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Presentation on theme: "STAGE FRIGHT AND OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE Glenn Wilson PhD King’s College, London."— Presentation transcript:

1 STAGE FRIGHT AND OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE Glenn Wilson PhD King’s College, London

2 WHAT IS STAGE FRIGHT? An exaggerated fear of public appearance Not correlated with talent or ability Like other phobias, not amenable to reason Strikes experienced professionals as well as novices

3 SYMPTOMS General fight/flight (adrenaline) reaction: Sweating/trembling Raised HR/BP/palpitations Dry mouth/difficulty swallowing Shortness of breath/dizziness Butterflies in the stomach/nausea Blurred vision Loss of concentration/memory Would have survival value if fighting or running from audience were appropriate.

4 PREVALENCE University of Iowa School of Music survey (302 students/faculty): 21% “marked distress” 40% “moderate distress” 17% “marked impairment” 30% “moderate impairment” 9% “often avoided performance opportunities” 13% “interrupted a performance at least once” 15% “sought professional help”

5 MUSICIANS SUFFER MOST Marchant-Haycox & Wilson (1992): Musicians 47% Singers 38% Dancers 35% Actors 33% Requirements of musical performancemore exacting than acting? Solos worse than group performances (anxiety diminishes logarithmically with number of fellow performers). Auditions & competitions worse than opening nights.

6 STAGE FRIGHT IS NOT ALWAYS BAD De Vries (1999) found that actors were more likely to report that stage fright facilitated their performance rather than interfere with it.

7 YERKES-DODSON LAW Performance improves with increasing arousal up to an optimum point, beyond which it becomes detrimental.

8 TASK COMPLEXITY The optimal point is reached more rapidly when the task is cognitively complex (needing a clear head rather than just energy expenditure). The best musical performances (objectively assessed) occur at a level of arousal that is felt as uncomfortable to the performer themselves.

9 A three-dimensional extension of the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Optimal performance depends on interplay of individual differences, situational stress, and task mastery.

10 CATASTROPHE THEORY Hardy & Parfitt (1991) argue that a catastrophe model fits best. Once anxiety goes “over the top” there is a precipitous downturn with little chance of retrieval. Most likely to occur when cognitive anxiety is high as well as body agitation.

11 COGNITIVE STRATEGIES Catastrophe theory fits research on destructive thinking (Steptoe & Fidler 1987). Most detrimental - catastrophising: “I think I am going to faint” “I’m sure to make a dreadful mistake and that will ruin everything” Best kind - realistic appraisal: “I’m bound to make a few mistakes, but so does everyone.” “The audience wants me to play well and will make allowance for a few slips”.

12 DRUGS Anxiolytics (alcohol, benzodiazapines, cannabis): Often used as self-treatment. Diminish performance. Addictive & ultimately destructive. Stimulants (caffeine, amphetamine, cocaine): Again self-treatment – to stay awake, give energy & inspiration (esp. jazz musicians). Also addictive & destructive. Beta-blockers (nadolol, oxprenolol): Supposed to control physical symptoms of fear without cognitive impairment. Used by many musicians, often without prescription. Efficacy unclear & side-effects serious.

13 EXERCISE AND SLEEP Physical activity is an effective antidote against anxiety & depression. Fitness promotes stress resistance. Exposure to blue sky and fresh air also beneficial (esp. in winter). Important to take regular breaks during practice/rehearsal to avoid “cluttering”. Sleep equally important - consolidates new learning. Late nights & drinking impair concentration. Snooze before performance usually better than last-minute rehearsal.

14 SYSTEMATIC DESENSITISATION Classic behaviour therapy approach to phobias. Begins with training in muscle relaxation (possibly including biofeedback). Feared scenarios then introduced in graded doses (first in imagination, then reality). Theory is to break the fear>escape habit, persuading performer to maintain exposure until fear extinguishes. Some success, esp. with speech anxiety, but does not account for continuing fear in seasoned performers.

15 BREATHING RETRAINING Hyperventilation is common among high anxious performers (esp. female, c.f. panic disorders). Overly fast & deep breathing, surplus to requirements, leads (paradoxically) to O 2 deprivation in brain; hence dizziness, loss of concentration, etc. Applies particularly to singers & wind-players. Learning to breathe slowly, esp. in expiration phase, an important component of relaxation training.

16 ATTENTION ALLOCATION Focus of attention may be allocated three ways: The self: How am I looking? Am I playing well? The audience: How are they reacting? Are they impressed or showing signs of boredom/dislike? The music: Absorption in technical intricacies, shape, emotions it evokes. Absorption in the work is associated with least anxiety and optimal performance. Cognitive therapy aims at redirecting attention toward artistic flow of the work.

17 RATIONALIZING THOUGHT Performance often disrupted by irrational, negative thoughts: Overgeneralization: “I never…” “I always…” All-or-nothing thinking: “I am either a star or a loser.” Disqualifying the positive: “They liked my performance, but what do they know?” Self-reference: “Whatever is said about my performance is about me”. Superstition: “Without my pre-performance ritual I can’t perform well.” Catastrophising: “Once I make a mistake I’ll never get back on track.” Cognitive therapy seeks to identify these destructive thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

18 STRESS INOCULATION Developing realistic expectations can be as useful as positive affirmations. Performers taught to anticipate adrenalin effects but “befriend” them (reframe them as less threatening, even desirable). Pointed out that: (a) they are seldom conspicuous to the audience. (b) if noticed are seen as artistic emotionality. (b) contribute “electricity” to performance. (c) similar to what is felt if running to catch a bus or having sex (excitement rather than fear).

19 SELF-HANDICAPPING Hedging bets - a potentially harmful strategy adopted by some performers: “I have a sore throat at the moment” “I’ve never seen this music before” “My teacher demands an interpretation that doesn’t suit me” “I would have done better if I hadn’t had a late night.” Such negative self-talk easily becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. Next step is self-sabotage: e.g., failing to attend rehearsals; damaging one’s own instrument; getting drunk before a performance. Susceptible individuals need to watch for signs in themselves and insert positive strategies.

20 PICTURE IT PERFECT Instead of positive self-talk, some performers find it helpful to visualize ideal accomplishment (e.g., imagining themselves as Margot Fonteyn at Covent Garden or Pavarotti at La Scala. Most useful when performance is visual (e.g. sports skills, dance). Fantasies mimic effects of stage hypnosis, where ordinary members of the public give impressive performances. Mental rehearsal, when optimistic and goal-oriented, can optimise performance in many arenas.

21 CHECKLIST Is your tension really detrimental? (It might focus your thoughts; add a spark.) Is it telling you something useful? (Work too difficult?; more preparation needed?) Clean up your act. Don’t depend on drugs. Get more exercise/sleep. Is hyperventilation involved? Learn slow-breathing. Conditioned fear? Cognitive-behaviour therapy might help. Self-obsessed? Focus on enjoyment of the work rather than audience evaluation. Negative, catastrophizing self-talk? Replace with positive goal-imaging.

22 BIBLIOGRAPHY Full details and references may be found in: G.D.Wilson: Psychology for Performing Artists (Second Edition). London, Wiley (2002).

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