Musician’s wellness panel confronts performance anxiety in student musicians

At Tuesday’s panel, professors Rod Gilfry, Lynn Helding and Karla O’Dell taught Thornton musicians mindfulness and muscle relaxation techniques to help curb performance anxiety. (Dimple Sarnaaik | Daily Trojan)

Nausea, uncontrollable shaking, sweating and dry mouth. While on the severe side, these symptoms are all hallmarks of music performance anxiety, an issue that plagues both student and professional musicians.

For instrumentalists, symptoms like shaking and sweating can lead to poor finger control, while dry mouth can cause vocalists and woodwind players to falter, said Lynn Helding, a professor of practice in vocal arts and coordinator of vocology and voice pedagogy. Thankfully, she said, students nearly always rise to the occasion, and simple techniques such as being prepared and repeating a mantra while on stage have remarkable preventative effects.

As part of the Thornton School of Music’s “Musician’s Wellness” initiative, Helding and other faculty members gathered Tuesday night to discuss coping techniques for music performance anxiety, as well as the ailment itself.

“What I tell [students] is just to think about something like the words: ‘Thank you,’” Helding said. “That always would work for me: I would bow and say to myself ‘I’m so grateful, I’m so grateful, I’m so grateful.’”

Music performance anxiety affects musicians at all skill levels. Rod Gilfry, an associate professor in vocal arts and opera, shared his personal experience dealing with performance anxiety as a professional opera singer Tuesday night.

Gilfry said one of the defining characteristics of his performance anxiety is the feeling of fear itself. When the anxiety sets in at the same place in the music, day after day, a feeling of trepidation creeps in, and thereby intensifies the feeling, he said.

“I can tell you now objectively that the audience wants you do well,” Gilfry said. “It’s the experience of your fear that’s the biggest problem.”

For a while, Gilfry self-medicated with a beer before performances and sometimes snuck out for another during intermission, a technique he said worked surprisingly well. However, Gilfry added the caveat that drinking to avoid anxiety can be a slippery slope, as people often buy into the fallacy that additional drinks will lead to additional relief.

Other techniques that ultimately helped Gilfry include gazing at a neutral point on the wall and trying to make it burst into flames, as well as repeating a simple mantra. Prior to a performance of “The Barber of Seville,” Gilfry said he suddenly lost his voice, which drinking beer did not ameliorate. He ultimately enlisted the aid of a voice coach, who simply told Gilfry to repeat the phrase “I am calm” aloud with meaning. With each iteration of the mantra, Gilfry said his hoarseness gradually faded, giving way to his normal baritone voice.

Helding emphasized that although mindfulness and relaxation techniques are helpful, coming into a performance prepared is likely the best way to avoid music performance anxiety.

On the  medical side, treatment for music performance anxiety include beta blockers as well as muscle relaxation techniques for vocalists, said Karla O’Dell, an assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology at the Keck School of Medicine. O’Dell said anxiety during vocal performances may lead to increased muscle tension, which can result in throat pain, soreness or a change in the voice.

“If it gets to the point that performance anxiety is preventing you from performing to [the level] you think you can perform, then thats a reason to seek out medication or cognitive behavioral therapy,” O’Dell said.

Students in attendance said they suffered from performance anxiety at some point in their careers. Emily Thebaut, a doctoral student in vocal performance who attended the event, said performing for peers causes her more anxiety than playing in front of a receptive audience.

Thebaut said her performance anxiety induces difficulty breathing and cottonmouth and is exacerbated by high-stakes situations. However, she’s grateful that Thornton is addressing music performance anxiety, and that people like Professor Gilfry are willing to share their stories.

“It’s very humbling to see people who have had really impressive careers and are confronting [performance anxiety],” Thebaut said. “They’re making it more approachable.”