TMEA Clinic: Antidotes for Performance Anxiety: Teaching Confidence

This is the text I read from for my clinic “Antidotes for Performance Anxiety: Teaching Confidence”, presented for the Texas Music Educator’s Association Convention in San Antonio, on Friday, February 10, 2017. Audio for the clinic may be found here

Hello, thank you all for being here this morning.

Before I begin, I would like to extend my gratitude toward several of my friends, as well as a few of my coworkers from Coppell Middle School East and UT Arlington for, at one point or another, being a sounding board since I proposed this clinic. Many thanks to my readers, several of whom are here, for sticking with me through 45 vulnerable articles regarding this topic. Last but not least, a very special thanks to my students who have demonstrated to me just how important this information is.

Lets dig in.

Show of hands, how many of you are performers or used to be performers and have experienced nervousness on stage?

Show of hands, how many of you have stood before a hard working, talented student, or next to a fellow performer, bewildered by how nervous they are, unable to get them to relax, or bewildered that their technique is all of a sudden different?

How many of you are conductors who have stood before a group of students who refrained from taking risks with their music making even though they were well prepared and highly capable at that very moment?

Maddening huh?

Well, I know your frustration. I know your frustration not only because I have been there, but because I stand before you as “exhibit A”. I am the poster child for your most perplexing case of performance anxiety. If you looked at my resume or looked at the programs from my gigs, you might be confused. You would see that I have had the amazing experience of playing alongside a few members of the Dallas Symphony, members of the Fort Worth Symphony, Dallas Opera Orchestra, and Dallas Winds, as well as several of DFW’s finest commercial and jazz musicians for the last several years. I was a member of the One O’Clock Lab Band, the second female to ever make the trumpet section. I recently had the opportunity to play a few cities on the national tour of 42nd St. and guess what? I struggle with performance anxiety.

Before I started a 3 year long research based quest to understand this topic, I did try to figure this out. I looked up and read all of the books people read, like The Inner Game of Tennis, Effortless Mastery, et cetera. Great books, but, none of them worked, or some of the books I read had strategies that would work for a while… then not work at all. I can’t tell you how many times I have been devastated by my inability to focus, my inability to remain calm, devastated by the disappearing act of my best abilities due to debilitating tension or shortness of breath. I have lost count of how many times I have wanted to quit because maybe I wasn’t talented, maybe I was this hard working anomaly that should just “let it go”. I might have done just that had I not developed a casual interest in singing and big band jazz, the two things that not only sustained my career, but gave me the extended time to stumble on the knowledge and solutions I will be sharing with you today. I am speaking to you as someone who spent a great deal of time in a place of struggle. This is the place from where we begin this conversation, especially for those of you who do not understand how or why anyone could be so locked down by this.

Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is experienced both mentally and physically.

Anxiety is something we all experience, it is part of our wiring. Anxiety is a result of the fight or flight response (also known as acute stress response). This is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival, preparing one to fight or flee.

Now imagine you are taking a casual stroll in the central highlands of India and you happen upon one of these. It is doubtful that you will go, “huh, a tiger”. Your first reaction will be…fear!  Chances are, in this situation, you are dead, but you’re going to do whatever you can to extend your life. You are programmed for this. A few physical reactions that may occur: increased heart rate, loss of appetite, cold hands, muscle tension, salivation, loss of hearing, tunnel vision, shaking, the problem solving areas of the brain are highlighted for quick solution for survival…

These are some of the same things that happen for those who experience fear in performance.

The most tragic thing about experiencing fear in music making is that the very response that is supposed to save you from whatever you’re scared of, which tends to be “screwing up”, that response has the capacity to  prevent you from performing freely.  Oddly enough, this is also part of what I have come to love about performing. It requires one to be authentic and brave.

Not all performance anxiety is the same, anxiety may be felt in varying degrees and it is dealt with in different ways. Some musicians feel it and move through it, some musicians use the onslaught of excess energy to their advantage, some musicians are derailed by it, others are completely shut down by it.

I have found that performance anxiety falls into one of three categories.



Adrenaline (Thrill-Seeking/Excitement)

Some people get excited about performing. So excited, that they have an excess amount of energy that causes shaking in the body. In thrill seeking, dopamine comes up when we are attempting to accomplish a challenge. Adrenaline readies us for action when we see “danger”[or our one shot, so to speak]. Endorphins keep up our endurance.” (Source: Dr Susan Heitler) This all sounds wonderful, except for the part about adrenaline . Adrenaline causes the shakes, which can be rattling for a performing musician, and possibly cause a loss of focus. Believe it or not, this is the most gentle form of performance anxiety, because it is the easiest to fix. I think of it is a distant cousin from the other categories.

This category of performance anxiety is brought on by unforeseen events. Sometimes our flight or flight response kicks in and we play poorly because of it, and sometimes we play fine but the experience is unenjoyable or undesirable.

Examples of this include:

Sickness, injury, or exhaustion
Varied levels of preparation or ability by fellow musicians
Unforeseen circumstances (in one’s personal life, in the ensemble, in world events)
Social disconnection (playing with or for people we dislike or don’t get along with)
Various annoyances, micro aggressions, or anger.

Instability draws our focus away from music making and everyone is susceptible to it. That fear of not knowing what’s going on, dealing with random pressures, or not having any control jump starts the fight or flight response. Thankfully these moments are temporary, as long as the discomfort is not over-identified with.


Before I rip off the band-aid with this category I have to explain, if I am performing and I’m dealing with a little bit of the shakes, my first thought is, “(gasp) I’m not destroying myself right now, cool!”The shakes are distracting, and not fun at all, but it is far preferable to the full scale shut down that can come with shame.

Much of the information I’m going to share with you surrounding this category hails from renowned  shame researcher, Brene Brown.

Shame is “I’m not good enough”. Shame is “I would be good enough, if only I would…”. Shame is “I’m not a real musician because I haven’t performed this way, or made it into a certain group, or because I can’t make it through a recital”. The reason why shame is so damaging is because we are wired for belonging. Shame is the fear of disconnection. It is believing that one is not worthy of love, not worthy of belonging. Several events occur as musicians that have the capacity to make us feel disconnected from having a sense of belonging:

Unsuccessful auditions or Low Placement
Playing poorly on a paid gigs
Playing simpler music than colleagues of the same age (or younger)
Loss of ability/technique, especially because of over-identification as a musician
Traumatic performance experiences
Evaluating one’s ability to play based on the success or failure of others (comparison)
Working harder than others to no avail

Some students who have a deep sense of worthiness, in these events, are resilient to shame (they move through it and past it). Some people experience these events and become crippled by shame because there is an unhealthy attachment to their self-worth.

If your worth is coming from your ability to perform, you are in trouble. This is often perceived by the body as a threat.

When you perform, your worthiness of love and belonging is NOT ever to be on the table. There are no prerequisites for worthiness. All you have to do is show up, be authentic. That’s it. Show up often, embrace the uncomfortable beauty of imperfection. Work toward your goal. That’s it, plain and simple, however…

This is complicated. Deeply embedded, highly repeated messages of shame often develop in childhood in family relationships, sometimes in school with friends, classmates, or teachers, sometimes messages of shame are relentlessly delivered from every area of our culture. How we experience shame, the frequency in which we experience it, and the power it has over us in the moment has everything to do with our personal story.

Ways in which musicians may experience shame-induced performance anxiety may be at play:

1. Not practicing, but procrastinating, putting all of one’s energy into presenting the façade of “I am prepared”…because it is easier to blame failure on procrastination than it is to give it your all and possibly still not be good enough.

2. Fear-based practicing, maintaining constant surveillance on your playing while you’re playing. In performances like this, there is no connection, these performances are survived rather than enjoyed. Evaluated by survival. This is validation based and perfectionism driven, based on the perception of others. (This is crazy because perfect does not exist as we cannot control what others think).

4. After the performance, NOT taking a compliment, or shaming oneself as a response.

5. Going back to the practice room after a disaster to undo or make up for a recent failure, not owning it, but running from the dreadful feeling that accompanied the failure.

6. Imposter Syndrome: The inability to internalize one’s accomplishments.

This is hard to talk about for so many reasons, but that is part of the very definition of shame, it lives and thrives by three things, secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you don’t talk about it because you want to pretend it isn’t your problem, it will stick around.

 The good news is, the minute you bring shame into the light, the very second you speak shame it dies. So there is a way out.

Physical/Cognitive Solutions

Let’s talk solutions. All of these solutions treat all of the categories but some are specifically helpful for certain types of performance anxiety.

Slow breathing

Breathe in for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds.
Breathe in for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds.
Breathe in for 6 seconds, breathe out for 6 seconds.
Breathe in for 7 seconds, breathe out for 7 seconds.

You get the picture. Increase the count until you feel calm. Make sure you are aware of how you feel, take a refreshing normal breath if you feel like you need one in between.
If experiencing shakes within the performance of a piece, slowly breathe in for phrases, if there is n opportunity. Instead of breathing in one beat, slowly breathe in for one measure or two.

Heart breathing (for anxiety, source: Doc Childre)

Imagine there is a pinhole in your back. Imagine breathing in through the pinhole, into the heart, then imagine breathing out through wherever you feel tension. As you breathe in, think pleasant thoughts. This slows down the heart rate.

Self compassion

Trying to run away from your nervousness will strengthen it, so try self-compassion after acknowledging the symptoms. This will help dissipate nervousness. (Source: Kristin Neff). Say out loud:

Hello, my name is ___________.
I am feeling (tense, shaky, short of breath, unable to focus, etc.)
That is because of nervousness, and feeling nervous is okay.
I’m not the only one who experiences this.
This feeling is temporary.
I am doing the best I can with what I have.

Power posing

Hold a power pose. Stand like Superman or Wonder Woman. Hold this pose for two minutes. Power posing chemically changes your body to allow for confidence (source: Amy Cuddy).


Get out a recorder or a piece of paper and name every single thing you’re grateful for. Here’s a few from my list. If you agree with some of mine, go ahead and say it out loud.

I’m grateful for food and clean water.
I’m grateful for clothing and shoes.
I’m grateful for warmth.
I’m grateful for having a roof over my head.
I’m grateful for a healthy body and mind, memory, motor skills, problem solving skills, regeneration, and immunity.
I’m grateful for family and friends.
I’m grateful for my dogs.
I’m grateful for running water, electricity, technology, and communication.
I’m grateful for my education, my teachers, and my students.
I’m grateful for places to sit.
I’m grateful for having a kitchen and a bathroom.
I’m grateful for my car.
I’m grateful for my employment, and for receiving opportunities.
I’m grateful for my spiritual life.
I’m grateful for music and musicians.
I’m grateful for art and artists.
I’m grateful for having musical instruments and art supplies.
I’m grateful for paper and pen.
I’m grateful for books and stories.
I’m grateful for sleep.
I’m grateful for time to rest and relax.
I’m grateful for all the help I have received from others.
I’m grateful for second chances and forgiveness.
I’m grateful for knowledge and the willingness to be wrong so I may learn.
I’m grateful for hope.
I’m grateful for the goodness of others, for kindness.
I’m grateful to be privileged and not truly know what struggle is, what it is to be hungry, hopelessly ill, or homeless.

Add anything else you want. Practice gratitude everyday. This is the antidote to the fear of uncertainty. (Source: Brene Brown)


Take out a piece of paper, recorder or take a mental note of what you are experiencing through each of your senses so you may regain focus. Be descriptive.

I see:
I hear:

I feel:
I taste:
I smell:

Meditation is an acquired skill, and focusing the mind may take some training but this is one of the greatest tools there are. There are many meditation apps available for guidance. Headspace is an excellent app, which also has guided meditation exercises for kids.

Moving through shame (source: Brene Brown)

1. Acknowledge it. “I am feeling shame.” What is the shame tape saying?
“You’re not good enough”

“Who do you think you are?”

2. Reality check the message. When was the first time you heard this message? From who? What was the frequency of hearing this message? Did you hear this from more than one person?

3. Share your story of struggle with someone you trust. Seek empathy. Find someone who will hear what you’re saying and say, “That’s so hard. I know how you feel. I’m with you.”

Special cases in which strategies may not work, encourage counseling:

Major depression
Major anxiety
Bipolar disorder
Attention Deficit

Environmental Solutions

Resilience and confidence is fostered best in nurturing environments. This makes reading about shame very important. To understand shame it is important to understand guilt. Guilt is adaptive, shame is destructive.

Guilt: “Your preparation is unacceptable.”
Shame: “You are unacceptable.”

Guilt: “That phrase was not played musically.”
Shame: “You are not musical.”

*too much negative feedback can result in shame as well, even if not shaming in delivery.

Be kind, avoid shaming language, question your employment of  aggressive non verbals. Ask yourself, what is or is not happening in my life that results in my current anger or frustration? You have no control over the way others receive your words, so choose wisely. If your patience is low, tell your ensemble that, make sure they know that your low patience is not their fault.

Ask your ensemble members how they are feeling. Allow them to share their difficulties. Often times, musicians will try to make up for life’s difficulties and shortcomings with their music making, which never works. Sometimes kids have bad days and they need to vent. Nine times out of ten, they will perform better after having an outlet.

If you sense perfectionism, ask your ensemble to allow for mistakes. Then give them ample time and repetition for those mistakes to be resolved on their own.

Demonstrate courage. Demonstrate self-compassion. Demonstrate gratitude. Demonstrate having faith in oneself, versus seeking evidence that one is capable. (Wholehearted guideposts, source: Brene Brown) Allow yourself to be surprised or delighted by their abilities, instead of saying SHEESH. FINALLY. GOD, HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE YOU?! By the way, some students will roll their eyes at your show of faith, be patient (I was one of those kids).

Create a loving environment:

“For me, teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fears or the overpowering feelings of shame, then I no longer teach . . . I deliver information and I think I become irrelevant then.”
-Brene Brown “Teachers, Worthiness and Shame.”

Keep things fun, laugh a little. Ask them what they want to play. Give them choice every once in while. Allow them to own what they do.

Encourage self care. Develop a healthy detachment with performance goals, engage in self care, prioritize your life in a way that you may be naturally kind. Martyrdom is not cute.



Build trust. In an environment of trust you may find that students are willing to take creative risks, discover themselves, and love themselves through triumphs, through disasters, and that, I believe, is what music making is all about. That’s why we are here.


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