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Performance Anxiety!!

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Published: March 8, 2014 at 2:32 AM [UTC]

I enjoy playing the violin, but I hate performing in front of people. I play wonderfully when I am alone, but the second someone enters the room, I fall apart. I do not understand it. Today, I had to perform Beethoven's Spring Sonata, first movement in studio class. It was awful. I am in my senior year as a music major and I still get nervous performing. I just cannot seem to do it. I feel as though I am falling through a deep, dark hole. My violin sounds and feels different, smaller. When I am practicing or playing during my lesson, it projects so much better. It sounds so small in a performance hall or a rehearsal room to my ears. My vibrato sounds weak, the tone does not carry, I cannot hear the changes in dynamics (though I am doing them)and I hear nothing but bad notes. It sounds so strident, harsh, and shrill. This is not the case when I am practicing. I feel as though I have to work so hard to produce a good tone, much harder than during my lessons and practice sessions. I try to be confident and push forward through the performance, but I cannot seem to get a grip on myself (not to mention the dreadful 'bow vibrato' during the sections that are played in piano or pianissimo. For once in my life I would like to perform with confidence and comfort in front of an audience. I want to be able to express myself through the music. It's inside of me to do it, but I just cannot bring it out. Sometimes I feel like giving up because the same thing keeps happening every time I perform. I envy people who are able to give an audience a heartfelt, authentic performance. The look on people's faces after I perform breaks my heart. I have done nothing for them as a performer. Their faces look cold and distant and they applaud out of courtesy. It is embarrassing and I get so angry with myself because I know I can do better. I feel as though I am reaching the point of wanting to quit. I do not see the point anymore. Does anyone have any advice?

From Gene Wie
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 7:15 AM
When I was struggling with this issue, my teacher had me:

1. Set up four chairs in a semicircle.
2. Imagine the four people whose opinions I cared most about in those chairs, OR four big time soloists who I admired the most.
3. "Perform" for those people.
4. Imagine what their responses would be, in terms of recognizing the good things, then exploring ways to fix the bad ones.

If you can mentally practice with Heifetz, Kreisler, Ysaye, and Milstein sitting there and speaking to you, you'll probably be okay. :)

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 10:16 AM
It may be that all you need is familiarisation to build up your confidence. That's what worked for me. Just build up gradually from low stress to higher stress situations. Playing in front of you peers is a high stress situation, by any definition, so it's as though you were starting your diving career from the high board. Just find a lower board to start with.

The first step is simply to imagine yourself in a performance setting. Gene's suggestion is great way to do that. Another idea is to use a webcam, phone or video cam to film yourself, and imagine it's a TV crew or a recording studio.

As a next step you could, for example, start busking in a quiet corner. Then graduate to busier spots.

Or if you enjoy fiddling do what I did and go along to jam sessions and lead a tune or two.

In my own case I've gradually got used to performing, and provided I'm confident with the piece I don't suffer anything more than healthy anxiety, which even the greats admit to.

If you feel your problem runs deeper, there are a number of good books on performance anxiety for musicians - just search for them on Amazon.

I would also ask your tutors for help - it's part of their role to help you prepare for performance, and if your problem is as obvious as you describe it, it's surprising that they haven't already offered, to be frank.

Good luck - you're not the first to suffer from this, and pretty much everyone gets over it in the end...

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 12:59 PM
That problem of sounding different (and worse) in the performance hall is really disconcerting.

If at all possible, try to prepare yourself for that feeling. Find big, empty lecture halls or stages or churches, at odd hours when no one is there, and play your piece there. Listen to yourself and realize that sometimes you can sound like that, and so do others when they play here. The busking idea is a good one. See if you can play in a church service or other low-key venue. Get used to having your instrument sound weird and unfamiliar so it doesn't freak you out when your bow hits the string during a performance.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 4:24 PM
I second -- actually third -- the idea of busking.

How often do you perform? If I were you, I'd perform as often as practical. Look for as many opportunities as you can get to play for others. What about playing for residents of nursing facilities and retirement homes?

You say you "hate performing in front of people." I sense that playing in front of people, in itself, isn't what you hate; the way your performances go is what bothers you. Think of one person you like to play for. Start with this person as a trial audience. Then try adding a few of their friends to the group.

Before the recital, get, if you can, at least one full run-through of your program in the actual recital room. Wear the same kind of outfit -- same shoes, too -- for the run-through that you will actually use in performance.

If you're playing more than one piece, try not to lead off with a lyrical one like Meditation from Thais. If you can start with something more aggressive -- a piece with a series of gutsy chords, for instance -- this can help you burn off some adrenaline.

As a kid, just getting into performing, I learned this very early. After the first try at performing, I looked forward to the next opportunity and gained confidence -- not instantly but quite fast. Auditions and recitals were strong areas of mine -- and I don't see why they can't be for more players. The nerves probably won't go away entirely -- and I don't think you'd want them to. I do my best when I'm a little keyed up at the start. Again, perform often.

Hope this helps.

From Duc Nguyen Ngoc
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 5:54 PM
Hi Augusta,

Firstly, I still young with violin so maybe my comments will be useful for you or not.

But! when you playeing the violin in front of audience, just make sure the music come from you mind into the violin then be melodramatic

NOT from your mind to audience and turn back your violin

Warmest regards

From Lyle Reedy
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 7:58 PM
This may not be your problem, but when I'm "performing," I play louder than when I'm practicing (rare, but it happens) or playing along to someone else's lead. That means both more bow pressure and speed, making control a little more difficult. Part of the result is that it sounds worse to me, even if it doesn't to the audience.

The suggestion to practice in large spaces is very good, especially if you can do it with an audience of some sort.

All that said, it is not much of a problem for me because I seldom play for large audiences and do not get nervous anyway. Sort of the "if you don't like it you can leave" attitude.

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 8:16 PM
You like many others are too concerned about you in music instead of music in you.

Try playing for somebody where you can erase your ego from the performance. Try a kindergarten or a retirement home and you will see that there are other things out there than worrying about how you sound and feel.

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 8:24 PM
I use to have that issue and still do sometimes if I haven't played in front of people in for ages. I joined with a small group of local fiddlers and we performed concerts and we would practice as a group. I left them because of school but I have become a more confident player because of that experience. Busking is also a really good way to help over come the anxiety. I found so long as I had a decent number of tunes that I knew that the likely hood of people hearing a repeat was very slim. I tend to just zone out and ignore my surroundings. I have gotten over most of my performance anxiety and have been very comfortable in playing right on the spot and slipping into our lead tip position in the regiment pipe band I'm in because of all my years of playing.

I hope this helps :) good luck

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 8:33 PM
Have you ever visited I’m in no way affiliated with it, but came across it recently when my daughter was building a proposal for a living and learning community at her music school. Next year, as an extension of their music studies, she and nine other students will live together and immerse themselves in the rigorous exploration of the mental aspects of music learning and performance. They’ve designed an impressive syllabus involving psychologists (including sports psychologists), music faculty, and other specialists as mentors (and also to help measure and report on their results). Among other things, their program features many low-stakes and high-stakes public performances (to gauge their progress), and part of their work will focus on Dr. Noa Kageyama’s Beyond Practicing program. He himself was a violin major at Juilliard struggling in many of the ways you’ve described when he saw a presentation by Don Greene; apparently, it proved effective for him as a musician. It even changed his professional direction as he went on to pursue a doctorate focusing on these issues. He is now on the Juilliard faculty and has a website where he offers coaching and an online course in the subject. Anecdotally, Frank Almond -- recently featured on this site because of the brazen theft and recovery of his Strad – incorporates the work of Greene and Kageyama in his own violin teaching. I don’t know if it’s the answer for you, but it could be worth a look. I wish you the best of luck!
From Olga Paraschiv
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 8:37 PM
You should not feel as if you are the only person that has these sensations, even great musicians have such experiences. Another thing is how you manage them. First of all you have to understand what is the reason for your anxiety, it may be that you are afraid of other people's opinion, or how you are perceved by them, or maybe you are a perfectionist and start obssesing about every mistake and then everything falls apart, or maybe you are both in which case you need to work them out separately. You have to understand that the problem is in your head and can be easily resolved. I say you should start by being grateful even for the fact that you had the courage to get on that stage, then understand that even in a bad performance there is always something good about it, like you being able to finish the piece, or keeping a good intonation, or even keeping your bow from trembling :)).
And last but not least, try to be fascinated with what you're playing, like really be absorbed. Create a bubble around you, and be you and your music, and when you're finished, burst the bubble and, voila, you are again on the stage you once feared.

And for sure try, read everything, it is the most useful thing I ever did.

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 9:33 PM
Our thoughts affect our emotions which in turn affect our behavior.
You have been offered some good suggestions such as playing in large room.
It is important to work on catching your thoughts, if they are negative tell yourself this is my old way of thinking and let them pass like a wave, substitute with a more positive thoughts. Practice doing that. It takes many repetitions and time to make the new thoughts the prevalent ones.
Also practice telling yourself those positive thoughts everyday so that they become the thoughts that prevail, and part of who you are.
Why do you play? What part of your soul does it feed?
Think why you are playing rather then I can't play in front of others.
Remind yourself that we are all floating atoms connected to each other, so really when you play for someone you are simple playing for an extension of yourself as part of the universe.

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 10:06 PM
Dr. Louise Montello specializes in Performance Anxiety issues. Check out her book Essential Musical Intelligence. She has a Perfomance Workshop next sat & Sun 3/15&16 in NYC you can benefit from. Good luck!
From Tommy Atkinson
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 10:23 PM
Remember that the audience is your best resource! They want you to be awesome and do awesome things. It's in their best interest that you're successful up there.

You also might want to talk to your doctor about beta blockers. This is going to be controversial, and I am in no way suggesting that this will solve all your problems or even be a good idea for you. That's for you and your doctor to find out together. But, if you have tried lots of different strategies and have performed a lot over the years, but you are having serious performance anxiety, you might want to look into it. I know LOTS of professional musicians who use them, especially when they're in high-pressure situations where they have physical effects as a result of nerves/anxiety. I've never used them before, but from what I've gathered by anecdotes from my colleagues, they're not a magic solution but they take some of the edge off.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on March 8, 2014 at 11:21 PM
"You also might want to talk to your doctor about beta blockers."

No -- stay away from them. Unless they are medically necessary, the cure is often worse than the disease.

Posted on March 8, 2014 at 11:29 PM
I had trouble with nerves as a college student. The best thing for me was our weekly "convocations" that were a chance for me to get better and better. Choose music that is easier than your ability level, and then you can focus on the musical aspects as opposed to just worrying about technique and if you can "get it right". I played as many convocations, studio classes, and auditions as I could. I did get better. You can too. It just takes diligence and trying to change your mindset when you are performing. A book that really helped me was "Thinking Body, Dancing Mind". Great resource for performers.
From Linda Louise Ford
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 12:20 AM
Hi Desiree, I'm happy to read all the wonderful suggestions and reflections. Desiree, I believe you will be able resolve the anxiety and build your ease over time. I bet someday, will post a video of your success in the years to come and you will have a definitive map of action to foster your comfort and satisfaction with your public performing. Then, you will be on your way to becoming a specialist in helping others. Take care of your energy and remember to do other things beside your violin. You will realize that if you can do other skilled tasks that require heart so you can do the same thing with violin. Like your name, Desiree, your music is desired and desirable. We just need to transfer our skills to this particular venue, the stage. You are already performing well and the field of psychology is already rich in help in this area of concern. Additionally, there is a medication called, propranolol, which is used off label for performance anxiety. It is a long used blood pressure medication which , when used correctly in low doses WITH THE CARE/SUPERVISION of a medical prescriber, can prevent racing heart and the cascade of other physical symptoms of anxiety. I have seen many people use propranolol successfully. I am not suggesting Propranolol be a first strategy. It is an option in addition to many other solutions practiced over time. Many a college career and professional career has been aided with propranolol taken 30 minutes prior to a performance or presentation. I believe you will play beautifully as you want in the performing venues as you already do in your personal comfort zones. Truly, Linda Louise Ford
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 1:01 AM
I'm wondering if you have ever, after a performance, watched a video of your performance? Often times, the sounds that we think we are playing, are some times distorted by our perceptions. For your next performance, have a trusted friend, video tape you so that are able to both see and hear your music from the audiences perceptive. Sincerely hope this may help.
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 3:44 AM
I think not caring about what the people will say helps. It's like saying "hey! i'm here to perform because i love it, it's fun and i want you too see it so check me out, this is what i can do, i may not be he best but i do good enough in it and i did my very best to make this kind of sound, if you don't like it, deal with it, this is how i sound and i know i'm doing my very best on it... so it's up to you if you wanna frown or enjoy the music it play".

I think pleasing yourself first is the top priority, play because you love it and it's fun. ENJOY ENJOY ENJOY and others will enjoy as well. If you do make mistakes, just remember that you are a musician, you are bound to make mistakes, forgive yourself.

Also if you've practiced enough and exhaust all your resources easily attainable, you can say those word confidently and honestly.

Watch Maxim Vengerov's videos, for me, i think he's the most expressive and the most fun player i've ever known.

Posted on March 9, 2014 at 6:48 AM
I second the Bulletproofmusician. Some god blogs there.
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 10:01 AM
Here is what I think: You feel wonderful when you play alone because you love yourself, you are your only spectator. When playing in front of an audience, you no longer accept yourself the way you are because you are afraid of breaking social rules. EWhen you play alone, your emotions are not taboo but when you play in front of a public, they become personal in a source of shame.

The problem relates to your acceptance of yourself.

Violin can be for you a great way to reinforce and strengthen your acceptance of yourself. Be proud of who you are, be strong about it, assert your deepest feelings. And people will follow you because everyone wants to feel confidence and love of being yourself.

From linda van der heijden
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 1:13 PM
i am so touched bu what you write, especially your, eh, am i allowed to call it jealousy at people who are able to perform almost *with* their audience instead of what you describe as feeling almost alienatated from both the audience and yourself. i have this same thing. I have to admit that just talking to strangers is a stressful thing for me, so trying to perform brilliantly for strangers whom i secretly fear is even more stressful.
anyway, i read that a practice field called 'haptonomics' has helped many athletes to cope with performance anxiety, by teaching them to make close contact with their feelings, the stadium, the audience, before they do their 'perormance'. It may work for us musicians too.
Posted on March 9, 2014 at 2:10 PM
Focus on your music, if you feel tense the audience will feel tense too. Always be reminded of what kind of music you are projecting, that's what music is for, expressing your emotion and you keep your focus on that.
Posted on March 10, 2014 at 3:11 PM
Can I ask why you think you have to perform?
If it's such a major problem for you can't you just accept that and change the reason why you play? You say you are thinking about quitting altogether. So are you just playing for that scary audience? Or is there more to making music and playing your violin? Just a thought...
Posted on March 11, 2014 at 6:13 AM
Dear friend

I have the same problem. I think I have found a way to get by it. When I need to play in front of many people I first go and play on the street. I don't beg or anything, I just get my violin out and play for the people. Believe me that is much more difficult. People look at you strangely but finally a nice mom with the two young daughters will stop and admire you... Just one piece, just for a couple of minutes. Anything else will be so easy!!!!!!!!

From Christian Vachon
Posted on March 11, 2014 at 9:10 AM

I was touched by your post! Here are some ideas as a performer and teacher, based on my own experiences dealing with stage fright. Believe it or not, many people have been through what you have been through. And, there are ways around it, but they do require substantial change.

For me personally, those things involved a few major changes. First, the discovery of food allergies and intolerances and eliminating those things from my diet transformed my life. Gone were many of the things that were plaguing me physically, health-wise and mentally as a result of not feeling well. Eliminating coffee and carbonated drinks, which really irritate the nervous system can also help. So, diet it key. Also, make sure that your body is in order and that you don't have any issues with muscles, tendons, spine, etc. which can irritate the nervous system. If you suspect any of these, seeing an osteopath can be a big help.

Secondly, practicing as much as possible. It doesn't matter what other people do and there is really no limit to how much work one can do. Some have to do more, some less, but doing all the practice that you need so you can do what you have to do is essential so that you feel ready.

Three, fixing your setup and eliminating tension in your playing. This includes proper chinrest, proper shoulder support (or none is the rest or cushion is a hindrance), and proper mechanics and movements. Though some soloists use this successfully, for most people, for me, it meant eliminating the over-rotation of the left elbow and over-spreading of the right hand fingers. Absolutely zero thumb pressure in either hand and making sure that your sound production is lateral.

Four, practicing well. This means slow practice without vibrato, making sure that all notes are in tune, shifts are done well with intermediate notes in tune on every shift and the finger that shifts is on the string before you shift. This means also practicing all the repertoire slowly from beginning to end correcting every mistake at least 5 times in a row without mistake, extending that in early stages of learning a piece to entire passages. It means also practicing technique to overcome any issues in your playing, and practicing performing, going though your repertoire at the end of the day like it was a concert.

Five, mind setting. It is simple, you need to focus your mind on what you want, not what you don't. Don't avoid mistakes, simply work to play well and get things done. Your mind cannot focus on two things at the same time and the body does not recognize between negative and positive thoughts, only responds to the action command in the thought. So, if you tell yourself "I hope I don't miss that shift" your body hears miss that shift and will do it. Also, you are not focusing on what it is you want to do, like getting the shift, so your mind is not focused on the process of getting it. Also, you have to believe that you will get it and that your body will respond to your mind's command, so that you don't over-try. Doubt is why one fails.

Six, practicing good karma. In other words we often fear and receive what we put out. The more critical and judgmental we are of others, the more nervous we get. So, being relaxed, being tolerant, being loving of yourself and to yourself and others and really practice that golden rule of trying as best as you can of never doing, saying or thinking anything about anyone that you wouldn't want to have happen to you. This last sixth part, helps as much as all the rest combined together in my experience. And, even if you do feel nervous, none of it appears in your playing.

Seven, practicing gratitude instead of resentment. In life, we always seem to want more thinking we don’t have enough, instead of appreciating what we have and this in general can create a lot of anxiety, tension and disappointment. It is of course OK to want to achieve more and get better, but we shouldn't forget also all that we have learned and have in our lives. I find that if we are grateful for the opportunity to perform, for what we have and what we can do, we often surpass what we expect, often by a long shot.

Eight, being accountable. As hard as it is to understand why nerves happen to us, the only person responsible for us being afraid is… us! By taking responsibility and dealing with things day by day, note by note, we begin to assume ourselves and this can in turn help us to both accept and transcend the difficulties to allow who and what we are to come through when we play.

Hope this helps and that you can overcome this as quickly and rapidly as possible!

Cheers and the very best of luck!

From Matthew Grogan
Posted on March 14, 2014 at 7:56 PM
All the comments so far are great but you also need to tame that chimp! Read this blog about how to do so -

tame that chimp

and read this book - The Chimp Paradox -

Another tip I would add is to not to perform pieces that you've just learnt and are right at the edge of your ability range. Go for something a grade or 2 lower than you ability that you find easier. Then you can build up to more complex music once you're more comfortable in front of an audience. Start with small audiences and busking, just get use to playing in front of people. Also once you get the hang of it you can start to use your nerves to improve your performances (I've only just started being able to do this) as you should accept that you will never be 100% nerves free in front of an audience!

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