by Ashley Powell
Imagine walking out onto a stage in front of 10,000 people waiting to hear you perform. While the sight of a large audience thrills and motivates many performing artists, this is not the case for all stars. The truth is that even some famous musicians who have amassed great fan support continue to suffer from performance anxiety, more commonly known as stage fright. This form of anxiety results in an increased state of physiological arousal, which actually impedes performance. The talented singer-songwriter Carly Simon struggled with performance anxiety for many years of her career, so much so that she would poke her hands with safety pins to distract herself. Before one performance, Simon had her band’s entire horn section spank her as she awaited the rise of the curtain.
Of course, all artists get nervous sometimes. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso said that artists who claim to never get nervous are not artists, or else they are liars or fools. We have probably all suffered from this type of anxiety at some point in our lives while performing in front of people—whether it be singing, giving a presentation, or playing in an athletic competition. However, this “nervous energy” (which often translates into a positive means of motivation) differs from performance anxiety.
So what exactly is performance anxiety? And does is fade away with increased level of talent? Performance anxiety is a psychological disorder in which an individual’s performance skills are impaired through his or her resistance and apprehension in the face of a public crowd. It has nothing to do with one’s musical capacity or preparation time. According to the Yerkes-Dodson curve (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908), moderate levels of arousal improve performance, but high levels of arousal impair performance. In the face of this increased state of arousal, well beyond the ideal point of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, mobilizing the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to a threat (in this case, a crowd). Behavioral manifestations include trembling, muscle tension, and changes in posture. When epinephrine is released, heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict. As a result, blood pressure increases, causing overheating and sweating. In the case of singers, vocal chords tighten, which makes one’s voice sound shaky.
What causes this stage fright? Sinden (1999) conducted a study on 138 student musicians at the university level using Frost’s Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Frost et al., 1990). Sinden found a strong correlation between perfectionism and performance anxiety. Many studies have been done since then, contributing to the growing evidence that many socially anxious people may be perfectionists (Alden, Ryder, & Mellings, 2002). Setting such high performance standards and concerning oneself with mistakes only contributes to further self-criticism and performance anxiety.
So, if you ever wonder if the stars still get stage fright, the answer is that some do. Whether or not Carly Simon identifies as a perfectionist, she certainly exemplifies a star who does not like to shine in the limelight (rather, under the stage lights). While most stars live for the crowds, there are those who dread them despite being talented. But if you do suffer from performance anxiety, you can always try poking your hands with safety pins.
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Wikipedia (n.d.). Carly Simon. In Wikipedia. Retrieved 10 April, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carly_Simon
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Yerkes, R.M., & Dodson, J.D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-82.
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