By Joseph Marcades
The curtain goes up. The pressure is on.
Few people know the tremors of that precious moment in the spotlight like students in the Texas Tech University School of Music, who are required to perform for their peers and professors many times in their academic careers. The goal is to prepare them for a future in front of an audience.
That doesn’t mean achieving total nonchalance. More than 90 percent of musicians experience musical performance anxiety, says Heather Hunnicutt, author of “Take Charge of Your Performance Anxiety: A Personalized Approach to Conquering Stage Fright.”
“There is nothing wrong with you if you experience it,” Hunnicutt said. “Actually, you are weird and unusual if you do not.”
Musicians dealing with performance anxiety can experience physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms, according to Hunnicutt. These symptoms are felt on different levels, depending on where one falls on the anxiety spectrum. On one end of the bell curve are people with minimal anxiety, Hunnicutt said; on the other, people with severe anxiety.
“Most people are on the big hump which is in the moderate range: low-moderate, moderate-moderate, and high-moderate,” Hunnicutt said. “The moderate range is exactly where you want to be and where you are supposed to be.”
But as performers start getting into the high-moderate to high anxiety range, symptoms such as labored breathing and muscle tension start to interfere with their optimal performance, Hunnicutt said. This the point at which a performer clearly needs help.
Gregory Brookes, assistant professor of voice at the School of Music, said students’ many high-stress performances, such as auditions and faculty evaluations, are meant to serve as practice in handling anxiety.
“We give our students many different opportunities to try and help them gain experiences so they can address the anxiety they know they are going to experience,” Brookes said.
Students are required to perform for their studio class on a weekly basis. Other appearances include performing in front of everyone in one’s specialty: voice, wind, brass, etc.
“Probably the most anxiety-inducing experience is the jury that every music major has to do at the end of each semester,” Brookes said. “They have to perform for four or five faculty members …then they receive a grade for their performance.”
These juries are a music majors’ final exams. Before students reach their recitals, they will have been through five juries, Brookes said.
The junior recital includes about 35 minutes of music, and for some, the major performances end there. Performance majors, however, will go on to do a senior recital featuring about 45 minutes of music.
“The recital is the biggest thing a music major is going to have to do,” Brookes said.
Hannah Hansard, a junior music education major, said her junior recital was extremely stressful. To prepare, she tried to stay as relaxed as possible.
“Personally, I slept a lot, and I pampered myself, and I relaxed,” Hansard said. “Honestly, whenever I was backstage getting ready to go on stage … I just took a few deep breathes.”
She was terrified when she walked out for her first set but felt fine after getting through three Italian arias.
“I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to go out on stage and bare our souls,” Hansard said.
Hunnicutt said treatments for performance anxiety are different for everyone. Understanding the anxiety is the first step.
In the next few weeks, Hunnicutt will be launching the Musical Performance Anxiety Diagnostic Questionnaire in conjunction with her new book. She said this questionnaire will help diagnose people’s anxiety more specifically while also giving them a personalized guide.
“Performance anxiety is an intersecting thing,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s one of those dangerous subjects in life where everybody thinks they know about it. It’s so much more complicated than what everybody wants to oversimplify it to be.”