Reaching your full potential
Attaining and maintaining a high standard of musical performance is a prime concern for every performing musician. Most musicians now have to manage what is called a portfolio career consisting of various freelance activities, some musical some not. This can involve long hours away from home, difficulties in squeezing in enough practice time and, because of financial restraints, orchestras are not always able to allocate enough rehearsal time for concert preparation. Add to this bad seating and lighting and low financial rewards and it is clear that developing strategies to cope with this sort of stress is vital to the health and well-being of musicians. Sport Psychology is now highly advanced in developing strategies for optimal performance and although the music profession is tentatively exploring some of these strategies (such as visualisation and the use of Cognitive Behavioural techniques), acceptance of any psychological intervention is still regarded with some scepticism. Artistic organisations are gradually becoming more aware of the specific needs of musicians but ultimately it is up to the individual to find ways to manage personal career stress.
In recent years performing anxiety has become a huge topic for discussion, yet why do musicians still feel stigmatised by it? When does the normal anxiety that is an essential prelude to performance become debilitating? No two people are likely to experience anxiety in the same way and it is often our perception of the physical symptoms that determine whether anxiety aids performance or hinders it. Some of the causes of debilitating anxiety can be lack of preparation, attempting works that overstretch technical abilities, self-criticism or injury. The physical symptoms will usually manifest themselves in the part of the body used most in musical performance. For example, singers experience breathing difficulties and tight throats, string players experience a shaky bow arm. Unfortunately many musicians resort to drugs such as beta blockers to manage the physical symptoms of anxiety rather than address the psychological symptoms.
Other useful information
I would recommend the following books for further reading on all aspects of performance:
Don Greene (2002) Performance Success. Routledge
David Buswell (2006) Performance Strategies for Musicians. MX Publishing
Aaron Williamon (2004) Musical Excellence. Oxford University Press
Parncutt & McPherson (2002) The Science and Psychology of Performance. Oxford University Press
Emmons & Thomas (1998) Power Performance for Singers. Oxford University Press