Taking the Anxiety Out of Performance

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume CII, No. 10October, 2002

Jane Burbank, CSW

Each of us has different ways of coping with performance anxiety. Some techniques are helpful while others can potentially be self-destructive. Reducing anxiety before it builds up is one of the best approaches. But before we can begin to overcome stage fright, we need to understand what it is.

There are three main components to performance anxiety. The first is cognitive, or what goes on in our heads. A cognitive example would be negative self-talk or an “inner critic.” The second is behavioral, or how we act and react when faced with stress. An example is not being able to make necessary phone calls, or having a few cocktails to calm your nerves before you go on stage. The third is biological. The biological piece happens when our bodies feel threatened and the so-called “fight or flight” response kicks in. This is the body’s natural reaction to stress or danger. This automatic response often causes butterflies in the stomach and other common physical sensations we feel under stress.

For some people, relaxation techniques alone can help significantly to reduce performance anxiety. For others, individual therapy is also helpful, especially if you have issues from the past that are affecting your present feelings and performance. In addition, there are even medications, usually prescribed in conjunction with therapy, which greatly help to reduce anxiety. In my work with clients, I sometimes find it effective to combine several techniques.


One of the most effective ways of dealing with anxiety is through the use of the breath. In all approaches to anxiety reduction, meditation or exercise, the breath is central. There are a number of breathing exercises one can learn to decrease tension and anxiety. In my work with musicians, actors and dancers I am repeatedly struck by how many artists have not been taught how to be conscious of their breathing – what I call “contacting the breath” – and have little understanding of its importance.

Many of us go through the day without breathing efficiently or even being aware of our breathing, so we feel increasingly tense and irritable as the day progresses. For myself, as a singer, being able to “contact my breath” makes it possible for me to support my sound, feel a connection with my body, and control my instrument. Correct use of the breath oxygenates our whole self, makes us feel energized, and connects us to our bodies. This helps us to be more engaged during performance.

For singers, proper breath support allows you to “phrase with your belly.” This means that with correct use of the breath, there is a physical and emotional connection to the music or the word. This connection has the possibility of allowing us as performers to get out of our heads and into the music. This is just as true for instrumentalists as for singers and actors. As a result, we feel more present or aware during performance and this in itself decreases anxiety. One of the reasons people say they feel better after coming to see me either as a teacher or a therapist is that they become more connected to their breath, and the increased oxygen itself is energizing.

When we feel tense or stressed, which is often the case before a performance, we have a tendency to take shallow breaths that stop high in our chests, causing our shoulders to lift. Unfortunately, this increases tension and keeps the body from being oxygenated. Breathing shallowly and high also means you lose control of your sound, and breath support. Over time, for singers in particular, supporting incorrectly can result in injury to the vocal folds.

It is important to be conscious not only of breathing, but also of how we take in and use air. The goal is to take a breath that goes low in our bodies, aiming behind the pubic bone. To do this, you have to release all tensions in the lower abdomen. In other words, don’t “hold in your stomach!”

Communicating this is one of my favorite parts of working with performers. Giving permission not to hold in your stomach, when most of us have been told most of our lives that we must, is a wonderful thing! The reason is that you cannot use your air effectively if you pull in your stomach muscles. For many people the act of releasing the lower abdominal muscles can be difficult at first and will require practice.

There are a number of things we can do as performers to reduce performance anxiety. Most importantly, we must understand that experiencing performance anxiety is extremely common among performers and is nothing to be ashamed of. The use of breathing and relaxation techniques, sometimes along with psychotherapy, can go a long way toward anxiety reduction.

Jane Burbank, CSW, is a psychotherapist 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. This article is based on a presentation she gave to a MAP networking session on Aug. 19. For more information regarding this article or her work, Burbank can be reached at (212) 592-8970.