VoiceCouncil will no longer be updated. Articles will still be available for some time.

Performance Anxiety

It strikes where it will harm us most. But do we really need to suffer as much as we do?

It’s a vicious assault from an invading army, leaving a barren landscape.  But this attack exists solely in the mind: anxiety. Everyone from first time singers to seasoned performers report feeling slain by anxiety.  VoiceCouncil has asked leading psychotherapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel to share practical ways forward for the vocal artist.

Many performing vocalists know that they suffer from anxiety, but they just get on with the job—a little less happy, but they face the stage.  Do these capable people really need to work on performance anxiety?

I think you’ve answered the question.  They get on with the job, certainly, but what is the cost? A lot of vocalists know that their performances are harder and less joyful than they ought to be.  Then there are those who are on the edge of giving up: ‘Is one more performance worth all the sweat of this internal drama?’ There are a great number of people who are about to leave the whole enterprise for no other reason than that it makes them anxious.

You’ve seen this?

It happened to my wife’s oboe teacher. She had one bad performance and quit performing—forever.  She’s an excellent teacher, but she won’t perform.

Is anxiety any different for vocalists as opposed to other performing arts?

What is most absurd or saddest about performance anxiety is that it strikes where it harms you most.  If you are a singer it strikes in your vocal chords. If you are a dancer, it strikes in your movement and so on…

OK, I’m convinced: so how do we strike back?

Let’s back up a minute.  I want readers to realize that performance anxiety is not something one experiences solely on stage; it may permeate the whole build-up to the performance.  When people say things like “I’m not ready”, “I don’t feel like it”, “I don’t feel well”,  “I can’t think straight” or “I can’t do it”, these may be rational statements—OR they may indicate the presence of anxiety that needs to be dealt with, so that life before the performance can be more productive and joyful.

Do you recommend one strategy over others in the process of reducing anxiety?

Many people don’t know that there is an entire arsenal of time tested techniques and strategies.  I use any number of a dozen when working with clients and groups.  For instance, there are simple relaxation techniques like rubbing your own shoulder, breathing and meditation techniques, breathing exercises, reorienting exercises, visualizations and cognitive affirmations.  I present all of these—and more— to my clients; they can take away what works and develop their own program.

That is a vast smorgasbord of ideas. One could get anxious about deciding where to begin.

If you are a performer and are looking at a long-term career for yourself I think there are maybe 3 things you would want to build into a personal life-long program:

* You would want to engage in awareness training:  be more mindful of what triggers performance anxiety in you.  Keeping a notebook and observing what is going on is smart. You might find that your anxiety about a performance crops up long before you get to the stage.

*Developing an awareness of basic issues relating to creativity would be wise.  For instance, there is a connection between blockage, procrastination and anxiety.·

*Finally, see anxiety as something to be embraced, not avoided. It is part and parcel of the creative life.

From these basic areas anyone can cobble together a self-help program that will build into an effective strategy over time.

Let’s pick up on that last point, because that sounds like an unusual thing to say:  embrace anxiety?

Well, I mean this in a couple of different ways.  First of all, by accepting that you are anxious and then watching your anxiety at work you are going to learn a lot that is going to help you to move ahead.  Second, I think that we have to remind ourselves that we have worked very hard to get to the place where we can experience performance anxiety!  So we can turn the whole experience of anxiety into a benefit instead of a loss.

Eric, what strikes me about your book is that it is eminently practical.  Do you ever think it is helpful to engage in analysis, to explore the ‘root’ causes of performance anxiety?

Well, even though I am a qualified therapist, I have laid this aside to concentrate on coaching. On the coaching path we simply don’t get into all the therapy issues.

But is there a reason you took this path? Do you think that more in depth therapy can sometimes be unhelpful?

Well, we all have a personal story about why we have performance anxiety. It might involve childhood experiences, past failures, broken promises—whatever.  We can tell this story to ourselves over and over again.  I think it is actually more productive to interrupt a client’s stories and move onto biting the bullet of moving ahead.  Therapy can sometimes be about colluding with a story rather than creating a new story. As a coach, I focus on solutions and new ideas.

Any tips for working vocalists?

I think musicians are always carrying a perfected sound in their ears from the recorded music they are listening to on their iPods.   But this music has been doctored.  I mean, there are 9 other tracks in the background that wouldn’t be there in a live performance.  I think it is very hard for live musicians to accept the sound of their own live music compared to the purified music they listen to at other times.  So, a part of the strategy is to remember what live music really sounds like and to adjust our expectations.

How about the performer who is working hard both to perform and to deal with their anxiety—but has still had a bad night on stage. What then?

In this situation, the most important factor is self-forgiveness.  Problems only go away with both the development of confidence and  the ability to forgive.   I counsel people to use a simple 3-step ABC, 1-2-3 approach to start getting their thinking moving in a positive direction.

1.                Listen to what you say to yourself.

2.                Dispute those utterances that don’t serve you well

3.                Substitute more affirming language.

Can you take us behind the closed doors of your private coaching sessions and share some themes that come up that might help all of us?

I’ve noticed that there is a strong connection between preparedness and performance anxiety. This, in turn, is related to how we begin our days, the first things we do when we get out of bed.  Often when we put off doing what is most important to us, a tendril of anxiety enters our psyche and begins growing to huge proportions.  I work with many clients on developing new habits about restructuring their days.  It can take several months to develop new habits and part of coaching work is providing accountability.  When those I am working with make positive alterations to how they handle their mornings, for example, there are big pay offs in terms of positive performances.

I’m aware of vocal teachers who avoid performing because they feel they are going to be judged by their own students, as well as by prospective students.  Yet, they want to move into performing after several years away from the stage. What advice do you have?

Well, I think these teachers have to remember that the next time they perform it will be a new beginning.  When you start something new it is totally implausible to do a beautiful flawless job.   I’m reminded of my first book signing.  I composed a speech that had nothing to do with the book!  Over the years I have adapted my approach and am much better at it. So teachers who have not been performing for a long time have to have a modest expectation of their performance. Don’t go into it thinking that it will be CD worthy.

But I have to add another point. You can’t think of your performance according to a ‘singularity model’—where we view one single performance as a “make-it-or-break-it” event.  Instead, view the performance in terms of an “abundance model”, seeing it is one opportunity of many that are to come, an opportunity to share and to learn.

But there is real pressure to get things right…

Sure, but if you are thinking ‘This has to be a perfect performance or I won’t get students’ this is going to de-stabilize you.  You have to perform for other reasons than this. I think it was Rubenstein who said, “If you want me to play the notes accurately, I can’t play music.”

Do you have any anxiety reducing techniques that are less well known to the general public?

Yes!  There are a few that I think can be just right for specific people:

* Dis-identification techniques: this is similar to detachment ideas in Buddhism: you remind yourself that you are bigger than your performance. You are not your performance or your vocal chords.

*Symptom confrontation techniques: this is where you try to increase a symptom and make it ridiculous until you laugh.  For example if your hand is jittery you make it really jitter until it looks so strange and exaggerated that it causes a positive emotion.

*Discharge techniques: actors often use these like silent screaming –you learn how to silently make an effective scream with accompanying facial gestures and physical activity.

Do you ever get performance anxiety?

Yes.  Especially with new material; that’s probably true for most performers.   I’m rarely anxious about old material.

What situation triggers it for you?

Well, television still feels different from all of the other appearances I do—especially when I am being interviewed on national television from another city. There is this 5 second delay before you hear the question and can respond, you are just sitting there doing nothing, being watched by tens of thousands of people.

What do you do in that awkward moment?

I remind myself that I wanted to be here. I have done everything in my life to get myself into this position to share my ideas, to be anxious in this setting! I shouldn’t be wanting to be elsewhere! I remind myself that I want to be there.

† Eric Maisel is the author of 30 books, including Performance Anxiety, The Van Gogh Blues, Creativity for Life, and Coaching the Artist Within.  Eric is a licensed family therapist, creativity coach, and trainer of creativity coaches who lectures nationally and internationally.  He writes a monthly column for Art  Calendar Magazine,  hosts two shows on the Personal Life Media Network, For more information on Dr. Maisel, please visit his main site www.ericmaisel.com.

© 2008 Gregory A. Barker, PhD. Greg is a writer and editor living in the heart of Wales. You can see more of Greg’s work here.

  • shanell


  • garymckinney

    Whenever I'm involved in a bad performance, I just shake it off and think to myself — anything that doesn't destroy me makes me stronger. This way I'm not making such a big deal out of a bad performance and somehow this lowers my anxiety about having one.

  • GregBarker

    For all you Eric Maisel fans: Eric is offering an on-line course on overcoming creative anxiety –and you can pay whatever you can afford! Take a peek:


  • Jhon Ackerman

    If your main goal is to be rich, you’re looking into the wrong career.  However, I’m not sure “English Teacher” would be a reasonable expectation either.

  • Jhon Ackerman

    I am a natural-born skeptic and thoroughly “tattoo’d with doubt” singer/musician.  I would like to tell anyone that feels like I do to spend eight bucks and read this “Mastering Creative Anxiety” book.  I read the free part, decided it was worth checking out, downloaded the “kindle” thingy so I could “recieve it” now and I’m done with the second chapter.

    I bullshit you not, it made me cry.  This written work may well save my creative soul.  I have been buried in the miserable state of doubt for twenty years and this thing is written so well, it speaks to me in a creative way that lets me know that this author GETS IT.  He understands where I am and has stuck a hand out for me to grab.

    This is the best eight dollars I have spent lately.  Well done Eric Maisel, I am impressed . . . and I just got started.

  • Jhon Ackerman

    I never even heard of Eric before this morning . . . but I think he has a great way with words and I hope that I can remember these words when I’m down again . . . it really has been fascinating this morning.

  • Acapellasinger

    I suffer performance anxiety before and during my performances. I think I’ve learned that it comes from over-thinking. When I let myself think about how people are reacting to my singing I get terribly nervous and it will affect how I perform. I’ve taught myself to block out any thoughts during a performance – It takes some practice but If you can learn to not think when you perform – kinda like being on autopilot that can help a lot.