7th Aug 2019

Beat the butterflies

Overcoming musical performance anxiety is achievable with a practical, strategy-based approach

Sing Up
Beat the butterflies

A hush descends on the assembly hall as the audience awaits the performance your class has been preparing for the past few weeks. Your hands are sweaty; your heart is beating fast. You hope they remember the words and when to sing. You hope the weeks of practice pay off and the class performs well. You hope and hope.

As the backing track starts, Sophie giggles nervously. Richard scans the audience looking for someone. Katharine stares at her feet, trying desperately to hide behind Andy. Peter nudges Emma, visibly annoying her. As the introduction draws to a close, you are relieved as the class breathes together and sings the opening line.

Nerves are natural

Getting nervous and making mistakes are natural parts of the performance process. Yet it’s often a fear of getting things wrong that can cause performers to hide away, lose concentration or make mistakes at key performance moments. Conversely, such fear can lead to the actual thing young performers and teachers want to avoid - an embarrassing moment or poor performance. However, this need not be the case.

Traditionally there has been little help available for teachers regarding practical ways to help young performers – and themselves – mentally prepare for upcoming performances. However, guidance is now available via a freely downloadable booklet bringing together our perspectives from performance psychology and music education. The ISM resource Performance anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers has 52 pages of practical suggestions to help you and your students. The guide has three easy to follow flowcharts based on psychological research into performance. Each flowchart asks a series of questions to help you select appropriate strategies for a variety of situations, symptoms and causes, based over three key time periods:

  • Long term - strategies to embed in your everyday teaching
  • Medium term - strategies for the week leading up to a performance
  • Short term - strategies for the day of the performance, including during and after the performance.

Reflecting on your teaching using the following questions can help you feel confident that, when a performance time arrives, your class will be ready to perform.

Does your teaching reflect what you value?

A reflection on the values you bring to your teaching can influence your motivation and that of your students. We would guess that most teachers don’t start teaching to have students take exams or feel nervous. Therefore, considering whether your teaching is in line with what you value in education provides a means of helping students enjoy their learning.

What type of climate/atmosphere are you creating?

The atmosphere you create in any learning situation can be one that promotes development through enjoyment or through unhealthy competition. Students often compare themselves with others. Some will benefit from this; others will suffer. Using comparison as a means of promoting healthy development (eg. identifying what others do well that students can follow, rather than using the same information to highlight what they cannot do well) not only improves learning but also helps to reduce the probability of performance anxiety developing.

Do you reward the process, the outcome, or both?

Reflecting on how you reward and motivate your students massively influences the presence of performance anxiety. If your teaching focuses on the outcome of the performance more than how to achieve that end result, you could be creating a rich breeding ground for performance anxiety. All students develop at different rates so maintaining a commitment to rewarding effort is worthwhile. It’s crucial to reflect on the importance you - and your students - place on any upcoming performance. Emphasising that feeling nervous is natural, and being accepting of errors, will help your students look forward to upcoming performances rather than worrying about them.

Are your existing strategies good enough to help you and your class handle their nerves?

So, let’s revisit the initial scenario. You, as teacher, are experiencing very natural physical reactions to feeling nervous, including sweaty hands and a fast-beating heart. Sophie is also feeling nervous and she giggles nervously as a result. This is common – the feeling of needing to release tension in the body. Therefore, using one of our short-term strategies for changing your, and Sophie’s, physiology, will help you both. In this instance, breathing out for longer than you breathe in helps to slow down a racing heart. If you breathe in for the count of two and breathe out for the count of four, you should notice a calming sensation.

Richard’s scanning of the audience suggests he is distracted and not fully paying attention to the upcoming performance. This distracted attention will not help him to perform well. Prior to the performance, Richard would benefit from you emphasising the opening bars of the song. This will help him to keep his attention on the start of the song rather than whatever else may be happening.

Reframe your thoughts

Katharine’s body language indicates she isn’t feeling confident about singing in this context. This is likely to be caused by her thoughts about the upcoming performance. She may be telling herself something like, ‘I don’t like performing!’ or, ‘I hope I don’t mess up!’ This type of thinking will not help Katharine enjoy singing in front of others. However, by asking Katharine to reframe her thoughts, she can make the same thought more encouraging. So, she could reframe her thoughts as: ‘I don’t like performing but I know I can do it and it is enjoyable once I start.’ She could reframe the thought: ‘I hope I don’t mess up!’ to ‘I hope I don’t mess up but I won’t because I am ready and I know this song well and have practised it loads’.

Example of cognitive reframing (Strategy 13B)

Original thought: People will think I’m a bad singer because I can’t sing in front of people.

Reframed thought: The audience and all my friends support me and want me to do well. They’ve heard me sing before and really enjoy my singing.

Routines to start

We also saw that Peter was annoying Emma, making it difficult for both of them to be ready to start the song when they are meant to. In prior preparations with the whole class, a good way to focus children’s attention is to co-develop a routine. This routine can begin just before the backing track starts:

  • Thought element: reminding themselves ‘this music is a gift to the audience’ 
  • Behavioural element: look up to the back right corner of the room
  • Breathing element: Take a deep breath in 
  • Trigger: saying the words ‘Let’s do it!’ in their heads

This routine will help all students get inside the song right from the beginning and enjoy the performance.

Example of a pre-performance routine (strategy 12B)

Thought element
What do you think about before you are about to perform that helps you perform well? This could be the opening bars of the performance or the theme of the performance.

Behavioural element
What action will you take after your thought that will let you know you are ready to begin? This could be to nod your head or to sit upright.

Breathing element
Once you have completed your behaviour above, what type of breath lets you know you are ready to perform? This could be a deep breath or a shallow one.

Trigger/activation word or phrase
What word or phrase gets you activated to perform immediately? For example, this could make you more alert: ‘Let’s go!’ Or give you confidence: ‘I can do this!’

Performance for life

We should remember that an event we may not view as a ‘performance’ may be something that, in our student’s mind, is provoking deeply- felt anxiety. This anxiety doesn’t just exist within our musical lives though, and helping students develop their toolkit of strategies to feel mentally prepared for performing can also help them in the rest of their lives as they transfer these skills from one situation to another.

Performance anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers can be freely downloaded from