Overcoming Performance Anxiety: 'Beyond Practicing' and the Centering Exercise

In my last newsletter I wrote about how it came to pass several years ago that I had a whole new bundle of performance anxiety. This week is Part 2 of my story of overcoming performance anxiety.

I am a regular reader and fan of Noa Kageyama’s blog at the Bulletproof Musician. As a specialist in performance anxiety, as someone who dealt with it himself, who went to Julliard and other top schools and then went on to become a psychologist, I thought his program might be a good place to start.

I signed up for his online class Beyond Practicing and dove into learning all about performance anxiety. He covers everything from what happens physically when we’re nervous to effective practice techniques to training our brains and bodies to perform optimally under pressure.

I don’t want to tell you all I learned in Beyond Practicing, because, first of all, that wouldn’t be fair to Dr. Kageyama. Second, that would be a really long post. So in short, what I want to offer is one gem that saved my performing career.

Centering

I don’t remember all the details of the first concert I played after practicing with Centering. What I do remember is that there were a handful of challenging songs that triggered all my cascading anxiety symptoms – elevated heart rate, drop in the pit of my stomach, mad crazy flip-flopping butterflies, über distracted brain that was more concerned about my stomach antics than the notes on the page, and worry about what everyone would think of me when I failed miserably.

The amazing thing about that first performance – I nailed all the music that I had targeted with Centering. I was elated, to say the least.

The Centering Exercise is designed to harness and redirect the excess energy generated by nerves (or build and amplify energy if you happen to be a person who gets really tired as a symptom of nerves). With steps to help me focus the energy and steps to help me engage the right brain and stay in the moment, I was back to functioning while performing.

How you can apply:
Read through Dr. Kageyama’s explanation of Centering and apply it to your practice and performance.

A few tips.

As Dr. Kageyama says, practicing Centering for 10-15 minutes each practice session makes this skill most useful and easily applied under pressure. Don’t try to cram learning it into one day, or only use it at the performance. Just as you need to train your body to learn the music, you need to train your brain to respond the way you want it to prior to performance.

Make it your own. The Centering exercise as presented by Dr Kagayama is the classic version that has worked in high pressure situations for over 40 years. But once you learn the concepts and the feeling, you can simplify and combine steps.

I found the step on releasing tension to be quite challenging, and focusing on gratitude did the job even better for me. I choose something to be intensely grateful for in the performance – collaborators, specific musical phrases, venue, audience. I let that feeling of gratitude grow and expand, and that melts my muscles much more effectively than commanding my body to relax.

I worked on learning to Center for quite a few weeks. One night, I had a vivid dream that I was playing basketball, professionally of course (for those of you who don’t know me personally – I am 5’ 2”, and can hardly dribble a ball). The clock was down to the final seconds, I had the ball, and it was my chance to win the game. I looked out to the crowd, and knew I had to decide where to put my mental energy. I could focus on the fans and the team around me and their hopes and dreams. Or I could take a risk, put my mental blinders on, shut all of that out, and completely direct all of my attention on my hands, on the ball, and on the basket.

I woke up without completing my shot. But I remembered that feeling of complete focus on my job, and shutting out all distractions. It's a feeling of dropping deep into my body and letting go of the voices in my head, the shoulds, the worries, the nerves. Now when I Center, I connect to that feeling, and I don’t need to walk myself through all the steps. I go for the feeling.

So find what works for you. And then practice in advance. As you use Centering in your music, you will find at first that other things will fall apart. The first few times through may actually be disastrous in other ways. That’s normal and to be expected.

Let me know if you give this a try. I’m happy to answer any questions or hear about your experiences!

Coming up next week, Part 3 of my story of overcoming performance anxiety, and my year of improv classes.