For anyone who performs music in public, or directs music ensembles, performance anxiety is something that must be dealt with. Different people experience performance anxiety differently, and to different degrees, but the person who has no anxiety when performing in public is rare. Last Friday, my 5th grade chorus participated in a choral adjudication. My students sang for adjudicators who gave written comments, and spent time working with my students, doing a short clinic with them. When we were not on stage, we were able to observe two other schools perform and the sessions with the adjudicators that followed. As I watched the other schools, I was struck by the differences in each group’s experience on stage. As it happened, one group was clearly excited and joyful about what they were doing, and the other group was terrified. These differences not only came out in their respective performances, but also in the students’ body language. It caused me to start to consider, why do some ensembles experience much performance anxiety while others experience so little? In this post, I’d like to explore a few possible answers to this question.
The first answer is, because students take on the temperament and anxiety level of their director. The first director I observed appeared calm and in total control. She smiled, announced her group in a calm tone of voice, and exuded confidence and certainty that they were going to enjoy the experience. Sure enough, her choir sang with smiles, just the right amount of animation, and with visible confidence and enjoyment. The second director came out on stage visibly shaken. She fumbled a bit with the CD player where the accompaniment track would be played, and then announced, “I’m as nervous as the students.” There it is. Having made this announcement, the students new for certain, if they didn’t know before, that there was something to be anxious about, because their director was nervous. Indeed, they sang timid, unsure at times, and visibly afraid of making a mistake.
For my own group, yes I was nervous, but I acted as if I was not. I smiled at them on stage before we began, and I reminded them to sing their best and to have fun. Earlier that morning, when we had our final practice, some of the students were still unsure of one phrase of a harmony part. We went over it so that it got better, but the students were still not confident, so I said, “if you feel you can sing that part, please do because the music will sound that much better with it, but if you’re not sure of it, just sing the melody. Either way, you’ll sound fine.” I learned a long time ago that when it’s performance day, you go with what you have, and you don’t invite performance anxiety by trying to cram. When it came time for my students to sing, they were a little nervous, but as soon as they started singing, and I gave them another smile, they perked up and sang well. They demonstrated that they were prepared to perform for the adjudicators.
There are three points to take away from this discussion. First, prepare your students in such a way that you and they can feel confident about what you are about to do. Preparation not only includes what and how you rehearse, but also in the music you select for your students to sing. Challenge them, but not so much that they can never get comfortable with performing what you’ve chosen. At some point before the performance, they have to feel that they have it, believe they will do it well, and have enough room to enjoy themselves. No one likes performing when it takes every ounce of ability just to get the notes right. Second, value growth over product. The improvement, fun, expressiveness, and musical growth that students experience over the course of rehearsing a piece is more important than the final product, the performance. When the process results in growth, fun, and expressiveness, the performance will demonstrate those things, and be successful. When the weight of success rests solely on a single performance, performance anxiety will run rampant, and few will enjoy music making.
Third, teach your students that it is not all about them. The purpose of the performance is not to provide an opportunity for other people to judge them. The purpose of any performance is to give a gift of music to an audience, and to themselves. Even adjudicators appreciate receiving the gift of a musical performance. They are committed to fostering growth, and encouraging enjoyment, not to tearing down and discouraging. Also, do not overlook that the ensemble is also an audience. Ensembles should enjoy performing for themselves. The act of music making with others is in itself enjoyable.
I remember one winter when I was an undergraduate, I was involved in a dress rehearsal for a wind ensemble concert that evening. Meanwhile outside, there was a snowstorm bearing down. The program was one we were all excited about and looking forward to performing. It was challenging, and we had just played it excellently. Just as we were nearing the end of the rehearsal, an administrator walked into the rehearsal hall and told the conductor that the university was closing down, and that our concert would be cancelled.
We were all hugely disappointed as we heard the announcement. And then the conductor did something I will never forget. He told us that we had worked very hard on this program, had accomplished much. We should not let the cancellation ruin what we had done. This moment would be just for us. Then he asked if we would all stay late, and perform the concert right then, before the university closed, just for ourselves. No one left the stage and all embraced the idea. We played for ourselves with all the excitement and passion we so wanted to share with others. It was, oddly enough, one of the most memorable performances I have ever been involved with. It would have been great for others to be there to hear it, but it was enough that we could all share that performance with each other.
Lead with confidence, prepare well, value the process, and perform for others and each other. These are key ways to minimize performance anxiety in our student ensembles, and in our selves. We will never eliminate performance anxiety, but we surely can keep it from ruining our musical experiences.