UdklipSweaty palms, flashbacks and mental blockage. All in a day’s work for your average classical musician. Psychologist Inger Murray explains the mechanics of stage-fright and offers some techniques for surviving.

Stage- fright, or performance anxiety has been a subject not openly discussed by performing musicians but recent research has shown that many resort to drugs to quell their performance fears.

Last year I conducted three two-day workshops at Royal Academy of Music (RAM), spread over a 12-month period. The class of 20 was chosen at random from string, piano, voice and classical accordion students. A questionnaire that the students were asked to fill in a the first workshop produced shocking revelations: 80 percent felt that they could not play to their full potential on the concert platform. The symptoms they identified included: shaking or trembling hands 90 per cent, stiff muscles 90 percent, uncontrollable racing thoughts 80 percent, lack of self-confidence 90 percent, anxiety of people’s verdict of their performance 100 percent. Seventy percent experienced flashbacks of bad performances and 80 percent experienced muscle or joint pain when playing. Only 20 percent did warm-up and cooling down exercises. Nobody did stretching exercise and only 20 percent paid any attention to diet and fluid intake. I have experienced exactly the same in workshops I have held in Spain, Ireland, Denmark and other countries in Europe.

The Mental Training for Musicians workshops takes place over two days. Participants are made aware of their inner self-critical dialogue and taught how to reprogramme it. They learn visualization and grounding techniques and how to reprogramme the body’s anxiety symptoms At the end of each workshop participants reenact a concert situation and describe and discuss feelings evoked.

When trying to understand anxiety it is important to realize that a human being is not able to distinguish between real danger and imagined danger. An animal in the wild facing danger must make a split second decision whether to fight or flee. This decision is made on a subconscious, instinctive level in the brain. Immediately there is an enormous increase in the amount of blood being pumped into the the arms and legs. All other activity not connected to the situation, for example the body’s digestive system, stops until a decision is reached. If it is not possible to either fight or flee, the body will stiffen. That bodily mechanism ensures that if the animal is bitten there will be very little blood flow. The animal will appear dead and that has the advantage of deterring an attacker that does not eat dead animals. Furthermore an attacker will be less on guard if they think that its prey is dead. That increases the possibility of escaping. If the prey succeeds in escaping it will afterwards shake like a jelly and that will result in its nervous system falling back in to place. Adrenaline accumulate will return to normal. The body’s organs will function normally again. If the animal goes through this process, it will not be traumatised

Let us look at how that process is connected to the musicians in our survey. A rapid beat is a sign that the pulse and blood pressure are rising and blood is being pumped out into main muscle groups, where there is most need for energy. Breathing becomes faster to increase oxygen to the blood. The side-effects are shallow breathing, a choking feeling, breast pain, dizziness and an increase in sweat production. All the physical  symptoms musicians experience be related to the way the body copes with real danger

UdklipThe body has a brilliant ability to surVive danger. In a life~threatening situation, the brain makes a snapshot photo and stores it. This is a fantastic survival mechanism when faced with snakes and lions but a liability when faced with a technically difficult passage in a piece of music. I discovered with a guitarist I treated with that these flashbacks occurred on the concert platform whenever he placed his left hand on the fingerboard. Another musician had a bad experience in a specific piece in a concert and the problem increased every time he played it. Seconds
before the problematic passage warning signals appeared and he lost concentration and focus. It is vitally important that such a problem is treated otherwise it will get worse and worse. If the body does not go through the process of shaking its nervous system back into balance, the same thing will recur over and over again when facing a similar situation. Old negative experiences must be removed before beginning work on becoming mentally
strong. Removing those experiences is similar to the technique I use when treating people who have post-traumatic stress disorder. The patient will still be able to remember the situation if he or she wishes but negative body reaction and memory loss will cease.

Katherine Allen, a student at tne Royal Academy of MUSlC, attended a mental training workshop. She says she found the course ‘extremeiy helpful in identifying the causes of anxiety when on stage or the concert platform, and iin developing practical strategies to deal with these feelings : ‘At all times it was stressed that mental training techniques require regular practice — indeed, the course is not a ‘quick fix’. I found it to be an empowering experience as we were reminded that the individual does have control over their thoughts before and during a performance.’

It is possible to gain control over anxiety. In a stressful situation respiration will stop momentarily and then be placed high in the thorax. But it is possible to send a signal that ‘there is no danger here’ by leame how to breathe deeply. One can also learn how to make oneself ‘grounded’, which means being secure and stable ln your belief in yourself. If properly grounded you cannot go in to panic. Most musicians create this anxiety through I constant negative critical dialogue ‘I am not good enough’, ‘I will make a fool of myself, people will so: am nervous i am’, ‘I cannot do it, it will go wrong as usual’. Most people are unaware of this constant self-mum and few are aware that this is the cause of the majority of cases of stage-fright.

When you have the. imagination to create stage-fright, that same Imagination can be transformed into creating a picture of yourself as a winner. If you can create a picture of yourself as a loser you have the ability to see yourself as a Winner. In order to achieve that you have to become aware of your automatic thought patterns and learn how to change them. This is a cognitive process. Furthermore you must learn how to visualize how to play, in which state of mind and at which energy level you want to do it. And you can imagine the audience’s
enthusiastic applause after a successful performance.

These techniques have been known in the sports world for many years because at the top level many athletes, golf and tennis players are technically evenly matched. It is the one who has the edge and wins

Working daily on visualisation, telling the brain exactly what you expect from it in a positive way is exactly what people who suffer from performance anxiety are already doing, but the wrong way around. You must reprogramme negative thoughts and expectations with positive ones. Going onto the concert platform with a feeling and belief that ‘I have something to share’ will generate the same level of expectation and energy in the audience. By building a bridge of positive energy and expectation between you and your audience, you have the ingredients to achieve a peak performance and give audience an unforgettable experience.


By Inger Murray