If you are a musician, you know about that feeling before you walk up on stage to perform - sick to your stomach, sweaty palms, shaky fingers. This is the most dreaded moment of a musician’s journey, and it feels as though everything is out of your control. This experience is called performance anxiety and, although it may seem to be out of your hands (so to speak), there are ways to alleviate the stress and improve your performance. That’s why I am here today to tell you about my top 5 cures for performance anxiety!
1. Stop it from the start
When you are first given a piece of music to work on, what do you do? Do you sight read it, stumbling through the notes until you finally reach the final cadence - if you get there at all? Do you put it in your bag for later? Do you listen to a performance of it and follow along with the score? These questions are very important to ask yourself because, believe it or not, this is the first time in the whole process when you are exposed to the effects of performance anxiety. Your performance may feel like a distant future, but now is the most important time to take charge and practice in the right way. If you use units of time to provide comfort for yourself by saying “It’s so far in the future, I don’t have to worry about it now”, you are only setting yourself up to fail in the days, hours, and minutes before any performance.
So how do we make ourselves feel better? It can start from the moment you first look at the notes on the page. You can listen to different performances of the piece, pick out more difficult sections to practice with a metronome, or try to understand what is really happening in the score. If you are a parent of a young musician, remember that repetition is your friend! If you encourage your child to play through the music a few times every day before a performance, the piece will start to play itself! You can even put fun rewards into place for your child as added encouragement. It is safest to be able to play through without stopping at least a month before the big day.
There are endless ways to begin the journey of performing music, but the most important part of the process is working to fully understand what the composer put on the page, rather than to simply get through the piece. This will move the focus from how well you will perform to how well you understand.
2. What is this all about?
This is a question I have to ask myself constantly, and considering it can really change the outlook people have on music as a whole. When you ask yourself why you are performing this music and why other people listen to this music - even outside of your personal performance of it, you may find that the small technical issues you might have in a performance have no significance in the bigger picture. Music is inherently social, and in order for it to have any impact on the world, it must be communicated. One way of looking at it is that performing is not really performing at all, it is sharing and communicating with the people around you.
Performance anxiety is entirely mental. If you are able to change your mindset about the event, anything is possible. So when you feel that sense of dread creeping in, try to seriously consider this question: what is this all about?
3. Performance Practice!
This is a tip that you might not want to hear, but I’m going to say it anyway because it is the cold hard truth. The only way to fully get rid of performance anxiety is to perform. A lot. You can learn more about yourself every single time you play in front of people, and these learning experiences will eventually improve your comfort level performing. My #1 tip to cure performance anxiety is to put yourself in the uncomfortable situation consistently, until it feels familiar and no longer stressful. It might not feel as though you are making any progress at first, but if you dedicate yourself to becoming a better performer by practicing this way, you will look back over the course of a few months and realize how much you have improved. Ask your friends and family if they would listen to a practice concert before the real one. This might help your nerves if you have already performed the same music in a less stressful environment.
4. Perform by yourself
If the last tip gave you the chills, another really good tip is to practice performing by yourself, or even in a lesson with your teacher. It can give you a great deal of confidence when you know you can play through the entire piece of music without stopping. Set up a stage for yourself to make it more realistic, and take a bow for an empty room if it makes it feel more real to you. You can even rent a practice room or recital hall to provide a new environment. The closer you can come to replicating the moment of performance, the more comfortable you will feel when the day comes. You can also record yourself during these run throughs and listen back to see where you can improve in ways you may not have heard while you were busy playing. This is usually somewhat cringe-worthy, like when you hear your own voice, but it is so helpful just to listen back and jot down notes on the score where you have new ideas.
This final suggestion might sound a little bit silly, but focused meditation can do amazing things for your overall wellness, along with performance-related anxiety. A few nights before a particularly nerve-wracking performance, start taking just a couple minutes to just sit and focus on breathing in the morning and at night. On the big day, focus on deep breathing any time anxiety creeps in. Moments before getting in front of everyone, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, relaxing the shoulders with every exhale. And finally, with your instrument ready in front of everyone, take a deep and relaxing breath before you begin.
The reason this is so incredibly helpful is because it gives you a plan of action at every stage of nervousness. You have the ability to relax months, days, hours, and minutes before the event, and you also have the tools to relax while you are performing. Meditation is definitely a game-changer; there are so many ways to ground yourself and limitless resources in order to learn the best way for you.
Some people say that nerves will never go away, but there are definitely ways to make them work in your favor. The adrenaline of being on stage could give you a more energetic performance. If you play a string instrument, shaky hands could give you a more intense vibrato. It may be difficult to work through performance anxiety, but if you try some of these suggestions and work to find something that fits YOU, then everything will fall into place. And remember, no single performance can define you as a musician (or as a person). Everyone makes mistakes in performances, and every mistake is just another way to learn and grow. Try not to focus too much on the way other people see your performance because your thoughts and opinions are the only ones that will help you learn as a musician. Nobody said being a musician is easy, but it is well worth the hard work.
Blog post written by Kayla Patrick. Photography by: Jesse Ramirez, Heidi Yanulis, Louis Smith, Hanny Naibaho, Taylor Bryant, and Josh Adamski.