Overcoming Performance Anxiety

(Originally posted 12/18/2016)

At some point in every musician’s life, he will experience performance anxiety in one or more of its various forms (shortness of breath, dry mouth, mental lapses, nausea, etc.). While this can be a debilitating experience, with practice and thoughtful consideration, musicians may discover how to perform beautifully when suffering from anxiety. The two main type of anxiety that I will write about are: Performance Anxiety – when musicians experience anxiety before or during a specific, short term, high-stress event, and Musial Career Anxiety – when musicians experience anxiety on a daily basis due to their interpretation of external factors (work load, recital/audition preparation, etc.). This post will deal with performance anxiety, and the next will cover Musical Career Anxiety. 

Performance Anxiety
The best solution for performance anxiety is preparation. I find that if I am prepared for a performance, then I will feel more comfortable performing and will be able to focus solely on music. Since the entire reason for playing music is to communicate an idea, emotion, or feeling to the audience, this should be the goal for preparation. Take the time to understand the work you will be performing and map out the phrases, color changes, and musical ideas so that this will become the default setting when you perform.

When you inevitably experience performance anxiety, your playing will revert to its most comfortable state (which is the practice room), and any bad habits will be exposed. Unfortunately, most people practice unmusically, or with an unsatisfactory sound for the sake of “learning the notes.” So, when they step into a high-stress situation, their musicality flies out the window, and they are left with a boring performance. This is because the majority of their practicing was spent on technique, and not music. Thinking of music first when learning a new piece, or when perfecting an old one, is the most important habit of practicing. Even when playing at half-tempo, make every effort to phrase beautifully and ensure an effortless, ringing sound. Think of this as being musically assertive – playing everything with gusto and freedom in the style of the music. Then, when performance anxiety enters, we will revert to musical playing and not an un-musical mess. In this way, the mind is still focused on music, and not technique. Below are ideas on how to practically work on performance anxiety:

Practice the techniques required in the performance separate from the literature being performed in order to avoid inserting bad habits into the music. For example, if the concerto performed heavily requires triple tonguing, practice triple tonguing in the style of the piece during routine work. This will aid in the learning of the concerto, and over time it will build confidence when practicing and performing the piece. This will also ensure that there are no bad habits in the music, since they have been addressed in the daily routine.

Play in front of anyone who will listen to you. Overcoming performance anxiety takes practice, and the only way to accomplish that is to play in public on a regular basis. This included playing for parents, friends, colleagues, professors, strangers, and even a recording device (with the assumption you will send the recording to someone for comments). Playing for professionals of your instrument is extremely valuable for the technical advice, but playing for professionals not of your instrument family is beneficial for musical advice. For instance, a cellist probably does not care that the trumpet naturally has bad intonation, or that playing in the extreme ranges can be difficult. They will comment on your overall musical style and will not allow you to make excuses for your instrument. Playing for non-musicians is also revealing. You must be a great performer to engage an audience that does not know anything about music – and they certainly do not want to hear excuses about your instrument. They want to hear beautiful music.

Sight-read often. Simply put, the better you can sight-read, the less you have to practice the piece you must perform. The goal of every musician should be to play any piece of music beautifully the first time through. This means that the style must be clearly defined, your sound must be appropriate to the genre, your phrases must be convincing and obvious to the listener, and you must sound confident in the piece you are performing. For a large work, this means that you may want to spend time looking through the piece before you actually begin playing it with your instrument. This will speed up the learning time and help avoid simple mistakes, such as wrong rhythms and notes. For every day practice, find new pieces to sight-read each day. When you run out of music, transpose the pieces or play music written for other instruments. Give yourself a few moments to look over the piece in order to decide upon a style and tempo. Then play it through as if it were a performance – this means that you cannot stop, and music and phrasing must be the foremost thought when playing. Sight-reading on a daily basis will help you learn music efficiently and will allow you to develop musical habits when first learning a new work.

Discover and develop a pre-performance routine that is tailored to your needs. Much of performance anxiety results from pre-performance uncertainty. How do I warm up? How much should I play? What do I eat? Do I eat at all? How long before the performance should I arrive? Ask yourself these questions, and more, and form a plan. Then practice the plan when you perform for people before the actual performance. By trial and error, you will discover what works for you. Then, on the day of the performance, stick with what you know and execute your pre-laid plan. This certainty will bring about a calm before you step out to perform. *Note that sometimes, despite our best efforts plans may be forced to change. Be understanding of this and accept the change and quickly form a new plan based on all of the information you have. The worst thing to do is to stress about things outside of your control.*

Realize that on the day of the performance, you can play no better than your current state. Often, we put pressure upon ourselves to play better than we can. This comes from the desire to impress the audience, or specific members of the audience. But, as Charlie Geyer once told me, “Only you know what your best is.” He also mentioned that even my second-best performance would sound great. We are our own harshest critics, and that can be crippling. Once I realized that I did not have to play above my current level, most of my anxiety faded. My goal is to have my “best” playing to be well above what I consider acceptable for a performance. If I accomplish that, then I feel free to play the performance to the best of my ability that day and will be happy. Then, I’ll go practice making my best even better.

Understand that the audience wants you to succeedOnce you realize that the audience is not there to judge but rather to enjoy what you have to offer, you may start to feel less stress. They want to hear your ideas and your interpretation whether they agree with it or not. Play each performance as for a group of encouraging friends and save the analyzation for when you receive the recording. Give the audience music, and they will be your best friends.

By following these steps and having a well-formed plan, performance anxiety will slowly become less noticeable until it all but disappears. Keep in mind that even the best professionals become nervous at times, but their plan propels them through the performance and allows them to display confidence and security. This is the ultimate goal – not letting performance anxiety control your performances. 

Philip Hembree