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How to Help Your Child Overcome Performance Anxiety


tabby and white cat with a blue collar standing on the piano keys like it is playing

Winter recital season is upon us, and spring recitals aren’t that far away. Whether your child is playing in a Zoom recital with four other students or stepping up on stage in a grand concert hall, they will be anxious. That’s okay! Performance anxiety isn’t inherently a bad thing.


Performance anxiety heightens our senses and can lead to better performance. The trick, of course, is to find the right level of anxiety to both maximize performance and minimize the debilitating effects of too many nerves gone haywire. There is no perfect amount of anxiety. It will, of course, vary from performer to performer. There are things that parents can do to help their child gain more control over their anxious feelings.


“It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation” ~Unknown.


Messaging


Start with the message you send your child about being nervous! There is nothing wrong with being nervous, but kids get the message from an early age that there is. Well-meaning comments like “there’s nothing to be nervous about” convey that being nervous is a bad thing. If a child internalizes this idea as they grow as a musician and, inevitably, are still apprehensive when they perform, they can think they are doing something wrong and are bad at being a musician.


Everyone is nervous to some degree when they perform! Talk to your child about your own nerves when you’re doing something you care about, and you’re nervous. Remind your child of other times when they were nervous, and things all turned out fine. And be careful what you say about nerves, including praising someone who appears calm when they perform.


Pre-Performance Routine


Routines are fantastic for getting people into the right mindset for a particular activity. I am definitely a fan! Just like having a pre-practice warmup routine helps a child be more successful with practicing, so will having a pre-performance routine help with a successful performance. Routines help to stabilize nerves and anxious feelings.


Routines should be personalized. There is no magic length, though keeping it shorter is better. If ever pressed for time (traffic, anyone?), having a long routine might cause more anxiety if it can’t be completed quickly. Personally, I would also avoid props like good luck charms. Tying success to a physical object is rife with potential issues if the object ever gets lost!


Help your child come up with a few ideas and help them practice. Encourage them to be flexible with this routine and change it over time as they continue to grow as a musician and need different things.


Here are a few things to consider including as part of a pre-performance routine:


1. A few deep, intentional breaths. Breathing exercises aren’t just for singers and brass and woodwind players. Deep breathing is beneficial for every person in every situation. Research has shown that deep breathing helps reduce stress, increase calm and energy, improve immunity and digestion, lower blood pressure, and more. Taking a few deep breaths before performing helps to build a conditioned response. Like Pavlov’s dogs, those deep breaths will create an automatic calm response if they are part of a regular pre-performance routine.


Deep breathing has become so unnatural in our modern lives that we need to practice it to rebuild that skill. The benefits of a deep breathing practice will be felt far outside performance anxiety soothing. There are a lot of deep breathing exercises. A simple one to get your child started is Square Breathing.


Breathe in for a count of 4

Hold for a count of 4

Breathe out for a count of 4

Pause for a count of 4

Repeat


For young children, it can help to draw a square on a piece of paper and have them trace the sides as they breathe or encourage them to visualize a square in the air in front of them and trace the imaginary square with their finger in the air as they breathe. Encourage your child to focus on their breath and try to clear their mind. Breathing with them will not only help them as you demonstrate, but it can also calm your parental pre-performance nerves!


2. Affirmations and prayer. A few words, spoken aloud or prayed in the silent sanctuary of your heart, can do a lot to help you self-soothe. While the Buddha didn’t actually say, “We are what we think” (that was a mistranslation), he did say that indulging in certain kinds of thoughts inclines our minds in a direction similar to those thoughts. This makes sense. “Practice makes permanent,” and if we are “practicing” negative self-talk, then that negative self-talk gets ingrained in the psyche, and we start to believe it. It gets soaked into the woodwork, as it were. Likewise, positive self-talk can also become permanent, whether in the form of affirmations or loving words to your Higher Power.


If you’re my age (Gen-X), then you probably remember the character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live. Played by Al Franken, Stuart Smalley was the host of a mock self-help show. His famous catchphrase was, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." The skits were meant to get laughs, but there is scientific research to back up the benefits of affirmations and prayer. An excellent way to help your child come up with what to say is to help them rephrase their negative self-take into a positive statement. Here are a few ideas to help you get started. Any of these can be re-worded into prayer to your Higher Power, asking for their strength and guidance.


I thrive under pressure.

I love performing in front of an audience.

I am ready to perform beautifully.

I am excited to share my music.


3. Stretches. Our minds and bodies are interconnected. This seems obvious. Right? Yet when something is “brain-based,” we tend to forget to pay attention to what is going on with our bodies. Relaxing the body can help relax the mind and vice versa. When we are nervous, our bodies tense up. If we consciously relax the tension in our bodies, we can soften some of the tension in our minds. Plus, playing an instrument or singing is physically taxing! Including some stretches will help ease tension and warm up the body for performance.


Two I like are:


Arm swings (also called Knocking on Heaven’s Door in yoga class). Stand with feet hip-width apart and a soft bend in your knees. Then, swing side to side with loose arms. Really get into flopping the arms about. Encourage your child to get silly with this (hint: the sillies also help calm nerves).


Arm flops. Same stance as above. Stretch both arms high to the sky. Really stretch, even going up on tippy-toes, then flop the arms back down. Just relax and let gravity do the flopping. Don’t slam the arms down.


Experiment with your child to create a pre-performance routine. The important thing to remember is that performance anxiety is fueled by neurological responses deep in our brains. No amount of deep breathing, affirmations, or whatnot will completely eliminate it. The goal isn’t to completely eradicate nervous feelings. The goal is to learn to accept those feelings and perform anyway. Performance nerves are to be expected anytime you do something challenging. If the nerves are coming because your child isn’t ready for the performance, those nerves can also be a good thing. They can motivate your child to prepare better for the next performance.


One of the many (MANY!) benefits of learning an instrument at a young age is the opportunity to gain confidence in public performance when the stakes are low. If at all possible, always sign your child up for their teacher’s recitals. The earlier they start learning to be comfortable in front of an audience, the easier it is as they grow into adolescence and adulthood when the stakes are higher and the audience less forgiving. While not everyone will grow up to regularly perform in front of a large crowd, we all grow up to have job interviews and other responsibilities that put us speaking in front of people. Creating a routine to help your child learn to manage performance nerves now will benefit them for the rest of their lives.


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