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Performance anxiety is experienced by most musicians at some point in their career. The physical symptoms can be debilitating and, once experienced, the fear that it will happen again can create a pattern.

The Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson law describes the relationship between stress and performance. It describes how performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a certain point. When the level of stress is too high, performance decreases.

The Yerkes-Dodson law illustration: Bell curve

The performer needs to be able to draw on techniques that can increase arousal to the optimum point and stop it tipping over into unhelpful levels of stress.

Learning techniques to manage performance anxiety at an early stage can provide musicians with tools to combat it. Some techniques can be used in the moment, while others can provide longer-term background support.

Encourage the performer to use pre-performance routines. Warming up the body by marching on the spot, for example, can help increase arousal if you are feeling lethargic, and breathing exercises can help reduce stress to bring it back to optimal levels. Distraction techniques to help manage stress levels can be helpful when waiting backstage. Bring a book or something that can take the mind away from the task ahead. Distraction might not work for everybody, so it is essential that students experiment with what works best for them prior to performance.

A breathing exercise

Make yourself as comfortable as you can. If possible, loosen any clothes that restrict your breathing. If you are lying down, place your arms a little bit away from your sides, with the palms up. Let your legs be straight, or bend your knees so your feet are flat on the floor. If you are sitting, place your arms on the chair arms. If you are sitting or standing, place both feet flat on the ground. Whatever position you are in, place your feet roughly hip width apart.

Let your breath flow as deep down into your belly as is comfortable, without forcing it. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe gently and regularly.

Some people find it helpful to count steadily from one to five during the in breath. You may not be able to reach five at first. Then, without pausing or holding your breath, let the breath flow out gently, counting from one to five again. Keep doing this exercise for three to five minutes.

Taken from “Breathing Exercises for Stress” from the NHS

Practising relaxation techniques like yoga, for example, can reduce performance anxiety, and there is some evidence that the more performing becomes routine, the more “normal” and less stressful it can be. Using visualisation techniques can also enable students to practise positive experiences of performing.

As a teacher, you can model best practice by arranging performances for students and including these exercises.

MU members can access weekly meditation sessions and the Musicians’ Yoga Essentials Course, a bespoke yoga course, both online, as part of their membership.