Tonic Music Coordinator, Jade, writes about musicians who have experienced music performance anxiety.
Music performance anxiety affects up to 60% of professional musicians (Fernholz et al, 2019), and even the most seemingly confident of performers experience high levels of performance anxiety that go beyond pre-show nerves.
King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley experienced performance anxiety throughout his career and, according to his sideman, Scotty Moore, it was during one of his first live performances that Elvis’ legs were so shaky from nerves that his iconic ‘hip swing’ was born.
In 2020, his ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, spoke about how anxious Elvis would get about performing, and how much he would worry about his career. Elvis would try to manage his anxiety by insisting that he took a short walk alone before performing, giving him a chance to clear his mind and mentally prepare before going on stage.
“I’ve never gotten over what they call stage fright. I go through it every show.” – Elvis Presley
Prince of Darkness Ozzy Osbourne has been in the music industry for over 50 years, yet still experiences performance anxiety, revealing that it has got even worse with age.
Despite his previous drug and alcohol addictions, and obsessive pre-gig worry over his upcoming performance, Ozzy would always try to take to the stage sober in an attempt to make his shows as enjoyable as possible for the audience.
“To say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit.” – Ozzy Osbourne
Punk icon John Lydon has said that he is ‘a bag of nerves’ before performing live, and when rehearsing, despite being in the music industry for over 40 years.
When he first joined the Sex Pistols, Lydon would often make comparisons with other bands and how much confidence they had. Although he still gets nervous, after reading many books on how actors overcome performance anxiety, Lydon started to see it as a gift, embracing the adrenaline from performance anxiety during a performance.
“Before a gig, I'm a bag of nerves, something wicked. Can't eat, can't think, can't talk, just stressed out to the max.” – John Lydon
Janis Joplin experienced music performance anxiety and would often doubt her ability as a singer. Joplin was terrified of rejection and battled with depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia, unfortunately turning to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, before ultimately losing her life to an accidental heroin overdose.
“I’m scared. I think, ‘It’s so close. Can I make it?’ If I fail, I’ll fail in front of the whole world. If I miss, I’ll never have a second chance on nothing.” – Janis Joplin
Although Freddie Mercury provided the keys for most of Queen’s songs and had played the piano since a young child, he had many doubts about his ability, which led to performance anxiety when playing live.
Bandmate Brian May, who also experiences performance anxiety, explained how much Freddie dreaded playing keyboard on stage and was terrified he would make a mistake, so much so that he would later rely on session keyboardists for live performances.
“Freddie's piano playing was exceptional, although he didn't think so. In fact, he thought he was a bit of a mediocre piano player and stopped doing it later on in our career.” – Brian May
In a Q&A on his official website, Paul McCartney opened up about his experiences with music performance anxiety during his early career.
McCartney was terrified of disappointing early Beatles fans to the point that he even considered giving up his music career following a severe episode of performance anxiety during an NME Poll-Winners’ concert in Wembley.
Although he was eventually able to decrease the severity of the performance anxiety he experienced in the early Beatles days, McCartney has said that to this day, he still does suffer with it to some degree, but implements ‘pre-tour rituals’ to keep on top of it.
“I remember feeling physically sick with a knot in my stomach thinking, 'I should give this up, this is just too painful, what am I doing?'” – Paul McCartney
Fernholz, I., Mumm, J.L.M., Plag, J., Noeres, K., Rotter, G., Willich, S.N., Ströhle, A., Berghöfer, A. and Schmidt, A. (2019) ‘Performance anxiety in professional musicians: A systematic review on prevalence, risk factors and clinical treatment effects’, Psychological Medicine, 49(14), pp. 2287-2306.
Many people working in the music industry experience mental health issues. They can be brought on by the highs and the lows, the touring, the late nights, and the lifestyle. The industry can be volatile and competitive, with no financial security. This leaves people vulnerable to developing mental health issues.
The Tonic Rider programme aims to address this by providing music industry-specific mental health support.
Please visit our dedicated Tonic Rider page here: