Jimmy Cannon was twelve years old when he felt the debilitating effects of performance anxiety for the first time. “I was taking my grade six trumpet exam and I’ll never forget it,” reflects the singer and saxophonist. “I was in tears before I went in. And the issue of performance anxiety is still going on amongst musicians. I have friends that have given up playing entirely because of it. Others use medication to cope. And the biggest issue is that a lot of the anxiety goes under the radar. It’s not talked about. There’s a lack of dialogue. Performance anxiety is the elephant in the room.”
Now one of the UK’s top speaking coaches – helping professionals across the gamut of sectors, from tech to finance – Cannon believes that his musician clients represent only a sliver of the problem. Even before the pandemic, research by Help Musicians showed that over 70% of musicians suffer from some form of anxiety, while Cannon’s own research suggests that performance fears have been exacerbated as budgets contract and mistakes grow more costly.
"There’s an alarming amount of musicians now that suffer from performance anxiety. Eighty per cent of musicians have experienced some sort of performance anxiety in their lives."
“Having researched this through my MA, there’s an alarming amount of musicians now that suffer from performance anxiety. Eighty per cent of musicians have experienced some sort of performance anxiety in their lives. We’re in an environment where competition is rife and there’s huge pressure from social media.”
Most musicians will recognise the calling cards of performance anxiety, from the physical manifestations (tremors, sweaty palms, racing heart) to somatic effects (a tightening of the throat) and cognitive deterioration (the insidious voice in your head that asks, ‘Am I good enough?’).
Yet the root causes, explains Cannon, go further back than we think. “Children don’t tend to experience performance anxiety until later. In fact, they’re generally oblivious to making mistakes. It’s only when we’re institutionalised – at about five years old – that we start to be aware of what reaction we’re getting from others.”
To make things more complex, he adds, the event you think you’re nervous about might actually be triggering something deeper, perhaps from years before. “Performance anxiety can happen before anything – a recital, an audition, live TV, a studio session. But performance anxiety is not necessarily connected with your technical ability or the performance itself. Nor is it to do with a lack of passion or motivation or love for music. In fact, it can often be triggered by a life event from your past, by an ingrained lack of self-worth, and imposter syndrome. And that’s something to tackle.”
Practical steps to tackle performance anxiety
The first step to solving performance anxiety, says Cannon, is to acknowledge that it exists without feeling shame or stigma. From there, musicians should decide whether they need a quick (but temporary) fix or a deep dive. “My first piece of advice is to be prepared. Get into the venue early. Chat with all the people who are around. Personally, I find that if I know the song inside-out and I’ve warmed up my voice, then I’m probably going to be okay. Whereas if I’m under-rehearsed, that’s when I’m going to start feeling nervous.”
Don’t use an important gig as the moment to try out a new and untested item of musical equipment, advises Cannon. Instead, spend time getting to know your instrument, voice or entire rig inside-out, so you’re never surprised by its limitations and can approach the performance with confidence.
Be in complete control and get into the right headspace
“Be in control of your instrument, don’t let the instrument be in control of you,” he nods. “What I mean by that is, the physicality of playing an instrument – and I include singers in this – can be daunting, cumbersome and your relationship with it is paramount.
"You need to be in charge and able to feel comfortable holding, fingering, and playing it as if you’re one with it. I had a lesson once from the British sax player Iain Ballamy where he encouraged me to (lightly) kick my MKVI around his flat, then pick it up and balance it precariously from my fingertips.
"I of course initially thought he was mad, but once I put it round my neck, I felt a sense of power over the horn. I felt free and not inhibited by its weight and heritage. Obviously you can’t do that with a piano!”
When the clock ticks down to showtime, don’t pace the corridors taking shallow, panicked breaths. “My research states that musicians reach their most heightened state of anxiety thirty seconds before the performance,” says Cannon, “so even when you’re just about to go onstage, there are several things you can do.
Find a space where you’re on your own, sit down in a chair and do a box breathing technique. Take a breath in for four beats, hold it for four, let it go for four, take in another breath. While you’re doing that, be aware of your breathing, your surroundings and concentrate on three things: what you can see, hear and smell. The deep breathing releases endorphins, lowers the release of adrenaline and gets you into the right headspace.”
Deep dive into the real cause of your anxiety
Techniques like these are an excellent sticking plaster, but when their schedule allows, musicians suffering from regular or severe performance anxiety should consider more comprehensive help to get to the bottom of it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be highly effective for reframing negative thoughts and helping you to visualise positive ones. The Alexander Technique focuses on breathing, body alignment and posture while helping you react more effectively to moments of stress.
Lesser-known but perhaps most effective, says Cannon, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). “ACT is basically about developing the ability to connect with the present moment, rather than past or future experiences. You’re using mindfulness techniques to cope with the situation then and there, based on what’s important to you, rather than the anxiety itself. General anxiety will not go away, because it’s so ingrained in our DNA. But the idea with ACT is that you train your mind to manage that anxiety in a performance situation. It’s a really beneficial and effective method to use for coping with anxiety or something that’s causing your career to not progress.”
Talk the talk and break the fourth wall with your audience
Of course, the role of a live musician is not merely to perform. Anecdotally, many musicians admit that filling the silence between songs can be just as daunting. Cannon agrees, and cites the example of British jazz vocalist Liane Carroll – with whom he recently performed – as the embodiment of the mindset he instills in his clients.
“You should always try to break the ice early. You could be at the bar before the show. Don’t necessarily stay backstage. Be sociable and as natural as you can with the audience. When you’re onstage, have some sort of story. I believe there’s a story behind every song and a journey that people want to go on with you. Don’t worry about the segues between songs. Give yourself some time.”
"Keeping lines of communication open will make you feel more in control, while allowing a tighter and more inclusive performance".
Once the music starts back up, Cannon continues, keeping lines of communication open will make you feel more in control, while allowing a tighter and more inclusive performance.
“Communication is key, not only with the audience but with the other band members. There’s nothing worse than watching someone looking at their fretboard or the floor for the entire gig, however competent a musician they are.
Speaking of communication, try and break the ‘fourth wall’ which is a theatre term for the invisible bridge between the performer and the audience. On a theatre stage, you’re often playing a part and the audience is generally not invited to ‘participate’ – apart from panto – whereas on a gig, health and safety permitting, it should feel like the audience are there with you on stage.”
Another effective way to relieve the pressure is to remind yourself that music is a human endeavour. As such, players should abandon the fool’s errand of trying to attain perfection and challenge themselves instead to deliver an honest, in-the-moment performance. “People love mistakes,” says Cannon. “Audiences love musicians being authentic and natural. If you drop the microphone, if you forget the words – it just doesn’t matter. People are going to forgive you, if you’re authentic.
“Always remember that the audience want you to succeed”.
Always remember that the audience want you to succeed. Particularly if they’ve paid to come and see you, it’s very unlikely that they’ll want bad things from you or will have any sort of wish for you to fail. They want you to be good. They want to be entertained. To realise that, I think, is really important.”
Finally, concludes Cannon with a smile, no musician should ever succumb to that most clichéd of supposed performance enhancers. “Dutch courage is a really bad idea. For a start, alcohol is terrible for your voice. But also, being inebriated is a false sense of security. It’s not authentic. As a musician, you want to find who you are and what you mean to people.”
Jimmy Cannon is a singer and voice coach working with professionals to improve their voice for both public speaking and corporate presentations. He has a Masters in Vocal Pedagogy and is trained in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training), helping musicians manage and reduce their performance anxiety. To find out more visit jimmycannon.com.
Suffering stagefright? You're in good company
Stage fright and anxiety can affect even the most high profile musicians. Barbra Streisand never got over the panic she felt when she forgot the lyrics to a song in a 1966 performance in Central Park. It was 27 years before she next stepped foot on stage and she never again made a public performance without a teleprompter. XTC’s Andy Partridge suffered from acute stage fright as did Kirsty MacColl, who returned to the stage through the support and encouragement of The Pogues.
Managing stage fright has been a concern for numerous artists, such as Eddie Van Halen, Katy Perry, Andrea Bocelli and Scottish pianist Steven Osbourne. Singer Lorde told The West Australian in 2014: “I am reduced by nerves. I can be completely crushed by feelings of all kinds. Usually I just tell myself ‘The second you get up there it’s going to be fine’.”
One artist who has spoken at length about her problems with stage fright is Adele: “I’m scared of audiences,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “One show in Amsterdam, I was so nervous I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times.” It can happen to the greatest talents, so finding your survival techniques is key.
Top 6 tips on how to address performance anxiety
- Acknowledge The Issue - Performance Anxiety is a common issue that has too often been swept under the carpet. Don’t be afraid to recognise the problem and start taking steps to address it.
- Be Prepared - Having devoted a little extra time to pre-performance practice, try taking practical steps like arriving at the venue early and meeting the sound crew – this will help settle your nerves.
- Box breathing and mindfulness - If you’re feeling anxious, spend at least a few minutes on slow inhalations and exhalations (in for four, hold for four, out for four).
- The Alexander Technique - This well-established method teaches posture and movement but is far more than physical, helping you control your responses to stressful situations in life.
- CBT and ACT therapies - Go deeper with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (helping you to pinpoint and overwrite negative thoughts) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (helping you to perform ‘in the present’).
- The audience is on your side - Remember that the audience is on your side, wants you to succeed and will forgive mistakes made during an authentic performance.