For most musicians, March means that auditions are over. But, this also means that for most of us, especially if you're a student, the next focus is spring recitals. Whatever the context, it's always helpful to have a few methods of dealing with performance anxiety. As everyone has their own ritual (I once knew someone who ate 5 bananas before every concert, whatever works for you!) here are a few things that I do that might also help you.
Breathe. Every time before I perform, whether it's a smaller performance or a big competition, my Mom has always told me (over the phone or in person) to take a deep breath before I start playing. I used to think, "Yeah, ok, whatever Mom," but now I have to do this every time before I start a performance. It makes a huge difference in focusing my concentration as well as my physical energy. Another aspect of breath that is important to note is the purpose of inhale and exhale; a yoga teacher once told me that the purpose of the inhale is to energize, but the purpose of the exhale is to relax. When we're anxious, our tendency is to inhale more than exhale, as our heart rate is higher. However, this increased inhaling can add to our anxiety and feeling of breathlessness. If you feel yourself taking several quick breaths in a row, take a second and try to take a long exhale, with the purpose of relaxing. Try to quiet the thoughts racing in your mind. I've noticed that paying attention to this difference in breathing has done wonders for my anxiety, and can be used when onstage.
Visualization. This next one may sound a little silly, but it has really helped me. Sometimes, while I'm performing (usually something scary from memory but it really could be anything) I imagine someone who I trust/love standing at the end of the stage, where I'm pointing my scroll. I was inspired by my teacher trainer who, at our students' solo recitals, tells the little ones just before they go onstage to look over at where she is standing, and point their scroll at her, and that she would be standing there the whole time. I thought this was a really helpful tactic to help the students' physical set-ups, but also provide them with a little more security. I don't care how old you are or how much experience you have; performing can be scary. You could really imagine anything; the other day, I pictured my dog at the end of the stage! Whatever it is you picture, if it gives you a little extra security and quiets your mind onstage, then it will help.
Bend your knees! This probably seems like an obvious one, but make sure you bend your knees before you start! It's really easy for us to lock up without even thinking about it, especially if we're nervous. Going back to my yoga training, I always try to engage 'tree pose', which is basically standing really firmly on the ground so you feel rooted to the earth, with some flexibility in your limbs. This doesn't mean you can't move! This pose helps center our physical energy while making us appear and feel more confident before and during a performance.
Play into the discomfort. This last one probably sounds to most of you like I'm on crack, but I think there's a lot to accepting mental discomfort and playing into it. I was talking to a friend the other day about performing memorized concertos and the feeling that one gets when walking up onstage to do it-it's scary and there's not much that can prepare you for it but good memorization preparation (see other blog posts for tips on this) and experience. If it feels like you forgot how to play the violin, just breathe, know that you know what you're doing and almost go on auto-pilot. I almost had a memory slip at the beginning of the Bruch concerto even though it starts on a long open G! If you overthink, it will often hurt more than help. Accept that it's scary, but tell yourself you've got it.
Hopefully some of these ideas will help you, and please share your own ideas for handling performance anxiety!