Thoughts On Performing

By Kate MacKenzie

I thought I would use my first blog post for the AWSOM website as an opportunity to introduce myself as a teacher, musician, and life-long learner. I could not be more thrilled to join the AWSOM team as the new woodwinds teacher, and I am excited for our future together. I recently moved to the Seattle area just after completing my doctorate degree at Arizona State University. Though I teach all of the woodwind instruments (because why just limit yourself to one?!), my love and passion lies with my primary instrument, the bassoon. If you are wondering what the bassoon is, I encourage you to do a quick internet search on this wonderful instrument. I could write hundreds of pages on the instrument, its characteristics, its role in orchestras and wind bands, and even its history, but perhaps that will be for another blog post. Instead I want to share a quick introduction of what has been my main research focus for the past 5+ years: PERFORMANCE ANXIETY.

Performance anxiety is an issue that is close to my heart as a musician and teacher. I suffered from it severely for most of my years as a music student. Many times I thought about quitting and finding something else to do that wasn’t so psychologically damaging. It wasn’t until I started to learn about anxiety in musicians that I began to overcome it. By understanding what was happening to my body and mind whenever I walked on stage, I eventually grew to be more comfortable.  While overcoming performance anxiety can be a long, complex process, I can give a few tips to think about as you prepare for you next performance:

1) PREPARE for the stage. We often find ourselves practicing our music in a safe place: in the comfort of our own homes, behind closed doors, and wearing comfortable clothing and shoes. It’s no wonder we feel uneasy about dressing up and playing in a foreign atmosphere, not to mention in front of people. It’s important to train yourself to get used to this by having mock performances.  For a few weeks before a performance, ask your friends and family to watch you perform (notice the word perform, this is different than asking them to listen to you play). Fashion a make-shift stage that is outside of where you normally practice, have the audience sit in rows or a single line facing you, wear your performance clothes, and play through the entire piece as if it were a performance (no stopping if there is a mistake!).  This will help make the sensation of performing in front of an audience feel less strange and unknown.

2) UNDERSTAND what is happing to your body physiologically when you experience physical and mental symptoms of performance anxiety. Many of us suffer from sweaty hands, shaking limbs, butterflies, or other things that hinder our focus. This is your body’s way to protecting you from danger. Because we no longer face physical danger on a daily basis like our early ancestors, our adrenaline now kicks in mostly in times when our ego is feeling vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that no matter how badly a performance will go, YOU WILL NOT DIE! It’s a silly thing to tell yourself, but it’s a good way to calm down.

3) ACCEPTANCE is perhaps the most important factor in overcoming performance anxiety. Live music is not meant to be perfect. This is an age where we have instant access to digitally remastered recordings of music, so we have higher expectations for perfection than ever before. But we are human, and we cannot be perfect. I have yet to have a perfect performance and I can guarantee that neither have huge performers like Taylor Swift or Beyonce. The imperfections of live music give the music its humanistic expression and emotion, which is why we do it. One of the best lessons I was ever taught as a student was to embrace this aspect of being a performer. To be perfect is boring, so stand out and be confident in your mistake.