Ever had a performance derailed by stage fright?
If so, you know how terrible it can be.
No matter how hard you try to push through the anxiety, that heart-sinking feeling still creeps in as one small mistake snowballs into another mistake, then another…
And when relief finally comes at the end of the performance, you try your best to forget about how uncomfortable you felt. You move on with your life and hope that your next one will be better.
The next day, you head back to the practice room, preparing for the next performance in much the same way that you prepared for the last.
Just practice a little more, spend more time focusing on trouble-spots, and pray for the best.
For most musicians, practicing more isn’t enough.
If you want to make a powerful change in your playing, you need to make a powerful change in your habits.
In Part 3 of The Musician’s Guide to Mindfulness, we’ll examine how you can use mindfulness practices to transform your mental approach to performing and begin to reach your full potential. Read Part 1 and Part 2.
Mindfulness for Peak Musical Performance
But often, when faced with anxiety, we ignore our anxious thoughts and distract ourselves, either by practicing, or scrolling through Facebook, or engaging in any number of other distracting habits.
We do everything we can to forget nervous performances. Instead of seeking ways to improve our performance mindset, we give up and accept that we will never enjoy performing.
We struggle emotionally through every performance, holding it together only thanks to our well-honed technique and years of training. But we feel terrible.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
By allowing yourself to mindfully observe your thoughts about performing, you can discover what you need to feel free and at-ease on stage.
Consider What You Believe
If you’ve experienced dozens of nerve-racking performances, you might believe that you are incapable of feeling calm and focused on stage.
And that belief might seem pretty reasonable. If things have always gone a certain way, then why would they ever change?
But nothing is permanent.
By making small changes in how you habitually think about performing, you can transform your performance mindset. And even a small change in your performance mindset can empower you to give poised performances.
Center Your Attention
Maintaining focus is hard. Especially on stage.
It’s hard enough to stay focused in the practice room. It’s infinitely more difficult when you take the stage and your heart is racing and the lights are blinding and someone in the audience is coughing…
Fortunately, you can practice centering your attention and learn how to focus even in the most distracting situations.
And over time you’ll get pretty good at it.
Before you practice each day, use this exercise. It only takes 3 minutes, but you’ll notice a difference the very first time you do it.
- Find a comfortable, upright position (sitting or standing is fine). Allow your eyes to close.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Breathe through your nose (if possible).
- Aim to breathe slowly and steadily.
- Take a steady, slow, full inhale through your nose. Notice how your body feels as you inhale.
- Exhale slowly through your nose. Observe how your body moves as you exhale completely.
- After 3-5 rounds of deep breathing, allow your breathing to return to normal.
- Keep your attention trained on your breath. Observe each inhale and each exhale. You’ll notice that your mind may wander – that’s OK. When that happens, simply bring your attention back to your breathing.
- After 10 rounds of normal breathing, blink your eyes open. Set your intention to focus your attention on whatever you’re going to do next.
Use this exercise to center your focus every day. If you feel particularly scattered during a practice session, take a short break to re-focus.
Before your next performance, use this exercise about 15-30 minutes before you take the stage.
Visualize Your Ultimate Performance
The first time I tried to use visualization to prepare for a performance, it didn’t go very well.
I imagined myself taking the stage at an upcoming competition. I saw the detail of the hall, the lights, and the details of each judge’s face. And I felt confident as I imagined myself striding to center stage.
But then, as I visualized myself starting to play, something changed.
I visualized myself feeling nervous. Everything that I was worried about happening during the performance started to happen in the visualization. I missed a shift. Then I had a memory slip…
I blinked my eyes open and stood up. If I couldn’t even visualize a successful performance, how could I expect myself to have a successful performance?
I had work to do. My performance anxiety was so ingrained that I expected to feel nervous, even in a simple visualization.
So I sat back down and I started the visualization over.
This time, as I began to play in my visualization, I focused my attention on hearing myself play beautifully. When doubt started to creep in, I paused and took a deep breath. I went back to before I started to feel anxious and then continued the visualization with confidence.
After just a few days of visualizing in this way, I was able to consistently imagine myself giving a compelling, successful performance.
Try the following visualization exercise. If you begin to feel anxious or have doubts about your ability, take a deep breath. Rewind the visualization to before you felt anxious, then continue.
- Find a comfortable seated or standing position and allow your eyes to close.
- Select an upcoming performance to visualize.
- Visualize each detail of the upcoming performance: what the room looks and sounds like, who will be there, how you’ll feel as you walk on stage, what it will feel like to take a deep breath before beginning, how you will sound when you begin, and how compelling and beautiful your performance will be.
- Hear yourself completing a successful performance. The audience bursts into uproarious applause (or the judges quietly shuffle their papers as they whisper to each other) and you feel great, knowing you completed a successful performance as you take a bow and stride off stage.
- Throughout the visualization, notice how you feel. Observe any tension or release in your body. Notice if you feel excited, anxious, happy, or any other emotion. Simply observe your reaction to your visualization.
If you’re visualizing a longer performance (like a recital or a longer competition program), feel free to shorten the visualization so that you only visualize beginning each piece or each movement that you perform.
I’ve had great success with 5-minute visualizations, but I’ve also worked with people who like to visualize in so much detail that each visualization takes them 30 minutes or longer to complete. Everyone is different, so feel free to experiment and find out what works best for you.
In a recent interview, Yo-Yo Ma talked about his approach to dealing with failures on stage:
…whatever you practice for […] that fails is all right, because we have a greater purpose. The greater purpose is that we’re communing together and we want this moment to be really special for all of us. Because otherwise, why bother to have come at all? It’s not about proving anything. It’s about sharing something.
Each performance is a fleeting experience.
But we often get caught up in small technical details instead of focusing on the most important aspect of performing: connecting with the audience.
Practice mindful awareness on stage and you’ll discover your innate ability to connect with your audience.
- When you take the stage, calmly observe the performance hall. Instead of nervously setting an imaginary barrier between you and the audience, simply observe the audience. You are here to share a unique musical experience.
- As you perform, allow your attention to remain focused on the music in the present moment. Instead of maintaining a running list of errors and things to fix later, allow those little self-criticisms to pass.
- Allow yourself the freedom to release any expectations that you have about your performance. Simply focus on remaining present and sharing music with the audience.
- When small failures happen (see Yo-Yo Ma quote above), allow them to pass. Unexpected things will happen, and that’s OK – that’s one of the fun aspects of live performance.
It takes practice to perform mindfully. Each time you have an opportunity to perform, use it as an opportunity to develop your skills as a mindful performer.
Practice and All Is Coming
Even the smallest change in your performance mindset can make a huge difference. All you need is to set your intention to practice and then make time to develop your skills.
Want to take your performance mindset to the next level? Learn how we can work together to reach your musical goals.
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