Performance Nerves

February 24, 2018, 8:34 AM · How do top violinists like Maxim Vengerov, Hilary Hahn, and Itzhak Perlman give so many concerts on stage and never get nervous or mess up? Whenever I go to competitions, my hands get really cold and stiff and I start shaking on the stage, and I find it almost impossible to pull out my natural musicality. My playing is literally reduced to 30% of what I'm able to produce during practice alone, and this really frustrates me as I want to be able to perform my absolute best on stage. I have won a couple of regional competitions before, but I feel like I can be even better if I could consistently perform on stage without shaking( which makes me mess up), and getting cold and stiff fingers. Any suggestions on how to fix this?

Replies (25)

Edited: February 24, 2018, 9:28 AM · All you have to do to avoid mistakes is prepare 200%. That way, if you lose half your preparation because of nerves, your playing will still be perfect. Hahn and Vengerov might not lose half, but they're still over-prepared. So your goal needs to be: Prepare 200%, and figure out your nervous response well enough to change that 30% to 50%. And eventually you can move beyond that.

Depending on your age you should be asking your doctor about special pills called "beta blockers" for this. That's controversial, but why do we have medical science if not to improve our lives?

I'm also a terribly nervous performer. But I'm finding that with more and more experience (even little solo bits in a string quartet or orchestra part) are helping me to overcome.

February 24, 2018, 9:34 AM · Maybe some people never get nervous (like me).
Edited: February 24, 2018, 10:01 AM · Besides competitions and recitals and auditions, try to perform as often as you can -- even in offbeat venues like a garage, or an empty gym at school, or a local park. I've done all three -- and then some. Take every opportunity you can get to let people hear you -- provided you're not disturbing the peace.

One trick I employed early on was to start a performance or audition with aggressive material -- e.g., something with a lot of quick-attack chords and a lot of digging in with the bow. Playing this kind of material for a few minutes helped me burn off some adrenaline; then I was ready to do justice to more lyrical passages afterward. Think of the first solo measures in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky VC -- or some of the chord work in Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro.

On the other hand, if you have a problem with nerves and start your performance with the Meditation from Thais -- well, that's going to betray a case of nerves right away. Save this piece for later in the session.

I don't know about Vengerov and Hahn, but Perlman reportedly uses beta-blockers. I recommend against this -- unless you have a condition that makes them medically necessary -- especially given your problem of cold hands. These meds can slow heart rate and circulation -- and make the problem of cold hands even worse. You have to have a prescription for them.

February 24, 2018, 12:10 PM · The first thing you should know is that if you make a mistake in performance the chances are that 99% of the audience will not notice, and the 1% who do will themselves have been there, bought the tee-shirt, and will understand.

The second thing is that scratchiness or squeaks in your sound generally don't get beyond your personal space of, say, 4 - 5 feet from you, so will not be heard by the audience. They'll only hear the core sound. So play out with plenty of bow, which of itself will give you confidence.

Watch videos of the big names playing concertos and you'll see what I mean by "plenty of bow". They also get more projection by bowing that little bit closer to the bridge, so I'd work on these important aspects of technique.

February 24, 2018, 1:39 PM · The best and fastestway to cope the problem is a theater course and sceenic motions. After you are familiar how to act as a brave self-confident person, you go on the stage with your violin and play there a super star violinist performing his favourite piece. )))
1 year of actor school and you are there.

Edited: February 25, 2018, 6:40 AM · Confidence is not a magical / miraculous state of mind, but a result of repeated success in doing a certain activity through a long period of time.
Performance skills are very different than other skills, but just like any skills, have to be mastered through cycles of practice, repetition, correction and improvement.
Mistakes are to be welcome tool in learning skills, including performance skills.
The challenge with so called "stage fright" is that, for many young musicians, there are not too many chances to perform repeatedly and by doing so work on performance skills.
If you perceive stage as "do it or die", it becomes a situation very similar to meeting a predator in wilderness. Your body's natural and well-ingrained survival response will kick-in. As any prey, you have 3 options:
flight - not really an option, since you are supposed to stay on stage and entertain people
fight - still an option
play dead - the same as "flight"
Ideally, one should not develop a conditional response to stage presence as a life-threatening situation, but rather use even a minimal stimulation of body to "fight", or to transform nervousness into creative effort.
So, how one does it? Again, by learning how to perform, by trials and errors, mistakes and improvements.
Useful book: "The inner game of music"
February 24, 2018, 6:12 PM · I was just coming on here to tell you to buy and read "The Inner Game of Music."
February 24, 2018, 8:35 PM · My teacher actually told me many professional violinists do get nervous to the point where they actually throw up before concerts. She said it was no use trying not to be nervous because some people (cough cough me) are just born with such a personality that they can’t help it. She also told me the best way to minimise the adverse effect is to concentrate on what to do NEXT, instead of what is happening NOW or MEASURES AGO when performing because the moment we take eyes off the road, crashes happen. It’s also important to realise you are performing because you are good enough to be in that particular situation to combat the looming feeling of inadequacy that follows nervousness. I still struggle with it, but I’ve gotten a lot better.
February 24, 2018, 9:14 PM · I missed your detail about cold hands. I agree with Jim Hastings that beta-blockers have been reported to make that particular symptom worse.
February 24, 2018, 9:55 PM · Hi there,

I used to have horrendous shakes, and nowadays sometimes still shake a little in the beginning if I am particularly nervous about someone in the audience of had my heart racing just before going on stage.

Over the years, my confidence came from practicing as if I was on stage, and on the opposite, when I am on stage, I tell myself it is no different than playing inside the practice room (just different acoustics of course) and must react just as well as I try in rehearsals.

I also accept that I naturally have a shakier hand than others even while at rest, and what happens happens. I go on without worrying about something I can't control. And Perlman and Hahn do make mistakes, they are human after all. I heard a wonderful artist who leads a prestigious school and won a Grammy, who is prone to nerves. At a concert sitting at the back of a hall I heard his bow bounce in a long opening note at the start. That was the night when I realize if he can have such a successful career with his condition, everyone else with shakes can still do wonderfully. We all accept live concert are not perfect and most people are mostly generous and more interested in the music making beyond these superficial hiccups.

I'm sure you'll find your own method to cope with your specific conditions in due time. Keep experimenting and don't give up! Hope to hear you play sometime.

February 25, 2018, 3:47 AM · It gets easier with experience, I think. And if you're performing with orchestras, repeated rehearsals with the same orchestra can help, if you have that opportunity. The challenge for touring soloists is that they have to play with one new orchestra after another, and in one new venue after another.

I was relatively lucky with my one (so far only) solo performance, in that I was there for every rehearsal, because it was with a community orchestra I had recently joined as principal violist. I was shaking in the first rehearsal of the piece, but by the time the concert came around it felt no different from playing the piece in rehearsal.

I also think any new setting takes experience to get used to. I get extremely nervous playing on video (e.g. for the #100daysofpractice thing on Instagram), even though I don't have nearly the same level of anxiety on stage.

Oh, and about those beta blockers: they don't make you feel less nervous, they only help with some of the physical manifestations of anxiety, e.g. racing pulse and jitters. That can be useful, but it won't solve all the ways anxiety can affect your performance.

February 25, 2018, 8:38 AM · Sometimes nerves never go away. You can read books, attend classes, take pill, etc. And you still get nervous.

So one has to decide: do I love music enough to keep performing this way?

February 25, 2018, 10:45 AM · "I wonder if one gets nervous easily, why to be a violinist? S/he should choose to be an academic scholar since less contact and performance is required."

As a university chemistry professor, I have absolutely no problem standing up in front of hundreds of students and teaching them chemistry. (Maximum class size that I have taught at one time is about 350.)

But put me on the stage with my violin and I'm a wreck. So it's not intrinsic to my personalty -- it's context-dependent.

Edited: February 25, 2018, 1:33 PM · @K Ch. Interesting point about taking acting lessons to achieve an enviable on-stage confidence and presence. But - and it's a big BUT - that just won't work if the performer hasn't done the hard work in the practice room, getting technique and the music both to that 100% level where they're not only doing it right but – critically - can't get it wrong (the difference between a good amateur and a professional, btw).
February 25, 2018, 2:08 PM · This is what I wrote here about 10 years ago. I have a lifetime of experience playing without and with beta blockers.Now that I'm in my 80s I hope my solo performing days are over -- especially for the sake of any who might hear me.

I would never consider a person should take these things until they are at last old enough to be responsible for the own medical costs (although it is an inexpensive med). The lower blood pressure, can cause fatigue and cause breathing difficulty for asthmatics.

BUT

I am someone who uses a beta blocker (Inderal or generic propanolanol) for performance. I only use about 5 mg, which is 1/4 a standard small dose.

I first had a shaking right arm stage-fright problem at age 17 under a trivial performance situation and did not know what was happening. I had been performing solos around my county for 4 years and this was a complete shock. I was the CM of my HS orchestra, and continued with my playing activities, without this happening again for a few years. But then, it occurred for every solo performance, and eventually even in chamber ensemble performances. It was another 10 - 15 years before it affected my cello playing.

I learned about beta blockers at the 1977 San Diego Chamber Music Workshop, 25 years after my first shake experience, where an evening round table discussion on "Stagefright" attracted most professional musicians in the San Diego area. It turns out to bw a very common problem, particularly (in some cases) for the profession-critical activity of "blind auditions." So you are not alone. (The MD/violinist who led the discussion told us that the great soprano Lily Pons would vomit before every performance and this response loess the adrenalin response - same as beta blockers.)

I know people who have taken beta blockers for a performance or two, realized that the problem is all in their heads and never took the medication again. Others I know take small doses for solo performance situations. I'm an old guy now, and so are many of my colleagues, who are on these meds for heart, BP, or migrane headaches - so they are already covered for performance shakes.

Now I've also got an inherited life-long essential tremor that has gotten worse over the years, so I have a bit of shake anyway - sometimes. That too is reduced by the betablocker.

So - I've been taking beta blockers for performance, prescribed my physician since 1977. A typical prescription has lasted me 5 - 10 years, after I learned about them in san Diego.

Contra-indications are asthma; a problem, especially if you were to perform several days in succession.

Even the tiny dose I've found helps me with performance problems is sufficient to "pace" one's heart, so although people who take this stuff can perform or walk, jogging, running, hill climbing, even serious stair climbing are out until the effect of the medicine wears off.-- I heard of a woman who performed in Munich (under beta blocer influence) who then joined some of her fellow musicians in climb up the hill to the wonderful castle there. She never made it. She did recover, but she had to be carried down by her fellow musicians, who never got to the castle either, because of it.

So be warned - but not terrified. If it really is a tiger chasing you and you have taken a beta blocker, you will be lunch!

If you want to find any more that I have written about this on line try googling "Andrew Victor beta blockers"

February 25, 2018, 2:27 PM · Aaron,

A bit of Zen might help. If/when you are completely focused on the music it doesn't matter where you are or who is there. It's just you, the violin and the music. A friend told me about her Julliard audition - the audience made a lot of noise and offered all kinds of distractions. Warned in advance, she ignored it all and played her music. Those without that degree of focus couldn't.

Of course it is easier said than done. I did a lot of public speaking for over a decade. I found that when I was totally focused on my material, while I knew that the audience was there, it really didn't matter because it was me and my talk. Q&A's are different but that is usually after the talk is over.

There aren't Q&A sessions on stage after a performance. You just take your bow and exit gracefully.

I know, even when practicing, if/when I get distracted, the music suffers. Sometimes my wife gets annoyed because I don't hear her asking me a question while I'm playing. Of course, when one of the cats decides to jump on my shoulder while I'm playing,... That's a different story.

Edited: February 25, 2018, 6:26 PM · These soloists have been performing regularly since their mid-teens, which would somewhat take the edge off over time. They have also been told "you are the best violinist in the world" for the last however many years, which can't hurt! However, to tell the truth, some people just find it easier than others.

I am another vote for beta blockers. My performance anxiety got progressively worse through my teens until I physically couldn't draw the bow across the string in a performance because the shaking was so bad. In my opinion this is beyond the territory of meditation/eating a banana before a performance.

Your GP will do the relevant blood pressure tests to make sure it's safe, and obviously don't take more than the prescribed amount, but generally they're a very safe (and effective) remedy used by many professionals and students alike.

February 26, 2018, 11:45 AM · For cold hands specifically, try fingerless fleece gloves. They are available as "wristies" from Shar. I find I can wear the right hand one as suggested but I have to pull the left hand one down just over my wrist because it's too confining to have some cloth over my palm.

Wearing these doesn't make nerves go away, but for me it short-circuits the vicious cycle of: get nervous, hands get cold, vibrato and intonation go south, bow shakes, hear myself, get more nervous, hands get colder, vibrato and intonation get even worse, etc. My hands stay warm enough that what I hear when I put bow to string doesn't make me want to flee the premises, so I can steady myself and keep going with positive self-talk.

Edited: February 26, 2018, 12:49 PM · I'm one of those people who gets nervous in her lessons (which I know is ridiculous, but it happens). All of the reading/application of the Inner Game of Music and other performance type suggestions are not helpful to me. Would be nice if there were other options out there for those of us who get horribly nervous playing in a one-on-one setting (let alone in a group, or performing).

Edited to add:
https://melaniespanswick.com/2012/05/31/homeopathy-for-stage-fright/

I have tried the Gelseumium homoepathic in the past, it worked for a handful of lessons (only when I remembered to take it) but nothing long term.

February 26, 2018, 12:58 PM · @Pamela, I'm not surprised, because during a one-to-one lesson the pupil is (and should be!) under very close scrutiny for the duration. I've felt the effect on occasion, but I've looked on it as, if anything, a more severe, but also extremely useful, test than anything a symphony orchestra or other ensemble is going to land on me. I think this may be why I don't get nervous when playing in concerts - maximum concentration is always there, and I'm usually not aware of the audience until we stand to acknowledge the applause.
February 26, 2018, 1:15 PM · @ tutti violindo: Yes, exactly. That was the point I was making.
February 26, 2018, 3:50 PM · Funny question: Has anyone ever peed on stage due to nervousness? (Kids included)
Edited: February 26, 2018, 4:53 PM · It happened once many years ago on stage with a very young child prodigy (I really don't recall the name). As soon as the lad finished his piece and went off stage, leaving a puddle behind, a cleaning lady of extravagant proportions came on to rapturous applause with a bucket and mop to do the necessary.
February 26, 2018, 10:06 PM · To Trevor: we do talk about the situation, when one did all the homework and noe needs to present his best.

I was a researcher in neuropharmacology before we moved to europe. There is about 10-15% of population, who reacts on stress not by frustrating, but mobilizating all the organism resources. In those people the level of adrenalin and other stress hormones is not lower. But their brain cells need more to transmit the signal, resulting that those people need much higher stress to get the down side of phisioligical stresses.
I am sure that the major stars were from that part of population. Espesially from the time before b-blockers.

I know a boy who studies the piano. He is very average, and his teacher is not very happy about him, but whenever he plays a concerts he performs 250% of what he was doing at home, or his lessons. The speed, the rythm, the musicality- everething is there. Better than the best students from the same teacher. He never can repeat it again. His parents were very mate on him, because they ment he is lazy to practice hard enough at home. But it is the stress who helps him to awake all his resourses to do what he was asked to do for many months.

February 26, 2018, 11:02 PM · I read that Kreisler washes his hands in warm water before performance to combat cold hands. There are products called hot hands, all my conservatory friends from Asia were all using it. It may help you. Drink a cup of hot water before performance may help also.

I totally agree with Jim Hastings that perform as much as you can. That means when you have friends over, play for them. When there are family gatherings, play for the guests. When there is someone’s birthday, play for everyone in the party. When you go visit your grandparents, play for them. Any occasion that can think of, play for people. It doesn’t matter if they understand classical or not, just play for people as much as possible. When I was in high school I played when there were student recitals, chorus concerts, even language club dinners. Sometimes I even learn new pieces just so I can perform in front of people (to keep the theme appropriate). So just to play as much as possible. I think the number one thing to seek out is to see if there are masterclasses you can play in. I like that the most. Because you just performed in front of your peers, and then you’re given advise on how to improve. So these masterclass and concert experience is your best teacher because it exposes weakness and insecurities in your playing, and that’s something no amount of practice or private lessons can give you. Then when it really counts, like a competition or audition, you’ll know that “I got this, I have played this so many times before”. It helps with the nerves.

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