How to Handle the Heebie-Jeebies

Musicians’ Assistance Program

Volume CIV, No. 9September, 2004

Leslie Cardell, CSW

You’re sitting in the green room, and in a few minutes you’ll have to get up, go onstage, and begin the performance. You’re wondering, “Should I go to the bathroom one more time?” You can feel your heart rate picking up, your palms are getting sweaty, and your mouth is dry. There’s a manager out in the audience tonight you had hoped to impress. You feel quite certain now: you’re going to make a complete fool of yourself.

Stage fright, the jitters, butterflies, or the colly wobbles — no matter what you call it, performance anxiety can be an unpleasant, even disturbing experience.

A lot goes into making performing such a stressful activity. There’s the intense competition for work, perhaps a desire to hit every note perfectly, the knowledge that your peers, critics, the audience (including, perhaps, your mother) may be observing your performance with a critical eye. Who wouldn’t feel anxious?

And on top of it all, musicians need exquisite control over the very processes that can be most affected by anxiety (muscle coordination, memory and concentration).


Some anxiety goes with the territory; it’s a normal, even necessary part of performing. We’re anxious because we care. Anxiety can motivate us to do our best, and it gives a performance that edge that makes it exciting. Too much anxiety however, can be quite debilitating.

You’re probably familiar with the “flight or fight” reaction by now. Under stress, our bodies are designed to either fight or flee. In a real emergency that can be a great thing. The increased blood flow to the large muscles of the body can help that mother we’ve all heard stories about lift the car off her child. The cold hands and decreased tactile sensitivity, however, aren’t so good for tricky instrumental fingering.

You may have developed your own methods of coping with performance anxiety. Have you ever wondered what you’re doing to make it worse? Sometimes what we say to ourselves about the anxiety we’re feeling only exacerbates it. Do you start telling yourself, “I’m not up to this,” or worse yet, “I’ll never be hired again.” Perhaps you’ve set unrealistically high standards for yourself. Performing is difficult, mistakes are to be expected, they’re the rule, not the exception.

One technique that can be helpful in coping with anxiety is to look at how you can begin to exchange negative thoughts and behaviors for more positive ones. For example, if you become aware of thinking, “I’m feeling really anxious about tonight,” try translating that to “I’m feeling really excited about tonight.” The experiences of anxiety and excitement have a lot of similarities, and sometimes we confuse the two.

Remind yourself that your performance doesn’t have to be perfect. And remember, the audience wants you to succeed; they’ve come to have a good time. Do confront your anxiety; avoiding it will only make it worse. Perform as often as you can. You may crash and burn on occasion, but even if you do, you’ll discover that you survive. Look for opportunities to give yourself successful experiences — a low-key performance of a favorite piece with friends.

Another strategy that can be helpful is to develop a relaxation ritual as a way of grounding and centering yourself before a performance. Practice physical relaxation, breathing and meditation techniques. A regular routine that involves a mental and physical warm-up can be reassuring in its familiarity, and helps you to enter a creative frame of mind.


Here’s a simple technique to try the next time you start feeling tense. First — just smile. Next, take two very slow, very deep breaths (in through your nose, and out through your mouth). Finally, tell yourself, “Keep my body out of this.” When you smile you’re changing the facial tension that can result from anxiety.

Altering the pattern of muscle tension in your face can actually have an effect on the emotions you’re feeling. The deep breaths have an effect on your cardiovascular system, and can lower your state of physiological arousal. Telling yourself to “Keep my body out of this” helps to put the situation into better perspective.

When I was still acting, I had a number of strategies for dealing with my own performance anxiety. One of them was to visualize a beautifully wrapped, carefully selected gift in the palm of my outstretched hand. As I stood back stage, I would imagine offering this gift to the audience, knowing that whether or not they chose to accept it was beyond my control. All I could do was make the offer; the rest was up to them.

The MAP office will be offering an eight-week group on Mondays beginning in mid-October to explore the issues discussed in this article. If you’d like to learn more about what triggers your own performance anxiety, and get some new ideas of how to cope with it, call the Musicians’ Assistance Program at (212) 397-4802.