Learning to Love Nerves By Dr Daniel K. Robinson

Performers love to perform.

Performers don’t always love the nerves that accompany performance. Recently, while watching a student performance I was reminded of the levels of anxiety that can accompany new performance experiences. One student, in preparing for his first ever public performance, reported that the anticipated concert had left him sleepless the night before. Nerves, clinically known as ‘performance anxiety’, do not randomly choose their victim. Scholars estimate that between 50% (Tree, 2004) and 69% (Wingate, 2008) of performers experience some form of stage fright. Anecdotally, I believe the figure to be much higher.

David Roland (1997) in his book The Confident Performer writes “Every professional artist I have spoken to confesses to experiencing some anxiety before performing, even when they have had many years of performance experience” (p. 5). The point is, regardless of the statistics, you are not alone in your experience of performance anxiety. Before discussing some strategies for managing performance anxiety lets define what constitutes as ‘nerves’. Sharon Tree (2004), in her article Performance Anxiety: What Causes the Singer to ‘Choke’ and How to Overcome Such Problems defines nerves as “a form of social phobia...that is experienced by a range of people in a range of fields on any occasion in which one must present oneself before others, with or without scrutiny” (p. 38).

Tree goes onto describe the ‘fight or flight’ of performance anxiety as a “cognitive-physiological- behavioural chain reaction” (p. 38). Roland (1997) simplifies the description by asking his readers, Do you ever experience tension, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ or nervous anticipation? You might be relieved to know that all artists experience some anxiety about performance. Artists who experience anxiety to a severe extent call this ‘stage fright’. Whatever word you use, some self-doubt about your ability to perform is perfectly normal and understandable.

In fact, most experienced performers become concerned if they don’t experience some nervous anticipation before performing. (p. 3) I resonate with the last sentence of the above quote. I have been referred to as an ‘adrenalin junky’. I love the heightened sense of awareness that comes with my performance anxiety; but it hasn’t always been that way! In the early days of developing my craft as a performer my performance anxiety would often escalate to a point leaving me dry in the mouth, seemingly incontinent and with no memory for the lyrics.

These are not the only symptoms of ‘out-of-control’ nerves. Other physical signs can include increased perspiration, nausea and an augmented heart rate. This is not an exhaustive list, but I am certain you will be able to identify at least one as a symptom resulting from your experience of nerves. Having defined what performance anxiety is, let’s now turn to the management strategies which can assist in de-escalating the nerves while still embracing the adrenalin. Again, the following suggestions are by no means comprehensive and I direct the reader seeking more detail to David Roland’s and Sharon Tree’s independent works (listed in the references below) for a more thorough review of the subject.

The ‘triple-threat’ frontage (cognitive-physiological-behavioural) of performance anxiety provides a good framework to offer brief managerial suggestions:

  • Cognitive: The mental approach (or perception) of a perceived threat can determine the level of cognitive response. Tree (2004) suggests that developing ‘self-awareness’ by keeping a journal as helpful for some. The practice of ‘writing it down’ can also contribute positively to developing a ‘realistic appraisal’ which Tree recommends “should allow for the likelihood of an imperfect performance, and reinforce that flawlessness is not the goal” (p. 44)
  • Physiological: Breath management is recognised as a key strategy in the de-escalation of surging adrenalin. Many trained singers have had the opportunity to develop the skills of managed breath flow. These same skills, when applied to the slowing of inhalation/exhalation patterns can assist in calming the performer. Many performers have also reported that body awareness disciplines such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais are also helpful in appropriating good muscle tonus.
  • Behavioural: A behavioural strategy that I have seen used with success is the ‘mock performance’. The mock performance is achieved by mentally situating the performer in the performance setting (generally with eyes closed) and working through the different stages of the performance: walking to the stage, introduction of first song, singing the first song etc.). At each point the mock performer is encouraged to describe the response of the mock audience and the resulting sensations (anxiety levels).

As already stated, this is a limited list; but it hopefully provides some helpful hints in managing the nerves. Of course, some actions (or the lack of action) can lead to performance anxiety. Pat Wilson (2001) states it plainly: “You have every reason to fear it if you have failed to prepare for your work” (p. 32). Lack of preparation aside, when managed well, performance anxiety and the adrenalin that generally accompanies it can be your best friend – you may even learn to love it!


Roland, D. (1997). The confident performer. Paddington, NSW: Currency Press.

Tree, S. (2004). Performance anxiety: What causes the singer to 'choke' and how to overcome such problems. Australian Voice, 10, 11.

Wilson, P. (2001). The singing voice: an owners manual (2nd ed.). Strawberry Hills NSW, Australia: Currency Press.

Wingate, J. (2008). Healthy singing. San Diego CA: Plural Publishing.

A link to the original article (and many more that delve deeper into the world of vocal care) can be found here, courtesy of Dr.Dan: http://www.djarts.com.au/articles/learning-to-love-nerves/

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