(Out of) Control: Reframing Performance and Anxiety


By Miranda Wilson

You probably know Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Even if you aren’t religious, it’s good advice for performers. I think about it when I’m helping students prepare for a performance.

The thing is, in performance, it’s not about the things you can change, it’s about the things you can control. 

Sometimes we have this illusory idea that performance would be perfect if only we could control every parameter of what happens. That’s not quite true. We can control some things and not others.

Things you can control #1: your equipment.

I’ve written before about the mental checklist I go through before a concert.

  • Is my endpin the right length? Is the screw tightened securely?
  • If the stage floor is unsuitable for spiking, do I have a rock stop or strap securely set up?
  • Is my bow hair tightened and rosined?
  • Have I done the bulk of my string tuning with a tuner backstage so that I don’t have to tune in front of the audience (a thing that triggers my own personal set of anxieties)?
  • Is the chair the right height for me?
  • Is the stage set up correctly?
  • If I’m using a score, is it secure in a binder with all page turn issues taken care of? (No loose pages! We all know better than that.)

Things you can control #2: how you practice.

One of my favourite sayings, which I say so often that one of my students threatened to have it tattooed on her forearm, is this:

What happens in performance directly reflects what you have taught yourself to do in practice.

You can practice for performance conditions every day of your life if you make it a habit.

  • Play everything as if it’s a performance. How often do you catch yourself messing about in practice, making a bad sound and repeating mistakes until they become indelible habits? Imagine that everything you do in practice is in front of an audience, even your scales. Are you making your best sound and playing with your best expression?
  • Recreate performance conditions. Seek out large spaces in which to practice so that the shock of playing in a much larger space and acoustic than you’re used to doesn’t derail you in performance.
  • Perform in low-stakes situations. Ask friends and family to listen to you play so you can learn how your body responds to the stress of performance before you have to do a high-stakes one.
  • Hear yourself the way others hear you. Make daily video recordings of your practice and listen to them critically, but constructively. (This, by the way, is where most of my Instagram photos come from.) Once you own how you sound, then you can fix what doesn’t work.

Things you can’t control #1: your body’s production of adrenaline.

Our bodies undergo hormonal changes when we’re under stress. Fight or flight is a normal human response.

However, you can control your attitude to the stress hormones coursing through your body. If you say to yourself, “I get so nervous and it ruins my performance!” then this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you reframe your symptoms as excitement, however, the results change a lot. Read the peer-reviewed research that explains why this works.

Things you can’t control #2: how your collaborating colleagues play.

You cannot make their fingers hit the right notes, but you can rehearse effectively with them. Even if they aren’t as good or as prepared as you are, you can resolve to play in a way that makes them sound better.

Things you can’t control #3: what the audience is thinking.

We often make assumptions about what the people in the audience think of us. Are they bored? Are they sneering? Do they think we’re bad?

Are any of these assumptions true?

They might, they might not be. Why waste time imagining what they’re thinking? Why not focus instead on being grateful that an audience is here, ready to share in the musical experience you’re giving them?

You can’t control the audience’s thoughts. You can, however, control your own thoughts.

Try these instead: changing your interior conversation in performance

Performing isn’t just about fight or flight. It’s about tend and befriend too.

Music is your friend. You cannot control everything about how the performance goes, but you can control your mastery of the repertoire in practice.

The jolt of adrenaline is there to help you. That slightly out-of-control edge you feel is what makes performing exciting.

Your colleagues who share the stage with you have showed up for you. You cannot control their performance, but you can help them through it.

The people in the audience showed up for you too. You cannot control their thoughts, but you can move their feelings if you play with love and excitement.

Know the difference.

Further Reading:


(c) Miranda Wilson, 2018. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.


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