Performance anxiety and nerves come in varying degrees. They can range from a mild feeling of anticipation to a debilitating fear. Some nerves can be helpful, providing stamina and excitement for the performer. However, performance anxiety can often be crippling as it sucks the joy out of playing, and can cause the performer to be physically unable to execute the desired task at hand.
I have had performance anxiety ever since I was a kid. I didn’t even like practicing when my parents could hear me because I was worried about messing up. My brother and I used to arrange to practice at the same time, which felt much “safer” to me. When a performance or audition came around my performance anxiety often took control of me and rendered me unable to play even close to my potential.
Students often tell me, especially my adult students, that they are nervous to play for me in their lessons. I understand this as well as I often felt that pang of adrenaline as I strove desperately to show my teacher that I had accomplished the task I had been asked to work on the previous week.
Many people with mild performance anxiety claim that their nerves help them perform even better, and that after they get going in a performance the nerves go away and leave behind an adrenaline rush that propels them through their program.
This is great, and I wish I could say this can be everyone’s experience if they just learn how to control their nerves. However, I don’t think this is the case for those of us who I would describe as having severe and often debilitating performance anxiety. I’m won’t tell you “it gets better each time you do it” or “just give it time, it will go away” or “stop worrying, you just need to let the music happen”. I would like to share some of the practical advice I’ve found helpful on how to manage performance anxiety so that we can learn to play with the nerves that are bound to be there.
Learning to play with performance anxiety starts in your practicing. We need to learn how to differentiate between practicing to learn the music and practicing to perform. Learn the music first, then set up ways to practice overcoming the nerves that you know are going to occur. For those with extreme anxiety, this has to be done with every new piece you learn.
1) One good way to do this is to make yourself nervous in situations that don’t matter, so that by the time you get to the performance that does matter, you have confidence that you CAN play, even if you feel nervous. Here are some options:
a) Play for people who make you nervous. Family, friends, your teacher, neighbors, a Sunday School class, the babysitter, the cat or dog, whoever! Most people are happy to help you out and are often blessed to hear you play. If you don’t have the opportunity to do this (or are too nervous to even ask someone to come listen to you, like me) then you can use the following methods, and perhaps work up to using this first suggestion.
b) Just think about having an audience. Just pretending there is someone there (I usually visualize someone specific that I know or want to impress) will make me nervous. Use your power of imagination to visualize yourself in the room where you will perform. Who will be there? What will it feel like? What will be going on in your head? What do you want to be going through your head? Practice the mental and physical aspects of your performance through your imagination until you are comfortable with what will happen. Or, practice in a variety of different situations, so that no matter what happens during your performance, you have prepared!
c) Tape record yourself. I get nervous just playing for a tape recorder. This option has the added benefit that you can listen back to what you played. Sometimes what you think you sound like is not what you actually sound like at all! When we take lessons we have the advantage of someone “screening” our playing and telling us what our playing sounds like at a distance. Since being out of school I find playing for a tape recorder is one of the best ways for me to judge my playing as someone else would hear it. It helps me know what to better work on and the more I work and rerecord the more I’m working out my nerves.
d) Whatever it is that makes you most nervous, practice this FIRST; Perhaps it’s starting a certain piece, or the first piece you will have to play, the hardest piece, etc. Play whatever is most difficult, or of concern to you with no warm up and pretend you have to get it right the first time. Usually if I can do this I will feel pretty confident that I can do it when I go to perform it. Nerves can often take on a very similar feeling to not being warmed up. When you’re not warmed up your muscles are often tight and won’t move and nothing feels “normal”. Capitalize on this! If you know physically and mentally how to “make” your body perform difficult things when it is not warmed up, you will have a better chance of being able to “make” it perform when you are up in front of an audience.
2) The last point in section one relates to this next section. Really know the ins and outs of HOW you need to execute a piece of music. There are two important reasons for this:
a) I find that often times the things I mess up on are the things that in my practice time come naturally to me, or are things I have struggled with, but haven’t actually mastered. I find that really analyzing what my hands need to do to make the notes sound clean, to make the dynamics happen, to make the rhythm accurate, etc. helps me master the music. We can’t practice on auto pilot and expect to play well when we are nervous. We need to know our music and how to play it better than anyone who has ever played it before. We want to avoid the “holding on for dear life” feeling during difficult passages. We want to approach these passages with the mindset and ability that comes from conquering those difficult notes.
b) Another important reason to really know how to execute your music is that it will get your brain back on track during a performance when all of a sudden you have a brain freeze and the notes on the page look like gibberish!! This is when your muscle memory (honed by point (a) above) needs to kick in for you to keep going, but you want to be able to regain control of your brain as soon as possible. Having something to latch on to helps bring your brain back to rational thinking and in the meantime helps you execute the music. It’s like a defibrillator for musicians! It also gives you something to think about other than how horrible things are sounding. This is very important because if you continue to think about how awful things are, they’re probably just going to get worse!
3) Feel like you could play the music in your sleep. I need to feel so comfortable with a piece of music that when I play it I’m not worried about anything. This comes from repeating things I know I can play so it almost feels useless to practice it anymore because I’m so comfortable with it. This is not mindless repetition. I’m constantly analyzing things, reminding myself of what I need to be thinking about, and trying to figure out if there is something I can do to make the passages feel even easier to play. Eventually these thoughts come more naturally, as do the techniques I am employing to make the music happen more easily. Now of course we’re probably not going to master everything. There are some things that will always cause us to a heightened awareness as we approach them because they are so hard, BUT my goal is to minimize these things. If I have put in the work, and I know I know the music, I can tell my brain to calm down because it knows what it’s doing. My brain will only respond though when it actually believes it knows what it’s doing. There are no shortcuts. You either know it or you don’t. This is where section 2 above comes in handy.
4) Know that you’re never going to feel as comfortable performing as when you practice at home. I had a teacher tell me once, “your goal is just to raise the percentage accuracy of your performance, not to achieve a 100%”. This was good to hear for a perfectionist like me! If you’re currently performing at 50% of what you know you can do don’t try to jump to 100%, just work on getting to 65 or 70%. I’m never going to perform at 100% and I know that. Knowing that helps me lower my expectations of myself to something reasonable to attain. I will always be disappointed if I’m aiming for an unattainable goal. When I can make a realistic goal for myself then I am more likely to improve because I will feel more positive for at least doing better, instead of beating myself up for sounding so lousy! If you can teach yourself not to expect yourself to perform like how you practice it will take some of the pressure off. Raising your overall playing level helps with this too. If you are currently stuck at playing at 75% of your actually ability, then practice to raise your actual ability level and 75% will sound a whole lot better too!
I hope some of these tips are helpful to you, and I hope that those of you who suffer from extreme performance anxiety as I do will take heart that you are not alone. Sometimes just being understood about what you are going through up on stage from someone who has been there is help enough. As a bonus I hope you can learn from what has helped me so that you can help yourself!