There are times when many of us feel that our performance may not be up to par. Sometimes this feeling only lasts for a performance or two. For others, this may continue for an extended period of time and become troubling. There could be technical reasons for these performance problems, but often the underlying cause may be emotionally based.
Anxiety about playing or singing can increase when we feel we are not performing at our best. This anxiety can lead to the fear that we may be losing control over our instrument. In addition, we might become concerned about how others perceive our performance, perhaps even fearing that our perceived inadequate performance may affect getting future work.
The anxieties themselves can interfere with our ability to perform at our best. These feelings can snowball and spill over into other parts of our lives.
An extreme example of this is illustrated by a successful singer I worked with who, during an extended run, had a painful relationship breakup. The breakup triggered past, unresolved self-esteem issues and caused her to “lose” her singing voice. Although her speaking voice was not affected and she was examined by an ear, nose, and throat specialist who found there was nothing medically wrong with her, she was unable to produce a singing sound. This inability to sing continued for almost a year while she worked through these issues in psychotherapy.
This is a particularly dramatic example of how emotions can negatively impact performance. Other less dramatic examples are common. Instrumentalists may find that their fingers or hands don’t do what they want them to do, or that soloing has become more difficult. Unresolved emotional issues may be the cause. Emotions are intricately tied to musical expression in part because the singer’s instrument is in the body while other instruments are extensions of the player.
In addition to unresolved emotional conflicts, sometimes a harsh inner critic can negatively effect performance. Listen to your own self-talk leading up to performance. When you are first called for a gig, what goes through your mind? Often anxiety about a performance begins long before we perform. For example, when you hear about the possibility of a job, do you begin to think of all the reasons that you might not get it? Do you begin to feel you’re not as good as someone else, or you don’t deserve to get the job for some reason?
Sometimes these self-destructive thoughts may be caused by an early trauma and possibly even an early performance trauma. An example might be having been told by choral directors or teachers to just mouth the words and not to sing. Or you might have had a parent or teacher criticize your playing or be overly demanding. Sometimes negative messages given by others begin to become our own thoughts. This can be extremely undermining and negatively effect performance.
One way to begin to overcome negative thinking is to do cognitive restructuring, which means changing our thought patterns. First, become aware of your thoughts and whether they are negative or self-critical. Keep a small journal and observe your thoughts during the day. After spending some time assessing your thoughts, begin to replace those thoughts with positive thoughts about yourself and your performance. When you find yourself doubting your abilities, replace the self-doubting thoughts with positive thoughts about yourself. When you become aware you are thinking negatively about yourself, like, “I can’t play this piece,” stop and think, “I don’t have to think this. I have the skills, and if I practice I will learn to master this piece.” We have much more control over our own thoughts than we usually think.
By beginning to become aware of these thought patterns, and in some cases through insights gained in psychotherapy, the negative impact on performance can be reduced.
Jane Burbank, CSW, is a psychotherapist and music therapist in private practice in New York City and has 30 years’ experience as a performer and voice teacher. She has a Master’s degree in social work from New York University and a Bachelor’s degree in music and voice from SUNY Empire State College. For more information regarding this article or her work, Burbank can be reached at (212) 592-8970.