Dealing with performance anxiety, with Dr David Roland
Jeremy Fisher interviews Performance psychologist Dr David Roland, author of The Confident Performer, on nerves for performers, dealing with the audience, post-performance recovery, and the Flow performance.
What is performance anxiety?
David: I’ll give you a psychologist’s interpretation of it first. Anxiety is something that is quite natural and quite normal, which occurs when we feel threatened in some way. And that threat could be a sense of harm to ourselves, or even to someone else that we’re observing. So a music teacher for example, who’s got one of his students performing, can be more nervous than his student.
Jeremy: Absolutely, I know that feeling!
David: So that’s performance anxiety also. When we perceive there’s a threat to us or to someone we care about, we then get a range of reactions, including the physiological reactions commonly known as the fight/flight response. If you think of that in survival terms – why that’s hardwired into us – if we were threatened in the wild we’d either have to fight off this threat or escape from it. So there are two very strong responses which are totally opposite.
When we’re facing a threat like in performance, in fact nothing bad is going to happen to us. It’s not like someone is going to throw things at us that will harm us, or cause some physical injury. The threat really is more about what would happen “if my performance went wrong. I’d lose the respect of others, I’d lose self-esteem, it could affect my career…” all those sorts of things. So it’s more about social approval, the approval of others, that’s the threat. But you still get those physiological responses.
In one research study I taped up performers before, during and after a performance with heart-rate monitors. And what that showed was before a performance – coming into it – the heart-rate would go up, even though they were not performing, just hanging around. And it would seem to peak around the time they walked on stage. For less experienced performers it would generally stay high for a lot of the performance and then gradually taper off afterwards. What I think happens with professionals is that their heart-rate still peaks – and when I say peak, I mean really peak – it gets up to 160 beats per minute which is the same sort of heart-rate you might have if you were exercising vigorously. With the professionals, the heart-rate tends to drop quite quickly once the performance starts.
So you’re getting these strong physiological responses, you’re getting a lot of mental responses like self doubt, like “can I do this?”, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with anxiety.
Jeremy: I completely recognize that. OK, then, how do we deal with it as performers.
David: This is what I was trying to introduce in the book – a more systematic way of understanding the anxiety and therefore how to tackle it. So I think of it in three systems: the first system is the physiological one, the second system is behaviour (that’s what you actually do), and the third one is the mental – how you think about it. And that includes what you say to yourself about yourself in the performance situation, and also where you focus your attention.
If I look at the physiological one, in some ways there’s not a lot you can do physiologically. The main thing is to learn to keep your physiological response in check. That’s where I would suggest things like relaxation exercises, breathing awareness, physical techniques that you can use just to manage the build-up. And when I say build-up, that includes what’s sometimes called the stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals are actually activating you for action, yet you don’t really start taking action until you are on the stage.
The second level is your behaviour. In the book I talk quite a lot about developing a pre-performance routine, so working out a routine that screens out distractions, and also that supports the right mental focus.
Jeremy: And I would imagine that that routine is going to be different for everybody.
David: It becomes an individual routine, that’s right. And everyone’s going to have some common elements. It’s things like Do I talk to others beforehand, or don’t I? How early do I arrive at the venue? Do I have a bit of a play or sing before the audience comes? Do I mingle with the audience or not? How do I spend that day, do I have a nap? What do I eat? Those sorts of things.
The third level is the mental, and in some ways this is the key. This is what we’ve got the most control over, although we don’t usually realise this. It’s about how we think about ourselves in the situation. So if we’re thinking about the performance as a threat, we’re clearly going to experience overwhelming anxiety. But if we think about the performance as more of a challenge or something that’s exciting to do, then we’re going to use that physiological energy that’s naturally being generated to energise us and actually to bring out a better performance.
Jeremy: It’s also going to help you to really look forward to what you’re going to do. I know I was very struck by this when I read it.
David: Exactly. So you’re trying to transform anxiety into excitement, and it’s that excitement that you want to cultivate. And you do that by reminding yourself – if you’re a singer you might be saying to yourself, “I’ve chosen the right songs, I’ve sung them before, they’ve worked well before, I can do this”. It’s like realistic self-statements that are based on past experience. The more you’ve performed, of course, the more you can believe those statements.
Jeremy: You’ve got some great quotes in your book, and there’s a particular one by Michael Crawford on Phantom of the Opera, which really chimes with that. Doing a performance in front of 22,000 people in San Francisco – I’m just reading it here – he hadn’t slept for a night and a half, and he says “At the last moment I realised that I had been rehearsing this for six weeks, that I’d played the Phantom for three and a half years, I must know the words by now.” I think that’s really good!
David: And I want to point out – how many other occupations are there where someone goes off to work in the morning, and they have this self doubt? Where someone says “I’m an accountant, am I going to remember how to add up? Am I going to remember how to do a tax return?” We’re really talking about a completely different type of work here. We’re talking about one that has incredibly intense highs and lows, and so this self-doubt, because we’re in a public forum, tends to grow quite easily if we don’t consciously manage it.
Jeremy: Yes. This is just a personal observation – when I first realised that this was a pattern, and that it was a pattern I kept going through about being very, very nervous beforehand and then really quite low afterwards – actually accepting as a pattern, that it was going to happen, really helped.
David: Yes, and I think that’s trying to acknowledge – every occupation has its occupational hazards. Bricklayers get bad backs after a while – they do all the things they can to manage that, to minimise the likelihood of particular harm. Everyone realises that in their particular occupation there are particular hazards that they need to look out for. For performers, those highs and lows are part of the occupational hazards. So accepting that that is part of what I do and how can I first of all accept that, and are there ways in which I can cope with that better, is the way to think about it.
Jeremy: We’ve got onto this topic that I absolutely loved in the book – post-performance recovery stages. It’s the idea that there are particular stages that you go through, and like I said, even knowing that they exist was very helpful.
David: I think the immediate stage of post recovery is one where we’re in a physiologically altered state of consciousness. And if the concert or performance has gone well, you’re on an absolute high, and you’re thinking to yourself “Oh, I love this, I just want to keep on doing this”. Whereas a short time before you went on, you’re thinking “Why do I do this, why do I put myself through it? Why aren’t I doing something normal like everyone else?”
David: So of course you’re revelling in this wonderful state. And if the performance hasn’t gone well, or you don’t think it’s gone well, you’re getting the opposite extreme, you’re very down on yourself. And you’ve got to remember that either of those reactions are extreme, in the sense that even if you’re feeling down on yourself, the performance probably hasn’t gone as bad as it feels to you at that moment.
So when people are coming up to us afterwards, whatever they’re saying to us, we’re not receiving it with the normal state of mind. And this is why when people say things like “I really loved your performance” but you think it wasn’t a great performance, you think they’re just putting it on. If you’ve done a really great performance and some people seem quite lukewarm, you think “Well, what’s wrong with them?”
Jeremy: That is so annoying!
David: I had a friend of mine who’s a singer and singing teacher telling me recently that she played keyboards as accompaniment to an opera singer friend of hers who was doing a recital. And she’s a competent keyboard player but that’s not her main instrument. And she thought she was doing really well on the piano, and she really got into the performance, and he was wonderful. She said afterwards people kept coming up and congratulating him and commenting on his wonderful performance, and no-one said anything to her. And she thought she’d done really well!
Jeremy: Yes, well as a professional accompanist I know that one…
David: So it’s a very touchy time after the performance. It can be wonderful but it can also be difficult. And then the next day, well then after that of course you’ve got the winding down period which can start during the night when you can’t go to sleep because your mind’s racing, even though you feel incredibly weary. There are two parts of the autonomic nervous system – the sympathetic nervous system which is the ON switch, the one that gets us energised, and the parasympathetic system which is the OFF switch, the one that calms us down to get ready for sleep. Well, they’re fighting between each other to see who becomes dominant. If you’re thrust back into other activities the next day – teaching or doing administration – that can actually help you get over that post-performance low. But if you’re just going back into your normal rehearsals, or you’re not having to be responsible to anyone else, that low could be intensified because suddenly there’s no attention on you anymore.
Jeremy: You talk also about what happens immediately after the performance, and that this can be part of that coming-down thing. And I noticed after I’d read that particular section – I want to talk about the concert after I’ve done it. If there’s nobody around or if I’m not going home in the car with anybody, then I’ll ring Gillyanne and we will talk it through. And it’s really important to me that I talk through certain aspects of the performance.
David: Yes, it’s almost like a de-briefing.
David: And I think if you’re playing or performing with others, they can be the ideal or the immediate people you can do it with, if you can sit around afterwards with them and do a bit of a de-brief. That is part of your cognitive process, part of your way of starting to let go of the performance and to move on. Whereas if you can’t do that de-brief, it’s like it’s still buzzing and you’re still caught up in the performance, and it takes longer to let go.
Jeremy: What’s the third stage?
David: Well the third stage would be the one-to-seven-days afterwards, and this totally depends on what type of performer you are, whether you’re a complete professional performer, or whether you’ve got teaching or other professional activities. And that’s going from the extreme of having everyone focusing on you and being incredibly focused on yourself and the performance, to then having nothing to focus on and nobody focusing on you. So it can be quite a letdown or quite an adjustment. It could be positive – for some people it’s quite a relief to have the performance over and go and do some normal things and just be a normal nobody for a while.
Jeremy: I know one of the things I love doing – I know I’m talking about myself, but hey! – after I’ve done either a show or a tour, is to stay in town after the show leaves. And I’ve done this several times because I’ve MD’d tours. The show will go off somewhere else or will have finished, and I’ll stay in town and I’ll do the holiday thing. It’s what I consider to be “doing the ordinary stuff”. And that’s really good for me.
David: I would call that savouring the experience. So when we have an experience, we can savour it in different ways. And I guess what you’re describing is you’ve been there for a job, you’ve done the job, now you want to wind down, and you want to enjoy some of the other aspects of that experience, which is just being a normal tourist in an interesting town, or somewhere you’ve never been to before, or just doing normal things.
Understanding the audience
Jeremy: Now you touched on something earlier. Why do the performances we think are good sometimes not come over, and the performances we think go wrong, the audience loves. What’s going on there?
David: I think that’s a wonderful question Jeremy, and I think in the book I don’t address that directly…
I think what we need to remember is there are two people in the performance: there’s the performer (and the fellow performers) and there’s the audience. And the performance doesn’t work unless you’ve got both. And the performer brings to their performance their particular goals, which are musical ones or technical ones, or ensemble goals. And the audience are bringing their goals to the performance as well, and of course what they want from the performance is going to be different from the performer.
Mostly audiences want to have an enjoyable performance, they want to have a performance go well. But you need to remember that the audience is bringing with them a whole lot of other stuff – what have they just come from? Have they come from their day job and they’re feeling stressed and tired and a bit harried? They’re just happy to plonk down into the seat and be entertained. Do they have other worries on their minds, have they been drinking? Is it an indoor concert or an outdoor concert? They have completely different flavours and distractions.
I think in a way the audience develops a group consciousness, because human beings are a very social species of animals, and so we feed off those around us. And that combined effect of all the people that are in the audience, if you like, gives one group consciousness. So if that one audience is in a good mood, what’s going to happen is that they are going to enjoy the performance more than if they’re in a distracted or irritable mood. That is completely independent of the performer. So the performer might do what they think is a wonderful performance, but if for some reason the audience aren’t in such a receptive mood, or it’s just not the music they like or the song they like, they’re going to have a less favourable response to it. But if they’re overwhelmingly in a feel-good mood, it almost doesn’t matter what happens on the night (unless it’s abysmal), they’re going to enjoy the experience. And so you’ve got this dis-connect between the audience and the performer and what they want from it.
If I could give an everyday example, it would be like inviting people round to a dinner party, and you might set it up with all the things you want, and have good food and good wine, choose the right people for your dinner party, and it doesn’t quite work. You can’t put your finger on it but it doesn’t quite go, it doesn’t gel as well as you imagined it would. And on other occasions you have a spontaneous meal or certain people drop by, and it’s just a wonderful experience. So there’s certainly some unpredictability about what performances will go well (when you’re talking about an audience) and what won’t go so well.
Jeremy: I think it becomes really clear when you do the same performance over several nights, and you realise that the audience is a completely different animal every night.
David: There are other extraneous factors, sound systems, concert halls, things that the performer has no control over, which can affect the performance as far as the performer’s concerned, but that the audience don’t necessarily notice.
The Flow performance
Jeremy: Which sort of brings me onto – you’ve got an entire chapter on this – Flow. Describe Flow to me?
David: I think flow is easily recognisable for all performers if I say to them “This is the drug of performance”.
David: This is the time when you perform and it all went just the way you wanted it to go, you just felt like you were in the music, there’s a sense of effortlessness about it, there’s a sense of accomplishment, there’s a sense of control, while at the same time you’re feeling as if you’re letting the process flow. So you’re not forcing it to happen, it just seems to be that you’re riding this wonderful wave. You know you’re the “conductor”, but you know that somehow you are letting go of the process so that it flows.
Generally the professional performers I’ve spoken to about this will say that they can remember these performances, so they’re not necessarily common, they don’t happen every performance. I think a professional achieves a certain level of performance ability that generally means they’re going to give a good performance all the time (unless there are extraneous conditions which make it impossible). Then they’ll have these peak performances which are the ones that I think as performers we really strive for, we really hope to achieve, but we don’t really know how to make it happen consistently.
Jeremy: From my own experience, there have often been moments of it, or there are phrases of it, or maybe even an entire piece in one recital of it. And then there are the really memorable ones where you walk on the stage and you cannot put a foot wrong. They really are rare. And also as I do a lot of work as an accompanist with different people, those are the bits that I really look forward to when you and the person that you’re working with, work together and something clicks. And the piece goes off, and you do things that you didn’t expect, and it’s not even like chasing it… you’re sitting there thinking “Hey, this is working really well”.
David: Yes, yes. I think instantly that you recognise what I’m talking about when I say Flow…
David: And just about every performer would. And I guess what psychologists have done is to study this, not just in the performing arts, but in other aspects of life. And what they have found in general with the flow experience is that you do go in and out of it. So if you’re a football player, you might do a great break and a good run and it all works really well, but for the rest of the game it’s a bit lousy. So it is something that more often we go in and out of. And it could vary from song to song; some songs really work and some are a bit more of an effort. But there are certain criteria that psychologists have found that would increase the likelihood of this happening more consistently. And I could go through those if you like.
Jeremy: Yes, that’d be great.
Criteria for Flow performance
David: So, your mental focus is task-relevant, you’re thinking about the job at hand. You’re not distracted by other thoughts like “What am I going to have for dinner after the performance?” You’re thinking very much about what you’re doing. There’s this lovely task-relevant focus. You have both that narrow focus on what you’re doing but also a broader focus. It feels like you’re thinking about the whole package. You describe accompanying the singers for example, and there’s a sense of not just what you need to do but what she or he is doing, and how you are focused on the whole effect.
Jeremy: Yes, absolutely.
David: There’s also an awareness of the audience. In this process we need some way of getting feedback. In sports, it’s fairly easy to say if you’re scoring goals or you’re making breaks, it’s pretty obvious feedback as to whether something is working. Or the roars of approval from the fans.
In a performance situation, the feedback you’re getting is the non-verbal feedback from other performers that might be with you on stage, and also the audience. We do pick up lots of information from the audience, and I don’t fully understand how we do this. But certainly there’s a lot of subconscious non-verbal communication happening between you and the audience, particularly of course if you can see them. We’re getting our own feedback about the performance as well. So for flow to happen, we do get some feedback about how it’s going.
Also essential is that you feel calm while at the same time being quite energised…
Jeremy: It’s like a balanced energy.
David: It is. It’s a bit more like that excitement we talked about before, versus anxiety. And the challenge that you’re taking on needs to be one that you’ve mastered. So it needs to be something that you’ve rehearsed a lot and you’ve really got it in your fingers or your voice, and in one sense it’s automatic – you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re singing or playing. You can then focus more on the expression of the music. So you’re getting more into letting go of the technical side of the performance.
But it can’t be too hard that you’re having to focus on the technical aspects, and it can’t be too easy either. If something’s too easy it means that you start getting distracted by boredom and other thoughts, because it’s not like you have to fully focus on it. So it’s a balance, getting your material for the performance right.
Jeremy: I’ve been working with the same touring opera company (Hatstand Opera) for 12 years (I think it’s 12 years). And when the soprano and I – when she does an operatic aria, more often than not because I’ve known her for years, I know the sort of things that she’s going to do, and we can hit that flow quite regularly, even if it’s just for a phrase or two in the aria. Because this is somebody that I’m very comfortable working with, somebody that I know the sort of things she’s going to do. And that means that we can both be spontaneous but not throw each other.
David: I would say Jeremy that’s a lovely example of having that experience under your belt. And in this case particularly experiencing it with another performer. So you can produce things that you couldn’t do with someone you were working with for the first time.
David: And I would suggest maybe what’s happening there – there’s a level of trust between you that’s built up over the years. So you know you can trust the other one not only to do the right thing but to know where you’re coming from.
Jeremy: Yes, I think that’s absolutely accurate. That’s great. Here’s my favourite question: how did you get into doing what you’re doing?
David: That’s a wonderful question to ask every performer, and something I ask if I’m working with someone as it influences so much their approach to music and performance. In my case I’ve always had an interest in music. Probably really from an early teenage years I was seriously playing a lot of music – classical guitar at home and a rock band with school friends. The other passion I’d always had was for psychology, and my mother was a psychiatrist. Family dinner conversations would be about human behaviour and why people did what they did. I made the decision to pursue psychology and while studying for my PhD I came across the book The Inner Game of Music.
Jeremy: Oh yes, Barry Green and W Timothy Gallwey
David: And I thought Wow, this is right, there’s a whole mental side to performing. And at the same time the director of the Conservatorium approached the Psychology department of our University and said “Look, I’ve got a lot of anxious students, can you teach them some relaxation?” I thought this would combine my two loves, psychology and music, and I could help performers with a more rigorous approach to the mental side of performing. Half way through my PhD I transferred to the Institute of the Arts where I met Ian Plaude at the school of music. The Institute of Sports in Canberra (where I was working at the time) was at the forefront of sports psychology here. I spent quite a lot of time with the health professionals there, looking at the way they worked with athletes. At that time Sports Psych was streets ahead of anything that was happening in the performing arts.
Jeremy: So what’s in the future for you?
David: In recent years I’ve been focussed on my clinical work but I’d like to do more of what I would say is positive psychology. That is helping people move from where they are now to having an even better experience. So obviously I’m interested in performing. The other area I’m interested in is decision making and risk-taking. I think my next book’s going to be on the aspects, including the psychology, of risk-taking. I don’t mean risk-taking where you jump off a cliff with a parachute, I’m talking more about the everyday decisions we make in our lives. What are the factors that come together to allow someone to take a risk, and why do they take this particular type of risk and not a different type of risk, and why now rather than in the future? Now performers are obviously risk-takers compared to the average person. So I’m interested in working with people to accelerate their own achievement in their field, and also exploring more this idea of risk-taking.
Jeremy: The whole business of risk-taking depends on what viewpoint you’ve got. Somebody could do something that looks from the outside like it’s incredibly risky, and yet from the inside you’re going “No, this is a calculated decision”. I know that from the outside I’ve made some extraordinary decisions in my life, but from the inside they’ve been “Yes, that’s what I’m going to do”.
David: They made good sense to you. And you’ve worked it out and it’s a natural progression from where you are.
David: Jeremy, this has helped me refocus on my ideas about performers. In Australia I’ve done lots of work around the country doing seminars and so on, and Ian suggested the possibility of coming to Europe. And I would welcome the opportunity of working with performers again. So thank you for this opportunity.
Jeremy: Thank you. I think the work that you’re doing is incredibly valuable.
You can find a copy of Dr David Roland’s book The Confident Performer in the specialist Vocal Process MusicalStore on this website. Click on this MusicalStore link and select Recommended Reading.