Controlling Stress during Performance

Controlling Stress during Performance

The Physiology of Fear

To better understand how to control stress, it helps to first understand what it is.  Stress is a reaction to fear.  Fear is a natural occurrence and helps us survive.  When we perceive situations where we might be harmed, our brains and bodies react to better cope with it.  There are several mechanisms at work, and in two time frames.  The immediate response acts first while the longer-term response thinks about it.  For instance, if you’re startled, you may jump back.  As you’re jumping back, you may realize that it was just a shadow.  Your first reaction is processed quickly and unconsciously.  If there’s real danger, you need to start running now.  You can determine what you’re running from later.  On the other hand, if you continuously run from shadows, you won’t have the energy to run from real dangers.  That’s why it’s important that we have both immediate and more deliberate reactions.  Realize, though, that the first reaction is beyond your control: your body will react with fear to perceived potential harm.

The immediate response starts two mechanisms: the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system.  The ANS fires off nerve impulses in a fraction of second that control heart rate, digestion, respiration rate, and other body functions.  These prepare your body for action, such as fighting or running away.  The HPA system secretes hormones that travel through the bloodstream over the next several seconds.  These hormones, such as epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), give you extra energy so that your muscles can work harder.  The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) controls body functions as the fear response progresses, such as perspiration rate and constriction of some blood vessels.

We can recognize many of these physical changes as symptoms of fear.  For instance, constricting some blood vessels makes more blood available for your muscles, but it robs blood from your brain, causing you to feel light-headed or unable to think clearly.  Perspiring helps you dissipate the heat generated by your muscles during fighting or running, but it also makes your hands feel clammy and your palms sweaty.  Some other common reactions are:

  • Up to 300% more blood flow to muscles
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased blood sugars and fats
  • Increased rate of breathing, changing from deep breathing with the diaphragm to shallow breathing in the chest
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Slower digestion
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sharper hearing
  • Increased perspiration
  • Ÿ Dry mouth
  • Ÿ Tunnel vision
  • Ÿ Distorted sense of time

While these rapid actions are underway, the brain is also processing the information more deliberately.  It compares the triggering sound or sight to memories of similar sounds and sights.  It will search other areas of the brain to determine if you’ve ever heard of or read about this situation.  If it thinks that this is the same, or a sufficiently similar situation, then it lets the body continue with the reactions started earlier.  If it doesn’t think so – a false alarm – then the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) restores normal body functions.

Managing the Symptoms of Fear

In ancient times, these bodily reactions to perceived dangers helped us survive.  Few of us will face off to a lion nowadays, but that’s not how our brains “see” it.  Regardless of a threat’s source, it is processed by the same mechanisms.  That is, you react in the same ways, whether you’re about to be eaten, face banishment by your tribe, or think you might not live up to your expectations during a concert.  The loss of physical life, social support, or self image is all causes for the symptoms listed above.

In coming blogs, I’ll focus on preparing for a stressful situation.  For now, let’s assume that you’re in that situation.  What can you do?


Once I was playing postlude on the pipe organ at church.  In case you’re not familiar with this instrument, it’s like a piano, in that there are keyboards for your hands.  In addition, there’s a keyboard played by the feet.  As I was playing along, I thought everything was going just fine, until I reached with my left hand for a low note.  When I looked at my hand’s destination, I glimpsed my left leg.  It was shaking violently, moving up and down by over an inch several times a second.  Of course, if it accidentally hit one of those pedal board keys, no longer would everything be going just fine.  I suddenly became aware that I was stressed.  The symptom – the shaking leg – told me that my muscles were overly tense.  I now know that my HPA system was at least as much in control of me as I was.

As I discovered, the first step is controlling fear is awareness: becoming aware that you’re feeling the physical symptoms of stress.  The easiest ones to notice are your breathing, muscle tension, perspiration, and upset stomach.  But if you notice any unusual sensations or perceptions during performance, you can check them against lists on reputable Internet sites.  You’re also welcome to share them in your blog comments to see if others experience them and how they might be handled.  Most importantly, consult a physician if your symptoms repeat or persist.  Chronic or repeated stresses leave all those hormones and chemicals circulating through your body all the time, which can lead to severe side effects.

To practice awareness, pay attention to your breathing and muscle tension at various times: sitting relaxed, preparing to fall asleep, before and during music practice, and before and during a music performance.  When I was first trying to increase my awareness, I set a gentle alarm to go off every hour and then noticed what states my mind and body were in.


Now that you’ve become aware that you’re reacting to fear and feel stressed, a good next step is to control your breathing.  The body of science and the experience of generations of spiritual practitioners agree that there is a strong connection between breathing and your state of consciousness.  You may know from experience that excitement or stress causes you to breathe more rapidly than when you’re calm.  You may not know that the reverse is also true: if you slow your breathing, it calms you down.  That’s why people who are hyperventilating are given a small bag to fill with air.  Just 6 to 12 slow, natural breaths control the hyperventilation and start to calm the mind.  To practice calm breathing:

  • Stand or lie on the floor.
  • Put one hand on your stomach below your ribs and the other on your chest.
  • Breathe in through your nose deeply, so that the air pushes your stomach out while your chest remains still.
  • Exhale through pursed lips, and use the hand on your stomach to help push the air out slowly.
  • Repeat 3 to 10 times, breathing in and out at a reduced pace.


In addition to calming yourself with slower breathing, it helps to relax your muscles.  Relaxing has several important side effects for musicians.  First, you will be able to move more fluidly and rapidly.  Playing music with muscles in tension with each other is like driving a car with one foot pressing hard on the gas pedal while the other foot is pressing hard on the brake.  Even if you make it to your destination, you’ll be exhausted.  Relaxed muscles only have to operate your instrument – they don’t have to overcome the other muscles as well.  A second side effect is that the relaxed muscles will allow more blood to flow to other parts of your body.  Your brain will finally receive enough nutrients to think, your blood pressure will go down, and your heart won’t have to pound to force blood through constricted vessels.

It’s important to realize that our muscles are arranged in opposing groups: one group bends the joint and the other straightens it.  A portion of each muscle’s fibers is always in action.  This prevents your body from flopping around like overcooked spaghetti, while still giving the other muscle fibers a chance to rest.  This is called muscle tone, and is natural for your body when at rest.  As a general guideline, if you can’t feel the muscles at all, it’s because they are relaxed and in balance.

To practice awareness and relaxation of muscle tension:

  • Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Lift your heel while keeping your toes on the floor.
  • Think about your calf muscle (triceps surae) in the back of your leg and notice how tense it feels.  You may wish to grasp the calf muscle with your hand to feel the change in tension.
  • Return your foot to the flat position and lift your toes while keeping your heel on the floor.
  • Think about the muscle in your shin (tibialis anterior) and notice how tense it feels.  Again, you may wish to grasp this muscle to feel the change in tension.
  • Pull both muscles tight.  Notice how both muscles feel when they are working harder than the relaxed “muscle tone” state.  If you ever feel this when performing, your muscles are tensed and need to be relaxed.
  • Lift your foot from the floor so it can dangle freely.  This will be easier if you sit in a taller chair.
  • Rock your foot slowly toward heel and toe, noticing how much tension is in each muscle.
  • Slowly reduce the movement until you find the natural position of rest, and continue to relax all the muscles until you can’t feel them.  This is the state of relaxation that you want to feel in all the joints in your body.

Ÿ You can do this for each joint in your body, practice extending, retracting, tension, and relaxing the muscle groups that operate it.  But some will be more important to your musical performance than others, so start with them.

This is also a good exercise to practice before you sleep.  While lying down, work from your toes up, noticing which muscles are tense.  In each case, move slightly to find a position that doesn’t require muscular tension to keep you there.  When you get to your neck, this will keep you from waking suddenly.  If your neck is tensed to hold your head in position, your head will move slightly when sleep causes your neck muscles to relax.  This causes a falling sensation and makes you wake up suddenly again.

Slow Down

Another thing you can do during your performance is slow down, that is, if you’re playing solo.  Your slowing may be imperceptible.  Suppose that you’ve practiced a piece at 100 beats per minute.  During performance, you’re so excited that you start playing it at 105 or 110 beats per minute.  You’re a nervous wreck!  Will anyone notice if you gradually slow it down to 100 again?  Quite possibly not.  If you record your practice sessions and performances and listen to them, you might be surprised by how unnoticeable it is.  Your audience might appreciate that you slowed it down to the “normal” pace.  Here’s another way to think of it: it’s your interpretation!  If you play it fast, slow, or as the composer directed, it’s still your interpretation.  The audience doesn’t know what interpretation you intended, so don’t tell them with your facial expressions, body language, or comments.

Slowing down made a big difference when my leg was shaking.  I noticed that I’d be more relaxed if I slowed down.  But even I didn’t notice how much I slowed down.  Instead, I simply approached the next section of the piece with a different mindset.  I had been playing the piece with an “energetic” interpretation, which made me feel overextended and tense.  After the next cadence, I started playing the piece with a “stately” interpretation.  It still had energy, but as my mind relaxed, so did my muscles and my pace.  For instance, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is usually played at a rather frantic pace.  But could the bumblebee also be moving from flower to flower in a stately, thoughtful, graceful, waltzing, or other, slower manner?  I suggest that some of your audience will dislike your interpretation, and others will enjoy it, hearing the piece as if it were the first time.  For certain, they’ll appreciate it more if you slow down and play all the notes in time than if you go so fast that you miss notes and they fall out of rhythm.

To practice slowing down:

  • Record yourself as you play the piece with different interpretations.
  • Listen to the recording.
  • Can you notice a difference in speed?
  • Does the extra clarity make the reduction worthwhile?
  • What does playback with a metronome reveal?
  • How much can you slow down, and over what span of time, can you achieve without making a discernable difference?


One final thing you can do to deal with stress while you are performing is to move around.  Under stress, your body is pumping chemicals into your bloodstream to help you act.  If you don’t act, they’re still there, building up, itching for something to do.  In my case, it felt like they were all concentrated in my leg, and it moved around without my will or knowledge.  To avoid that, burn up those sugars and fats by moving around!  Tap your foot or sway back and forth.  Any motion that creates large muscle movement and appears natural to the audience is a candidate for this technique.  How to practice this is obvious – you just need spend some time at it.


If you find that your performance – or your leg – is shaky, you can employ these techniques even while you’re on stage:

  • Be aware of your mental, emotional, and physical state
  • Breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm
  • Relax your muscles
  • Slow down if you can
  • Move around

Then you’ll be able to perform the best you can under the circumstances.

In future blogs, I’ll discuss how to change “you”, “the best you can”, “performing” and “the circumstances”.

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