Welcome to Brainjo Bites brought to you by the Brainjo academy. I am your host, Dr. Josh Turknett in these episodes. I will share short bite-sized thoughts about topics related to banjo playing music, the science of learning and neuro-plasticity and beyond. All right. Let’s jam.
All right. Welcome. Another episode of Brainjo bites, the topic of today’s episode is how to crush stage fright and by stage fright. I mean, any anxiety that you might experience when you play music in front of others, or do anything in front of others or performing any way in front of others. And in this episode, I’m gonna talk about what causes it, um, what’s happening in your brain and body when it occurs and using that knowledge, I’m going to give you five different strategies that you can use to crush it once and for all. So first, tell me if this situation sounds at all familiar, so you practice playing some songs or riffs on your instrument, and you get to the point where you start feeling like you’re ready to play it. Some play some in front of others, maybe, you know, friends or family, maybe a teacher, uh, maybe in a jam session with other musicians, or maybe even for a paying audience.
And then you pick up your instrument and you’re in that situation. And your heart starts to pound and your hands start sweating your mouth, dries up your hands, start to shake. And your instrument suddenly feels like a foreign object and nothing comes out like it’s supposed to. And it feels like all of those hours you’ve logged. Practicing might as well have been spent bingeing Netflix for all the good that they’re doing you right now. And you figure that whoever’s listening to you play must think you’re completely delusional. You imagine them in their minds, pitying this poor person who fancies himself or herself, a musician, but has no idea just how terrible they are. And you come away feeling completely demoralized and you square to never play in front of others again, uh, maybe even swear to never even pick up an instrument again. Now, if that experience sounds at all familiar, then I have news for you.
You’re human. It’s an experience. I think probably just about anyone can relate to. I know, I sure can. Uh, personally, I’m an introvert. I hate being the center of attention and performing or speaking in front of a room full of people or recording a video for a bunch of people on YouTube. Uh, we used to scare the bejesus out of me and it doesn’t anymore. And if it’s something you’ve ever struggled with, it doesn’t need to happen to you either. And is absolutely something that you can conquer. So what exactly is on here when this happens? Well, that’s a great question because in order for us to understand how we can stop it from happening, we need to understand why it happened in the first place. So I’ll begin why reviewing what’s happening in your brain, in your mind and your body during these episodes of stage fright or performance anxiety.
And then I’m going to go through again, five strategies for how to crush it for good. So let’s begin by taking a different scenario that I think will help to answer what’s happening during these episodes of performance anxiety. So I want you to imagine yourself, just walking in a park with a friend now in that situation, can you imagine ever being worried that you’re going to forget how to walk? Would you ever obsess over every step, uh, worrying that you’re going to stumble and look stupid in front of your friend and everybody else who’s passing by? Of course not right. That seems totally absurd. And yet that’s not because walking isn’t hard or complex, it’s an extraordinarily complex activity. We’ve built pianos that can play themselves since the turn of the 20th century, but we’ve yet to be able to build a robot that can walk with the ease and grace of a human.
And yet in this circumstance, we’re able to carry out this complicated motor activity with no problem whatsoever that we worry about the, the motor activity of playing music breaking down when it’s, when we’re doing it in front of others. So what’s the difference between this scenario and a musical performance? Why is it that we don’t worry about our walking, breaking down when we’re in front of others? The fact that you’ve walked successfully, uh, in front of other people, thousands of times in your life means you are perfectly capable of carrying out a complex skill in front of others. So we just need to figure out how to translate what’s happening here to when you’re playing music. So again, what’s the difference between walking in front of others and playing music in front of others. And it is the fear of screwing up, right? Ironically, it’s the very worry about your performance breaking down that causes it to break down.
And that means that it is entirely 100% driven by the thoughts in your head case in point, what are the only scenarios in people’s lives, where they actually do worry about being able to remember how to walk weddings and graduations, right? The one time in our lives when people are intently watching us walk. All right. So back to that scenario of walking in a park with a friend, uh, to help us understand the conditions that we need to perform well in front of others. First, it requires that we have automated networks that control the skill that we’re performing. So you spent your whole life walking, reinforcing those walking networks. And because of that requires more effort for you to walk abnormally than it does for you to walk normally. And if you’ve read the book, the laws of Brainjo, you are likely familiar with the term zombie sub routines to refer to these subconscious automated neural networks, that power all sorts of learned motor behaviors.
It’s a term that I borrowed from author and fellow neuroscientist, David Eagleman and the term zombie here refers to the fact that these networks or sub routines are running independently of our conscious mind. And in fact, most of our brain activity, most of our behavior is driven by these subconscious automated zombie sub routines. And the reason we practice is to build these things, right? It is these zombie sub routines that allow you to walk without stumbling while your conscious mind is focused on talking with your friend. And it’s also what allows you to listen to the beat of the bass player or the drummer while your hands are busy, making the movements needed to play cripple Creek. Now, if you’re able to perform or play well, when you’re practicing solo, then that probably means that these networks do already exist. And that means that the only difference between what’s happening when you’re playing on your own, and when you’re playing in front of others, is the stuff going on in your head.
Now, the first priority should be making sure we’ve built those automated neural networks, that support being able to play whatever it is we’re trying to play in front of others. That being said, if you’re able to perform well, when you’re practicing on your own, then that probably means those networks do exist. And that means that the only difference between what’s happening when you’re playing solo and what’s happening when you play in front of others is the stuff that’s going on in your head. It is nothing more than your thoughts causing everything to break down. Now, how is that actually possible? How is it that nothing more than thinking which exists in this abstract mental, mental space can cause our entire nervous system to break down? Well, two reasons. One is that all of your thoughts are generated by brain activity. So every thought that you have is a specific firing of neurons in your brain and no different than the firing that allows you to play cripple Creek.
Only with these kinds of patterns, you experience them as things that happen in mental space or things that happen inside your head. And the second reason your thoughts can cause your nervous system to malfunction is because your brain is connected to everything. So the primary job of your brain is to maintain homeostasis or stable conditions inside the body. Things like temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, pH, and so forth so that you can live to see another day. So not only does it control your feelings, your thoughts, your movements, and behaviors, but it can also modulating the function of every organ in your body. And there are two separate systems each with distinct types of nerve fibers that are responsible for this. The first is your sympathetic nervous system, which is commonly referred to as your fight or flight system. So it’s responsible for kicking in when there’s a significant threat to our survival.
That’s the reason exists. It exists to begin with. So in case you need to run away from a bear or lift a heavy Boulder after off a child or something. And when that fight or flight response turns on blood is diverted away from your gut, your digestive system, and away from your other internal organs towards your muscles. And your bloodstream is flooded with adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up to pump more blood to your extremities and your muscles, your pupils dilate to let in more light, your skin gets clean, cold and clammy. Your pain perception is blunted. You stop digesting things because that doughnut you had for breakfast, does you no good. If the bear eats you and it focuses all of your attention on the one thing that’s threatening you and shuts down everything else, essentially that your brain is doing. So all hands on deck on this one single thing, and again, your brain can cause all of this to happen because it has connections to every single organ in your body.
Now, as I said, this system exists to help you whenever there’s some sort of threat to your survival, but what happens when this whole system gets turned on by nothing more than the thoughts in your head will all of those same things, right? Your heart starts to pound your Palm sweats. Your mouth goes dry. Your digestion shuts down. You get nauseous, but to make matters worse. As I mentioned, your brain restricts its focus onto that one threat. That’s triggering this reaction, right? And it shuts down everything else that it’s doing. So all of those zombie sub routines you’ve worked so hard to build through practice are useless if your brain suppressing them. And that’s why you can literally feel like a total beginner like the, like the banjo or whatever instrument you’re playing is some type of foreign object because you have no longer have access to the networks that control your ability to play that instrument.
And this is exactly the opposite of the brain state and the physiological state that you want to be in. So when you’re performing, we want to be in a state of relaxed focus so enough to maintain our attention on playing music, but not enough to interfere with the operation of those zombie sub routines. And that physiology state is produced by our parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as the rest and digest system and these two systems sympathetic and parasympathetic oppose each other. So when one is on the others being suppressed, they’re never both on at the same time. So to summarize the reason our performance breaks down in front of others is because the thoughts in our head trigger a physiological response that makes it biologically impossible for us to use the part of our brain that knows how to play music. Okay. So again, fundamentally stagefright or performance breakdown when playing in front of others occurs.
When the thoughts in our head activate the sympathetic nervous system, making, playing well, biologically impossible and preventing us from accessing the part of our brain that actually knows how to play music. So now we know the situation we’re trying to avoid. And we also know the situation that we seek, which is this state of relaxed focus where the parasympathetic nervous system rest and digest system is running the show and our sympathetic nervous system or our fight or flight response is being suppressed. Fortunately for us, there are multiple tools in our toolbox that we can use to do just that. And I’m going to share several of them with you. And the nice thing about these is they are all additive. So you can use as many of them as you wish, whatever it takes to work. Last one I’ll talk about is one that I’d recommend everybody use because it’s so easy and so effective.
So you can kind of break down these different strategies into two categories. The first being things that we do in the short term, or in the moment of a performance to reduce this, uh, unwanted physiological response. And the second being things that we can do over the longer term that over time will lower the likelihood good that that response happens in the beginning in the first. So the first strategy for crushing straight stage fright is one hour referred to as dissociation. So dissociation is a term used in psychology to refer to an experience people can have in which they no longer feel like things are happening to them, or may not even feel like there is a them anymore or a self anymore. As mentioned this whole cascade of physiological reactions begins with the thoughts in our head. And in this case, it’s worrying about how we’ll be perceived that we will underperform or we’ll look stupid or in front of people that we care about.
So yeah, really hard to get to this certain level in your playing. You want to share how far you’ve come. And so you really want to put your best foot forward. And all of that is totally normal. The problem is the last thing you want to do in this situation is turn your focus to yourself because what you’re really there to do is make music, right? And what you want is all of your focus and attention on the music itself. Yet you can’t do that. If you’re thinking about, about what others are thinking of you at the same time. So now I’m going to share you a secret and important truth about human beings. That is super helpful situation. And that is everyone else is only thinking about themselves as well, or to put it another way. They are not focused on what you’re doing.
Now, that may sound a little harsh, but in this particular such situation, it’s actually very reassuring because we worry because we think all eyes are on us. We think everybody’s out there judging every microsecond of what we’re doing, um, scoring our worth and value as human beings. But the truth is everyone else is also thinking the same things. They’re too much in their own heads to ever care that much about what you’re doing. You’re just not that important. And that is a great thing after all. What got you into this mess in the first place is your own tendency to think about yourself. So instead in this scenario, put yourself in the shoes use, or the mind of your listener, what do they actually in this situation, it’s not to be impressed by your feets of dexterity and musicality. They want to be entertained, right?
They just want to hear some good music and they really couldn’t care less. Who’s actually playing it. If that were true. If we actually did care who was playing it, we wouldn’t fall in love with bands that we’d never seen before. And think about what drew you into music in the first place. If it was the banjo, it was because you probably heard this music that spoke to you on some deep level, so much so that you wanted to figure out how to make that music for yourself. And now you have the opportunity to give someone else that same awesome experience that you want to add for years now, whenever I play in public or record something, I tell myself that my job is to present the music I’m playing in the best light that I can. Music is really a gift that you’re sharing with somebody else.
And the goal, my goal is not to make myself look good. My goal is to make the music look good as best I can. However I can do that. We’re not there to impress anybody. We’re certainly not there to compete with anybody. The goal is just to share music and connect with other human beings. After I play, what I really want for people to come up and say, or think is, wow, I really love that song. You played. It was amazing. Or where can I hear more of this music? To me, that is the ultimate compliment rather than, wow, you’re a really good player. So again, the key of dissociation is to shift your focus away from yourself and to the music itself. Again, that’s all the people that you’re playing for care about anyways. And fundamentally it is focusing on ourselves on ourselves. That is the root cause of the problems here.
That is ultimately the thing that disrupts those music, making neural networks that we worked so hard to build. The second strategy is desensitization. So one universal feature of human nature is that we acclimate to things that we are exposed to repeatedly. For example, the first time you see someone bleeding, it might cause you to break into a sweat and get dizzy and maybe even faint. But if you were to become a nurse or a paramedic and encounter bleeding people regularly, that effect will diminish over time. Usually to the point where it has no impact on you whatsoever. In fact, this phenomenon of acclimation with repeated exposures is used with great success in helping to cure people of phobias or extreme fears of particular things. So that can include fears of things like snakes or spiders, or it can include fear of situations like public speaking or playing music in front of others.
So the key here is to expose yourself to the thing that causes you anxiety, and you can do this in levels or gradations. And that’s one of the important principles here. So for example, playing in front of a concert hall of a thousand people is way different than playing in front of your cat or your five-year-old niece. Yeah. They are still versions of the same thing of playing in front of another living thing. So there are a few ways that you can go about trying to dis desensitize yourself here and get in repetitions, playing in front of others so that you acclimate to it. The first is to record yourself. So first you can just try recording yourself for the sake of it. Just say, hit, hit, record, record yourself, playing, and that’s it. Um, then you could try recording yourself with the knowledge that you’re going to share it somewhere or post it somewhere.
Um, for those of you who are in the banjo for adult learners, Facebook group, um, you can take advantage of this. I know some of you already do record yourself and posted in the group. If you’ve recorded yourself before, you know, that blinking red light can be an intimidating thing. In fact, I know people who performed in public just fine, but still get very anxious about recording themselves on video. So it is a great way to desensitize yourself. The second way is to get repetition yeah. In, in less intimidating situations. So find ways to play in front of others that are less anxiety provoking that could include like playing on your front porch, knowing that there may be people within earshot who can hear you or going to a park and playing on a park bench. There you’re most likely to attract the attention of children who are generally a less intimidating audience to play for overall, or go to a nursing home or senior center and volunteer to play there.
Um, they will welcome you and we’ll be about as forgiving and as grateful and audience as you’ll find another way you can decently as yourself is when you’re practicing simply yeah. Visualize yourself playing in front of an audience. Um, a very common, uh, practice in public speaking circles is to line up dolls or stuffed animals, um, as audience members and deliver your talk to them to kind of recreate that, um, speaking experience, trust me, if you’ve ever experienced stage fright before then just thinking of playing in front of others or visualizing it is likely to get your pulse pounding. So is another way to kind of recreate the spirit, this experience, but in a slightly less intimidating way. And the key here is to really act and talk as if you’re performing that way. When you go to do it for real, you want as much of that experience to feel very familiar as possible.
Now here’s a scenario that commonly happens. So someone learns to play an instrument and decides to play for others for the first time, uh, or for an audience for the first time and has never used any of the strategies that I just mentioned. So they perform, they experienced a rush of fear and anxiety. They played terribly they’re demoralized, and they conclude that they just need to practice more. And so that’s what they do. And then sometime later they try it again. And the same exact thing happens. And what’s happening here is you’re actually adding in another problem to this situation and that of conditioning. So meaning that just like Pavlov’s dog salivating at the ring of the dinner Vale, it starts to take less and less to trigger that panic or anxiety response. And of course the issue was not that they needed to practice more.
It was that they never actually practiced playing for others or in the setting that they were preparing for. Just like, if you want to be able to play or jam with other musicians, you actually have to practice playing music with other people or simulations of other people playing rather than just playing solo. Likewise, if you want to play well in front of others, you have to practice performing in front of others, just like jamming. It is a different skill. The third strategy here is visualization in this case, visualizing your desired outcome. So stage fright, of course, a comes from imagining or visualizing the worst case scenario. Now, as we know, your mind is a powerful thing. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking about stage fright to begin with. But another example of its influence over over us is in the power of expectation. And countless research here demonstrates that imagining or expecting something will happen makes that thing more likely to happen.
For example, imagining or expecting that a pill will help you to fall asleep. We’ll transform that pill into a sleeping pill. Um, this is why drug studies have to use placebos because our expectations that something is going to happen significantly influences our biology and physiology. So in this instance, we’re going to use the power of expectation to our advantage. And what you want to do is imagine yourself playing successfully in front of others. So imagine that you have just played, you’ve played, you played things just as well as you do when you play solo and you feel satisfied that you’ve presented this music as best as you can. All right. The fourth strategy is imitation. There’s a great quote from Millard fuller, the founder of habitat for humanity, who said, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting or in more modern terminology, fake it till you make it.
Now, why is it that actors feel perfectly comfortable on stage in front of thousands, but oftentimes hate being interviewed themselves. It’s because when they’re acting, it doesn’t feel like it’s them. The audience is reacting to a character they’re playing, which makes them personally feel less vulnerable or less exposed. And the strategy of adopting a character or persona or an alter ego is one that has been used for a very long time by top performers, in all fields, actors, comedians, athletes, in order to help them ensure that on the playing field, they show up how they want to show up. So Eldrick woods was given the name tiger by his father, because those were the traits that he wanted him to embody on the golf course. So tiger was a character that his dad created, Dwayne Johnson, who is said to be naturally shy and humble, created the character, the rock who is egotistical and bombastic.
And this alter ego strategy has been used by scores of musicians sometimes quite literally. So David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust, M and M created slim shady. Uh, Stephanie Germanotta, uh, created lady Gaga. And of course there’s even a tradition of alter egos in the world of banjo. Uh, perhaps most famously the character string bean that was created by David Aikman and performed on shows like hee haw and the grand old Opry. And the point here is that this has been a super successful strategy throughout history, but you don’t have to give yourself an entirely new name and create an entirely new character to take advantage of it. All you really need to do is imagine a performer who you like or admire, and then act as if you’re them think what would such and such do in this particular situation. Now, if that feels at all disingenuous or inauthentic, remember that the truth of the matter is you already do this sort of thing all the time.
If you stop and think about it, almost all of us have different personas that we play or variations of ourselves, depending on the situation that we’re in. Also the last few decades of neuroscience has clearly shown us that the concept of the self or this thing that we call me or I is just an illusion created by our brain anyhow. And even when it’s not a separate or distinct character, most performers have a separate persona on stage. That’s distinct from who they are off stage. All right, the last and final strategy is relaxation. So remember earlier I said that what we don’t want in this scenario is to turn on our sympathetic nervous system or our fight or flight response. We want just the opposite. We want our parasympathetic nervous system to be on. And there are a couple of things here that we can do to influence our biology in this way.
The first is to break the connection or weaken the connection between thoughts and our stress response or our fight or flight response. So again, the issue here is that our thoughts trigger this set of physiological events that undermine our ability to play effectively. Now, this connection is neuro-biological, but no surprise given that our brains are plastic and adaptive, we can break this connection over time. If we want to. And specifically mindfulness practice is the method that’s been used most successfully to do this sort of thing. Now, a complete dive into the details of mindfulness practice is beyond the scope of this episode. But the basic idea is to regularly practice observing your thoughts without judgment or reaction, something that will be difficult to do early on, but increasingly easier to do as you practice it. Remember, it’s not the thoughts themselves that are creating the issue.
Uh, in this case, it’s the thought of looking foolish in front of others, rather it’s our physiological reaction or the stress response that’s triggered by that thought. And so mindfulness practice helps us to stop that reaction from happening. Also given that the printer Marie source of stress and most people’s lives these days are not actual threats to our survival, but rather the thoughts in our head then severing this connection between thoughts and our emotional and physiological response is very effective at reducing stress and providing all of the downstream health benefits that that entails. So in other words, developing this ability, which can be done through mindfulness practice pays big dividends well beyond conquering stage fright. Now, of course, this is a long-term strategy. It’s very effective, but it takes consistent and sustained effort, uh, though, uh, well worth it in the end. And if it’s not something you’ve ever done, but we’d like to start, I think, uh, either of the apps, uh, Headspace AR or calm are a very good place to begin.
Now, let’s talk about the second thing that we can do to steer our physiology towards the state want. And this one, again, is so easy and effective that I’d recommend you always do it. And it involves nothing more than breathing, uh, rather a specific kind of breathing because one of the things that influences the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity is how you breathe. So rapid, shallow breathing, active the sympathetic nervous system or the fight or flight response. And that happens to be how most people breathe when they’re anxious. So that only adds fuel to the fire. You feel anxious, you breathe faster, your fight or flight response. It turns on you feel more anxious, worry faster and so on. So just preventing that kind of breathing will really go a long way. On the other hand, slow breathing with prolonged exhalation, breathing out, activate the parasite, the sympathetic nervous system, and suppresses the sympathetic nervous system, which again is exactly the physiological state that we want to promote.
There are several ways you can do this, but simple method that I recommend is simply to inhale slowly through your nose, to a count of four, and then exhale to a count of six and then begin playing at the end of your exhale. After that, as you’re playing, just think slow breathing as your goal, which not only again, will help promote the physiological you want. It has the added benefit of keeping your mind focused on something other than worrying about how you’re being perceived. Now, if possible, I’d recommend doing this kind of breathing a few times before you start playing. So breathing in of count of four, breathing out two count of six slowly and through the nose a few times before you start. And I’d also recommend you do this every time you start to play a tune when you’re practicing as well, because what happens then is every time you pick up your banjo and start to play, you’re activating that rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system.
And through conditioning, your brain will learn to associate picking up your banjo, playing your banjo with that particular physiological state, and then just picking up your banjo is going to promote that relaxed state that you want. All right. So there it is the five strategies for crushing stage fright with science. And so to recap those strategies, the first was dissociation or changing your focus or changing your attention from how you’re being perceived to the music that you’re playing. Again, your audience is there for the music anyways, the second strategy desensitization. So practicing playing in front of others in a variety of less intimidating or anxiety provoking situations in order to desensitize yourself or acclimate yourself to the situation of playing in front of others. So it becomes an ordinary thing to you. The third strategy visualization, imagining your desired outcome, uh, when you’re playing for an audience, number four, uh, imitation.
So thinking of a performer that you admire and how they are on stage, and then act as if you’re them, or you can take it even further and develop your own awesome stage persona and the last strategy relaxation to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. Uh, two ways I talked about one through mindfulness practice to break the connections between thoughts and your stress response and number two through breathing techniques that activate the parasympathetic nervous system and make it biologically impossible for your body to freak out on you. All right. I hope you enjoyed this episode. And most importantly, if this is something that you’ve ever dealt with, I hope that you come away with it. Um, not only with some great new tools in your toolbox, but with the confidence that this is absolutely something you can conquer. So thanks so much for listening. Also, if you enjoy this Brainjo bites series, uh, you will likely enjoy the book,
The laws of Brainjo, uh, which was published
Last year. It’s all about how to apply
The science of neuroplasticity to learn smarter and more effectively the easiest way to find it is just to search laws of Brainjo, or just Brainjo on Amazon. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo byte, to make sure you catch future episodes. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well, to learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to Brainjo.academy. [inaudible].