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Piper's Performance Anxiety
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Piper's Performance Anxiety

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Your heart races, your palms sweat. Your arms are shaking as you try to calm yourself. A few quick breaths, and you strike in. You are on the boards for an important competition. Familiar?

Stage fright, stress, nerves, adrenalin…performance anxiety is known under many names.

“Nerves are part of what we do,” according the noted violinist Itzhak Perlman. He adds, “and the thing is to be familiar with them. It’s not about getting rid of them.”

According to Perlman, it is important to “know your enemy so there are no surprises.”

So what is the enemy? What is performance anxiety?

According to Noa Kageyama, an instructor at the Juilliard School, performance anxiety is “a negative emotional state with feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension associated with activation or arousal of the body.” Based on this definition, Kageyama notes, performance anxiety has three parts, “physical effects, mental effects, and emotional effects.”

If you have an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms prior to a performance, you are suffering from the physical effects of performance anxiety.

If you have an increase in self-doubt, worries, thoughts and images of failing, or loss of focus, you are suffering from the mental effects of performance anxiety.

If you are filled with fear, panic, and apprehension, you are suffering from the emotional effects of performance anxiety.

According to Kageyama, “understanding this three-part model of anxiety is important because it means that there are three separate targets that each affect our ability to play well under pressure. Of course the three are interrelated, but you can begin to see why we can’t just address one of them and expect everything to be all better.”

But, Kageyama notes that "to further complicate matters, there are two types of anxiety—state anxiety and trait anxiety." In state anxiety, you might be nervous about a competition. You are nervous about a particular event. Trait anxiety, in contrast, is "how stressed out you tend to be about everything."

The enemy, performance anxiety has physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Performance anxiety can be exacerbated by state and trait anxiety as well.

How do we combat this enemy? Start with breathing.

Know your breath: As part of the "Next Level" BluePrint, Andrew recommends dedicating a block of time during each phase to physical blowing, the mastery of blowing mechanics using a manometer, and mental blowing, mastery of maintaining excellent blowing mechanics while playing tunes or fingerwork passages. It is important, when practicing physical and mental blowing, to consciously know how you are breathing. While you do want to develop your blowing to the point that it is second nature, if you have conscious knowledge of how you are blowing the instrument, and how you are breathing, you can consciously apply that knowledge when you are feeling performance anxiety.

If, for example, you are on the boards for a competition and your heart is racing, when you first step onto the boards, you can consciously apply your blowing and breathing technique to calm yourself during your warmup period. Once you have calmed yourself and have reached a state of equilibrium, you can finish your tuning sequence and make the final preparations for your performance. Breathing slowly and methodically can help to reduce your heart rate. By focusing on your breathing, you will also, to a degree, be performing a mindful meditation.

You can practice this during your practice session as well. Several musicians, including Kageyama and Michelle Anderson at Clarinet Mentors suggest this. Kageyama suggests going for a run around the block before practicing a performance piece. Anderson suggests doing jumping jacks. As pipers, we have a unique opportunity to engage in physical exercise, in order to elevate our heart rates, when we set our instrument down to acclimatize. When you have set your instrument down, do something to elevate your heart rate and develop a little bit of a sweat. Run around the block, do jumping jacks, go up and down the stairs several times. Then, pick up your instrument and consciously apply your breathing and blowing technique to calm yourself. Once you have reached a state of equilibrium with a lower heart rate, finish your tuning sequence and perform your music just as if you were performing for a judge. You could incorporate this routine into your recording day. Warm up your instrument. Set it down for ten minutes, engage in some sort of physical activity to elevate your heart rate, then return, pick up your instrument, consciously apply your breathing, and tape your performance. As Andrew notes in several Dojo U classes, "you only get one take!"

If you learn, and can consciously apply, how you breathe and how you blow your instrument, you will have a routine that you can use to calm yourself when you are feeling the physical effects of performance anxiety. If you practice this on a weekly basis, you will have a routine that you have perfected and can apply when you perform.

Take Action

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Mark Olson

Mark Olson is a software engineer in Omaha, NE. Over the years, he has played numerous musical instruments including the bagpipes, guitar, piano, flute, and saxophone. As a young man, Mark competed as a solo piper. Due to the demands of raising a family, Mark had to forgo his musical pursuits. While he regrets the fact he gave up the bagpipes, he is proud of the fact that both of his sons have grown to be fine young men. With the nest now empty, he has picked up the pipes once again. If he gets his chops, and his groove, back, he plans to compete again as a solo piper.

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