Performance Anxiety and Breath Awareness

SOME BASICS: Often, when we are faced with a very stressful situation, such as performing in front of a group of people, we are unaware of how we are using our breath. A common action is to either unconsciously hold the breath for long periods (not enough oxygen) or to take short, rapid breaths (too much oxygen). EITHER of these actions can trip a physical response commonly known as the "fight or flight" mechanism, which is a primal survival reaction that prepares us physically for attack or flight in the face of a life-threatening situation. Adrenaline, a powerful stimulant, is dumped into the bloodstream, causing an unsettling "jittery" sensation. Capillaries that provide blood to the extremities close down so that the core of the body will receive the maximum amount of blood, resulting in cold, clammy hands. Great for facing or fleeing a saber-toothed tiger but not so helpful in a modern-day performance situation! A WORKABLE SOLUTION: First, let's re-name the sensation called "fear" or "anxiety." Try the word, "excitement" instead. Some excitement is a good thing and can drive a performance and add an edge to it that engages your audience (and you) rather that putting them to sleep. But, if you get "over-excited", the performance can suffer due to the purely PHYSIOLOGICAL reasons mentioned above. VISUALIZATION: Imagine the level of excitement as being a barometer that rises and falls based on your breathing patterns. Visualize the level of excitement as being comfortable at a little below chest height, uncomfortable when it approaches or goes above the upper chest and too little "juice" if it drops to stomach level. Before you perform, sit comfortably without your instrument, and, in your imagination, link your breathing to the rise and fall of the excitement level thusly: hold your hand, palm downward, at the level at which you imagine to be your current excitement level. Allow the hand to rise and fall with your in and out breaths, slowly bringing it to the place where it begins to "hover" around the lower chest area (the solar plexus). Slow the breathing and allow the hand to RISE a bit on the IN BREATH and LOWER and relax on the OUT BREATH. (Notice how the out-breath has the most calming effect.) Use relaxing breaths, neither too big nor too fast, but rather, engage in normal, nourishing breaths. When you feel ready--there's no hurry--pick up your instrument and calmly, still noticing your breathing patterns, enter the performance area and, after sitting down to play, take another full, relaxing breath and begin. Even while playing, you can use this breath awareness to bring your breathing back under control if you begin to feel that the excitement level is getting too high. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: Like any discipline, this technique must be practiced to get it to the point where it becomes an unconscious, natural process that helps you work with the over-excitement levels. At home, imagine yourself in a pre-performance situation about to go on stage. Try to "work yourself up" by feeling the anxiety (excitement) around the upcoming performance so that you can practice the breathing and visualization techniques described above. The goal is to ENJOY the performance so that your audience AND YOU can join together in a joyful sharing of the musical experience. GOOD LUCK!

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