If you’ve ever felt shaky and sick to your stomach – with sweaty palms and a racing heart at even the thought of getting onstage – then like millions of others, you’ve experienced performance anxiety. Those physical symptoms are the “fight-or-flight” response: your nervous system reacting to what it perceives as a threat.
Stage fright is a major issue facing performing musicians. Given that it may happen to you at some point in your drumming career, below are five ways to help you destress and get on with the show.
Nothing beats the relaxation that comes from knowing your songs inside and out. Rehearsing is crucial, but it’s not only because you’re learning your parts. The stress response due to performance anxiety can actually impair your cognitive function and working memory. Being fully practiced and prepared means if your brain does go temporarily offline due to nerves, muscle memory can kick in and play the part for you.
A study involving musicians in Australia showed that a single session of slow breathing was enough to control their stage fright, and that slow breathing was particularly useful for those who had high levels of anxiety in general. Relaxation, mindfulness, and other kinds of cognitive behavioral techniques have been shown to be effective at calming performance anxiety in musicians as well. Meditation, yoga, walking and deep breathing are good practices at any time, but they may be especially helpful when you feel nervous.
When we engage with people who make us feel good, our brain releases the hormone oxytocin. This helps us relax and quiets the fight-or-flight response, which means bonding with your bandmates before a show doesn’t just foster camaraderie, it quiets the nervous system. It’s awesome to know that just hanging out with your band can help everyone get back to baseline quicker.
Shift your focus to your audience and how you can best serve them with your music — this makes your performance about them and not you. Think about why you’re a musician in the first place. Can you tap into that when you’re playing a gig? If you see yourself as a channel through which music is flowing, then instead of your performance being about how you look and whether you mess up, it’s more about being an open conduit and giving your viewers an amazing experience.
It’s ok to make mistakes. Do your best and realize there will always be more gigs. When we’re really anxious we tend to think in catastrophic, make-it-or-break-it terms — as if your whole career comes down to this one show. Giving yourself a realistic appraisal of the performance situation can help put things into perspective and calm your nerves.
If you experience performance anxiety on a regular basis, you’re not alone. Surveys have shown fear of public speaking to be even greater than fear of death in a large percentage of the population. Even Anika Nilles has dealt with stage fright, and she’s considered one of the best drummers in the world. Fortunately, there are some proven methods we can use to calm ourselves. How do you deal with a case of the nerves?
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