “leaving it all on stage.” I didn’t know how to work with my emotional experience.
There was nothing wrong with those emotions, nothing to hide from, and certainly no reason to feel ashamed.
But at the time, I had no idea what tools I needed to help myself.
Teaching our Students to Manage Post-Performance Anxiety
As music teachers, we’ve all faced the helpless terror that comes when we’re not sure how to help a student who is struggling with performance anxiety, fear, and shame.
What do you tell a student who is so overcome with self-doubt after performing that they don’t believe you when you tell them they played beautifully?
What do you say when a student takes an audition, doesn’t get the result they want, and they take that as evidence that they “aren’t good enough”?
Do we just hope they outgrow these experiences? Do we just tell them to perform more?
It’s tempting, as teachers, to never address these challenges. We can just let time pass, lessening the sting of our students’ wounds. Rather than seeking creative solutions and tools that might help our students, we stick to what we know and let everything else go.
But if we want to serve our students, we can do better. We need to do better.
Every Performance is an Experiment
After several more emotionally overwhelming performances, I decided to do something about it. For anyone who knows me, you won’t be surprised to learn that I took this opportunity to do some self-experimentation.
Over the next few years, I studied meditation, sports psychology, yoga, Alexander Technique…I tried anything that I heard might help. I treated each performance as an experiment with new variables, new techniques to test. And slowly but surely, things started to change.
I developed a robust pre-performance routine that transformed my attitude about performing and made it possible for me to enjoy performing without debilitating stage fright. I used mindfulness to overhaul my practice routines. Before long, I had accumulated a deep toolbox of techniques, routines, and practices.
But despite all of this, my post-performance anxiety reared its head after every major performance. I would find myself overcome with negative self-talk, doubt, and worry that I’d embarrassed myself.
So I went back to the drawing board.
A Mindfulness-based Post-Performance Routine
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my focus on pre-performance anxiety wasn’t enough.
If a pre-performance routine helped with the anxiety and doubt that comes before a performance, maybe a post-performance routine would help with the emotions that arise during the reception, at the after-party, and late at night in bed after a big performance.
Of all the performance-related experiments that I’ve tried on myself over the years, developing a post-performance routine has had the biggest influence on my long-term joy.
After developing a routine that worked for me, I felt more resilient, more at-ease after major performances, and I could see imperfections in my performance in a more rational light.
So I started teaching this post-performance routine to others and found that with a bit of personalization, this type of routine can offer a great deal of relief for others who struggle with post-performance anxiety.
Best of all, this routine is simple and easy to teach.
3-Step Mindful Post-Performance Routine
1. Centering Breathing
Allow your mouth to close and breathe through your nose. Bring your attention to the sensation of your breathing: feel the air moving past your nostrils. Observe the subtle rising and falling of your chest.
Begin to slow your breath, aiming for smooth and steady inhales and exhales. When you’re ready, deepen the breath so that you’re breathing fully and with ease. Continue for 3-5 rounds of Centering Breathing (1 round = 1 inhale + 1 exhale).
2. Mindful Reflection
Ask yourself: “What did I learn from this performance?”
If you’re able, I highly recommend writing down your answers to this question in a journal. Observe whatever arises — there is no wrong answer.
Your answers might reveal a pattern (I need to find new ways to practice memorization; I need to study the score in greater detail) or they might seem contradictory (I felt boring; People genuinely seemed to enjoy the fast movements).
Simply notice what comes up and make a note of it. You can analyze this information later. For now, just reflect and observe.
3. Positive Memory
Ask yourself: “What positive memory can I recall from this performance?”
Depending on the performance, this may be the easiest step or the most difficult. It is perfectly normal if nothing comes to mind right away.
A positive memory doesn’t have to be overly exuberant or happy. It can be a small thing, a simple joy. Did you enjoy a particular phrase, musical idea, or bit of technical execution? Did you feel a strong connection with the audience or with the music at any point?
Stay with this question for a few minutes or until you settle on a positive memory. If nothing comes to mind after a few minutes, simply commit to return to this question later. Then, pick a day within the next week to return to this question. You’ll be surprised how much clarity a few days of reflection can offer.
I recommend using this routine after every moderate- or high-intensity performance.
It can be difficult to find a quiet spot for reflection when your fans, friends, and family are excited to see you, but it’s worth it to find a secluded spot for the 5-8 minutes that it takes to go through this exercise. A green room, an unused room, or a secluded hallway can serve as an excellent place for post-performance reflection.
That said, it can be just as beneficial to wait until you arrive home and go through this routine in a relaxed, unrushed way. If you have the time, feel free to extend the Mindful Reflection and Positive Memories portions for up to 10 minutes each.
Sharing this Practice
If you’d like to teach this practice to your students, feel free to use the the above description as a guide, customizing the language to meet the age and experience level of your students. If you’d like to discuss how to make this work for your students, send me an email!
Do you struggle with post-performance anxiety? Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed by emotion after a big performance? We’re all in this together and I’d love to hear your story — leave a comment below.
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