Public speaking and public violin performing?…

May 5, 2010 at 07:41 PM ·

Does anyone have any understanding of the connection, or lack of?, between fright over public speaking and fright when playing violin for people?  Confusingly, there doesn’t seem to be sensible patterns with people I know, and I’ve been wondering about it.

I have NO fright public speaking at all, but have horrible shakes playing violin in front of people (chalking this up to I’m more confident speaking, been doing it all my life, but learning violin), BUT a friend of mine has terror with both speaking and performing (in her case piano), an otherwise confident and competent person.  Another friend, a piper, performs all the time with no problem, but says he would pass out if he had to address or speak to a group.  ???

Does anyone have any ideas, and how are you wired regarding this.  I think I would like to figure out how to tap into my public speaking self and send that on over to the violin playing self.  And most of what I have read is more along the lines of my piping friend (ie. more scared of public speaking).  Maybe I could just start with words next recital, then sneak my violin up and carry on with music, maybe my brain won’t notice?  Thanks for your thoughts.

Replies (38)

May 5, 2010 at 09:07 PM ·

Yes i also think there is no connections. Some great violinists are pretty much reserved to not say shy people as well...

I have no fright to talk in public and usually feel very at ease but people say I'm shy in real life... I don't think I am?  (go figure??? ; )   I would be an anxious of a sort in violin if it would not be of my actual teacher's philosophy to allow absoluntly none of this!  (I am very greatful to her to have shown me how "ridiculous" it is when one is frighten when playing in public... cause you're sure of one thing, if you are afraid, it only just be worst... ; ) 

Anyway, I suppose everyone is different!

Interesting discussion!


Words is easier to control and master publically than a violin!

May 5, 2010 at 09:58 PM ·

Depending on the degree of formailty or informailty of the event, I usually like to speak to the audience. I think I would be less nervous at first if I just played, and a number of colleagues have told me that they could never bring themselves to address the audience.

I think that there are different factors that cause nervousnees, though it's also somewhat unpredictable. Musically, I may be nervous about the demands of a particularly challenging piece and any uncertainties that I may have about it. It usually makes sense for the balancing of a recital program to leave the big fireworks for the end, so it's always looming. Otherwise, I feel that initial nervousness is realted to self-conciousness. For me, this ususally evaporates within a few minutes. (But 'a few minutes' can be a long time!)

When I first address an audience, they're usually not expecting it, and initially pushing past that fuels the self-concious nerves. But I find that it pays off high dividends. It helps me establish greater rapport with the audience and help people get past any intimidation that they may feel, if they're not habitual classical concert goers. These are not  extended lectures on theory or musicology - just some thoughts on each piece I'm about to play, what to listen for here and there, etc. A bit of Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts style but much shorter. I really love connecting with an audience. Of course, if I can't succeed with my playing alone, then there's no cake to put the icing on. I love performing for audiences. I really feel that, however temporarily, I'm going out there to make a bunch of new friends. That's why I like being up there even If I feel nervous.

PS A humorous aside: Jerry Seinfeld said that they say that the #1 fear people have reported is public speaking. The #2 fear is death. That means that if you are at a funeral you'd rather be the guest of honor than the one giving the eulogy!

May 6, 2010 at 01:04 AM ·

Hi, Heather.  I'm in just about the same boat - adult beginner, playing just over three years now. I am very nervous about playing in front of people. but I can speak in public happily.  I used not to be able to speak either, and I overcame the problem by practicing - offered to be the leader of a small group that met weekly, and stood up at every meeting to make announcements, etc.  My first recital was just dreadful.  Based on what I saw as the problems, I made a number of changes for the second one.  I was better prepared; I did a lot of mental practice; I practiced once each day for six weeks as if I were playing in the recital (warmed up with other pieces, took a short break, then played the recital piece straight through without stopping). 

I also told my teacher I had disliked not really being able to warm up before the recital and suggested all the students there might play something together to kick off the recital.  She acceded to the request and we played a short simple round together.  it was fun; it broke the ice; we all got to be in touch with our instruments making music before we were on the spot.  We are repeating the group warm up this year.  I also took a minute to tell people about my piece, which is not part of the routine at that recital - I just did it.  It gave me a chance to connect on a level I understood, and I felt by the time I started playing that I had a sympathetic audience - of course I had that before I spoke, but I had established myself in my own min as a person I recognized (someone who can interact with others), rather than a pitiful blob of unmusical terror (which is what I felt like the first time).  I would definitely try it, as long as you can speak very briefly.

May 6, 2010 at 04:12 AM ·

 I was deathly afraid of public speaking for many years.  I was forced to take a public speaking class to get my degree and I put it off till the very last.  What got me over the hurdle was that teacher looking at me as saying "No one has ever died from public speaking".  I took it to heart and learned that even if I make a major mistake the only people that catch it are my friends that I practiced on or had read a written speech.   Guess what they are my friends and they support me and help me.  The only way the audience knows you made a mistake not an "improvement" to the music is if you falter or go to pieces.  ACT confident until you feel confident!  

May 6, 2010 at 04:13 AM ·

Anne-Marie, Raphael and Marianne, thank you for your replies.  It is interesting how different people are – I do think I might feel better speaking 1st, brief introduction or similar and in a student recital I think that would be fine.  And I don’t like to admit that I think the self consciousness factor is more likely in my case, as the last time I performed I did specifically to practice being uncomfortable and was an intimidating environment but I was very prepared and sure about what I was playing, and strangely did not think I was too nervous.  I did it, from memory, with no major malfunctions, but much less well than I know I could have and my bow arm was shaking involuntarily making anything other than the basic note come outJ.

Another thing I thought of when reading Raphael’s post is that I tend to feel OK at the start and then it gets worse as I play, even when I’m doing fine and not really feeling that anxious (my sub-conscious obviously is – grrrr!)  I love the thought of thinking of the audience as new friends – I know they’re not there to kill meJ - and want to think about this at the next opportunity.  This is the way it should be.  Still cannot figure out how I have none of this speaking publicly (and I definitely don’t always know what I’m doing there).  Oh gosh, maybe I’m completely weird!  Anne-Marie, I think it’s great what your teacher has done for her students in this regard and you can think about playing music and not so many nerves (of course I mean excessive nerves, I think a bit is normal and healthy).   You are so right about fear making everything worse!  Marianne some friends and I are trying to get a group together but it’s been a bit tough as many of them live on ranches a long way out of town, but we’ll manage it at some point – the idea is to perform together as performance practice.  Unfortunately, one of them has quit lessons and all completely due to this kind of problem, and that makes me sad.  Thankfully I think am too stubborn for anything like that, and love playing too much.  I do also like the idea of a warm up piece to break ice.  I really appreciate all of your thoughts on this.

May 6, 2010 at 04:30 AM ·

Stuart – didn’t see your post while I was teacher has told me that as well, she says I have facial give-aways when I mess up...not good.  Acting confident in a way then becomes a habit, and then you are confident.  Thanks.  Also Marianne I gotta say ‘pitiful blob of unmusical terror’ made me laugh, a lot, can relate.

May 6, 2010 at 06:05 AM ·

Hi Heather,

I think you've got great advice and already have a good plan going forward.

Whether you can ever get rid of performance nerves may be debatable (I've heard many anecdotes about great artists getting nervous, some even to the point of throwing up), but I think there are some very practical steps you can take to learn to control your physical response. There are some good books to read, Don Greene's come to mind. 

Visualization and breathing technique are great tools to learn but I think they become even more effective as part of a performance preparation routine, or maybe ritual is a better term. Just as you might have a routine before you start to practice, it's good to come up with your own performance ritual that you do every time you perform, whether it's in front of friends, your teacher, a video camera, or an audience.

One simple step might be to count to 10 as a matter of course to collect yourself, remember to breathe, visualize, focus on a keyword (I think that's one of Don Greene's suggestions) to set the mental stage, e.g. 'flow' or 'crisp' or whatever helps to prepare the character of the piece or the feel in your body. Counting also gives time to go over a checklist of how to prepare your body to move.

Shakes result from holding a part of your body rigidly, not from nerves. Get into the habit of sensing every joint in your body from toe to head (it's good to start with the feet as simply bending your knees and shifting onto your heels is sometimes enough to release the upper body). Try sensing your body next time you speak to see how released you are and compare to when you play violin.

Some culprits for a shaky bow are a tight thumb, overflexing of the biceps causing a rigid elbow, and hunched shoulder. Try: letting the bow hang from your fingerpads rather than being held between thumb and middle finger, reaching out with your bow arm before balancing bow into ready position to unlock the elbow, and keeping the shoulder blade down and back. Along with bending the knees, it helps to keep a neutral pelvis to balance the upperbody and keep from hunching forward or tensing the neck. Because the violin and arms are in front of us, it maybe helpful to almost lean back and release the arms toward the body (and counterbalanced by the shoulder-blades and lower trapezius) rather than holding them out in front. When nerves strike, we want to remain grounded and flexible not frozen in a sort of forward lurch.

This maybe awkward (10 seconds is a long time to count before you start; of course you'll need less time the more experienced you get) and may even cause increased anxiety at first. But as you figure out your specific tensions and learn to release them habitually, you'll become unaware of the steps you take and have more mental space to stay focussed. And for that worst case scenario if your body does freak out you'll have a plan in place to deal in the moment. At a masterclass Pinchas Zukerman was asked what he thinks about while he performs. His answer, "bow division, bow division." So it might not be such a bad thing to keep the checklist running even during the performance.

Best wishes on your next one!


May 6, 2010 at 08:08 AM ·

 Heather, JK above and the other posters hve given some great ideas regarding the shakes etc - check in the archives for other posts on nerves, the shakes, etc, as there has been a fair bit.

As to the difference between violin performance and speaking in public - absolutely can exist - they are two different skills.  I can easily do presnetations and talks to all sorts ofgroups - colleagues, parents, all comers, without nerves, I really enjoy it. But I know my stuff well, and I know I can blab on through any technical mishap, and I know how and when to answer any question. 

When I perform on violin - I am still a learner, I don't over-know my stuff, I just know enough of it to be able to perform it that well at that time. I know this makes the difference for me. However, certainly lots of opportunity to perfrom has made a difference - it gets better each time. One thing my t4eacher, who is also the director of the learners (actually, we have been at it together for about 4 years now, so we are really intermediates) ensmble that I am in, arranges special recitals where we each attend, all expected to perform something, just in someon'es home, with great food and talk. Its been a trememdous strategy for all of us.

I find I get the worst shakes performing as part of the group. Weird.

May 6, 2010 at 11:06 AM ·

heather, you probably should give the above excellent suggestions a try to see what really works for you...

i have couple questions:

when you say you have no fear with public speaking, does that matter what subject you talk about?  for instance, even on subjects that you are not that familiar with, are you still confident enough to speak your way out of it?  some folks actually enjoy listening to themselves talk, so just standing up and speaking is a desirable experience, even in front of people who know much more than they do. 

further, when you speak, does it matter whether you speak in a well lit room where you can see the audience well and can get visual feedback from them, or speak under the spotlight to a darkened hall where you cannot see but only feel the presence of the audience?

i think violin playing for most people requires the player to get into a zone, without much visual communication with the audience, thus limiting feedback,  positive or negative, from the audience.  thus, it is more close to speaking to a darkened room.  there are some elements of unknowns lurking in the dark...

also, when you play in front of people, is it the case that the harder the piece, the more the anxiety, or do you have problem demonstrating couple lines from twinkle to preschoolers?

perhaps by thinking over the answers to some of these questions, you can help yourself identify some of the issues.



May 6, 2010 at 11:38 AM ·

I used to get the shakes and perspire when I was first performing live. Confidence was a huge issue, and any mistakes were catastrophic. Losing your place, forgetting even which tune, or whatever you had planned. I know..

Your playing must take care of itself while performing, so know it well and practice with distractions. Start with something easy, and talk to your audience if appropriate. Ask them how they're doing and talk about your weekend. Get them to aupplause about something. Smile.

May 6, 2010 at 11:49 AM ·

I don't know how you can translate your public speaking skills to violin, but I am just like you -- no problem speaking in front of people, but terrible performance anxiety on the violin.  One thing that helped me quite a bit was busking over the holidays.  I wasn't out to make any money, just wanted to calm down my performance jitters.  I bought a book of Christmas tunes for violin and played in a public place for about an hour a day.  On the first day, I was nervous as usual.  Each day I did it, the nerves were a bit better and by the 4th day, I had no anxiety whatsoever, just pulled out my violin and started playing.  That experience helped me quite a bit.

May 6, 2010 at 11:54 AM ·

Yes, I also agree about ACTING confident until you feel confident. Sometimes we really can get the tail to wag the dog! As to bow shakes, the old saw that "the only thing to fear is fear, itself" apllies here, and elsewhere. If we feel nervous and try to resist the nerves, clamp down in any way, etc. that only makes it worse. We have to let go, and try to play as freely as we can, with good follow-through, and indeed conciousness of  bow-division, etc. And we should stick to our practiced game plan. For example, if we've always played something at the frog, and nerves make us feel less confident and want to second-guess that, do it at frog anyway. Just tell the nerves "you want to keep me company for a while? That's fine, come along. But I have a job to do, and don't have time to pay much attention to you." In fact, the more we can concentrate, the less room there is for nerves. Another great player (don't remember who, or I'd give credit) suggeated focusing on the counting and rhythm, as that's always there in any piece to hold on to. And yes, do conciously breathe. And indeed, smiling also helps to break the circuit a bit.

I'd actually rather be just a bit nervous than not nervous at all. It's part of the specialness of the performing experience. I've also found that nerves can make certain things easier to play! If I'm going to play the Prelude from the Bach E major Partita, I find that no matter how relaxed I try to keep myself, etc. it's not all that easy to get through. But a dose of adrenilan from nerves actually gives me the turbo boost I need!


May 6, 2010 at 01:47 PM ·

concur that confidence is the key here and as smiley has said and did,  one still needs to build confidence on a foundation based on good, solid if not exhaustive practice/experience. 

smiley probably knows who VJ singh is, a golfer who said that he was confident because he knew he had practiced (very hard i suppose). 

it is another thing to tell ourselves to be confident when the subconscious knows very well that we have not really prepared the piece well.  it wont' work because we have a guilty conscience because we know someone in the audience can see through the facade immediately.  when that happens, when we feel stressed beyond our control and nowhere to run or hide, the autonomic nervous system will secrete hormones that will act on nerve endings and muscles, in an involuntary fashion.  fight or flight.  since we cannot run off  the stage, the body ends up in a fighting mode.   so we fight our way through music with lead pipe fingers and bow arm.   we cannot stop the cascade of physiological response then.  the key to prevent recurrence like that is to plan to start on square one next time better prepared.

tiger woods (wish i can find a better role model:) said that when he walked on the golf course, he felt 10 feet tall and bullet proof.  i think he knew he had practiced hard and well and also he had learned to manuever his mental game based on his solid physical game.

with solid tech comes artistry.  with solid artisty comes artistic freedom and uninhibited expression.  in that sequence.

the other thing is that we build our sense of self or self esteem through experiences and feedbacks.  with public speaking, or enough experience of that, in general, after we speak, no one comes up to tear us apart for making mistakes during the delivery. we just move on.  we learn and can depend on our own ways to breaking the ice, telling a joke or two, engaging the audience with tried and true methods of our own design based on experiences.

with violin it is very different.  day in and day out we are told this is insufficient and that does not sound good.  before you hear what others have to say, you first assume it is going to be negative. for many, it is not easy to face such long term negativity and with time, it may grow into us, that comparing with some, we suck.   whenever we play in public, we think of and compare us with say, heifetz, consciously or unconsciously.  because our smart ass brains tell us that in so so year, heifetz did a take on this piece and why am i doing it? ! :)  those with great ears will probably suffer even more because we hear everything.  how can this be fun anymore?

i think it is a learning process in and by itself to detach ourselves from the negative image we and others have put onto ourselves.  it is easier to work with younger persons before too much molding has been done.  definitely not easy, but do-able, with consistent, supportive methods over the long term.  i strongly believe music performers should study and pay more attention to sports psychology.   in some situations to tough it out based on instincts may not work because you do not know who you are dealing with.  you don't know yourself yet.

May 6, 2010 at 03:05 PM ·

Good discussion.
From a psychological point of view, the usual cause (in either speaking or playing) is what is called "anticipatory anxiety." It is worry or anticipation of a worst case scenerio - the feelings of failure, rejection, inadequacy, disapproval, criticism, or whatever - that we anticipate and fully expect will happen if we screw up (which we can almost visualize and mentally experience, even though it hasn't happened yet).

In other words, it is anxiety over what we think will happen moments from now, rather than what is actually happening right now. Although it can affect many different areas of our functioning, it is one of the most debilitating forms of anxiety for anyone who is speaking, playing a musical instrument, or otherwise performing in front of others.

If you're worried about how your unpredictable fingers will perform on a decidedly fickle instrument like the violin, but it doesn't bother you so much that you might say something ridiculous, then you might get anticipatory anxiety when playing the violin for an audience but not when speaking in front of a group. And vice-versa.

You've got to try different ways to deal with it. Try ALL of the suggestions, for example, that everyone has contributed (above). We're all built a little differently, so keep trying different things until you find something that works for you.

Hope that helps.

PS. The rule of thumb in psychology is....
- If you're early for an appointment, it means you're anxious.
- If you're late for the appointment, it means you're hostile.
- If you're on time, it means your obsessive-compulsive.
Conclusion: You can't win.

May 6, 2010 at 06:55 PM ·

Wow, an amazing amount of great ideas and advice. I wish I could name you all and respond specifically because every post has given me something good to think about – this would be a long winded post though, so I think what I have learned is: 

-I have confidence somehow (maybe foolishly so?) with public speaking.  Violin is a different beast, I’m learning it and the underlying confidence is not there (yet, I hope?).  The regular negativity (from yourself, from teachers trying to make you better), as the nature of learning a complex thing, is just part of the scope and there has to be a way to put that into healthy perspective as it’s own unique factor - not to try and pretend it doesn’t exist or ‘beat’ it.

-Delivering information (public speaking) for me is a different goal than attempting to entertain or impart something beautiful with music.  One is practical, I’m just simply communicating information, or exchanging ideas.  It doesn’t matter too much  if it’s a subject I feel completely confident in, so maybe I just relate it similarly to talking to someone at the kitchen table.  The other is infinite in it’s possibilities, and maybe I need to think about what I’m actually trying to achieve by performing for people, maybe this is fuzzy for me.  Also, I’ve heard of some artists/performers who perform with their backs to the audience (a little antisocial, but still) and was thinking recently about piano players facing their keyboards as a concentration zone – I wonder if that feels better for them, or if it makes no difference? 

-Expectations…do I really expect things to sound like Heifetz, and anything less is tragic…ok not Heifetz, but maybe other very good violinists around me?

-Get the group going!  Practice performing in a supportive way, at least until more experienced.  (as it is now, if I tried to perform outside of the scope of our violin people, like on the street, by the mall etc., it would be akin to taking my clothes off and standing outside the liquor store or bank).  Performing with some friends would be like only being half nakedJ. 

-The last performance I was as prepared as I could be I think, my teacher thought so and the adjudicator did as well.  The symptoms still appeared, so thinking about keywords, relaxation ritual of some kind etc. is probably very underrated/maybe undertaught?  Also, smiling, speaking briefly if necessary, feeling friends with the audience.   ‘Resisting the nerves creates tension’ – how true – I think we do this because it’s considered a weakness to be nervous, and we want to be neither.

-The anticipated anxiety of screwing up…it’s true I’m not worried if I say something a bit goofy publicly, feel it’s not the end of the world, so with violin the mental highlighting of the screwing up part needs to be a bit less than the highlighting of the things done well, and maybe this can become a habit. 

OK, this is still long and boring anyway, so…I will just say that it feels good to know about other people’s experiences and to hear of others just like me and also how opposite some are.   I do really feel better, or maybe more able to attack this issue and work on it, just having had this discussion.  Many thanks to you all.


May 6, 2010 at 11:06 PM ·

From firsthand experience, I know that building confidence in public speaking can help to build confidence in public music performance -- and vice-versa.  I did some acting in high school -- one small part, then one lead part.  I had a great time, and the lessons I learned carried over well to musical performance.

As a kid in school, I found something that helped me in recitals.  I deliberately avoided opening with cantabile solos -- e.g., Meditation from Thais.  Such material will instantly show up any evidence of nerves.  Instead, I would pick something powerful and aggressive to start off -- something with a good dose of volume, sul G tones, and a succession of quick-attack chords.  Think of the Tchaikovsky VC, last movement -- the unaccompanied measures right after the opening orchestral tutti.  This gives an idea of the kind of material I would look for to open a program.

This kind of opening helped me burn off the pent-up nervous energy fast.  Then it would take me only a couple of minutes after an aggressive start to settle down and do full justice to the cantabile material that followed.  This plan of attack helped me a lot in auditions, too.  More on that subject, maybe, in another thread sometime.

Finally, do some run-throughs of your recital, wearing the same kind of outfit that you plan to wear during the recital itself.  I don't know about the ladies; but some of the guys, it seems, will rehearse for weeks in casual outfits -- and then become suddenly disoriented and ill at ease in performance from trying to hold the same familiar instrument with the added bulk and constraint of a jacket and tie.

I'm an open-collar performer -- not for me the old jacket-and-tie routine.  I'm neat and clean about it -- no grubby or grungy look, either -- but, after all, this is a recital hall, not a fashion floor.  Violin-playing is tough, hot, gritty work.  I can't speak for anyone else, but I could no more get all gussied up to play a recital than I could get all gussied up to play baseball.

May 6, 2010 at 11:34 PM ·


>with violin it is very different.  day in and day out we are told this is insufficient and that does not sound good.  before you hear what others have to say, you first assume it is going to be negative. for many, it is not easy to face such long term negativity and with time, it may grow into us, that comparing with some, we suck.   whenever we play in public, we think of and compare us with say, heifetz, consciously or unconsciously. 

al, that is so true.  My hope isthat oen day the profesison as a whole can turn its general approach upside down and always start from success.



May 6, 2010 at 11:49 PM ·

 Do the same with the violin as public speaking. Imagine that you are playing to a bunch

of turnips, sitting in the chairs.


May 7, 2010 at 02:01 AM ·

lol about the turnups... There is also all the other tricks I've heard to imagine audience in pyjamas eating bananas or dressed in potato bags or even in underwear ; )

Back to the serious things,

"with violin it is very different.  day in and day out we are told this is insufficient and that does not sound good.  before you hear what others have to say, you first assume it is going to be negative. for many, it is not easy to face such long term negativity and with time, it may grow into us, that comparing with some, we suck.   whenever we play in public, we think of and compare us with say, heifetz, consciously or unconsciously"

I agree too although I think we can also look at it as "as much excellent videos we find, as much true beginners ones we find as well... " If you can aknowledge that despite that there are tons out there that are better than you but also many who are far worst and who don't even play and will say good things just because you tried... then, I think it balances and put things in perspective...  Also to see your good and bad points. Sometimes, it is even possible to come to this conclusion: "this player is 10 000 times better than me but I would never trade my only little "x thing" I have better for all he/she can make.  Is this pretentious?  No if you recognize your weaknesses as well!

Also again in my humble opinion, the most wonderful thing to say in the world to not be anxious for amateurs is:  really, what do I have to lose if it goes wrong?  Nothing since we are not professionnals!  This is very comforting and although it can look very selfish, lazy and careless, it's possible one will play even better and to even more his full potential that if one starts thinking one has a terrible responsibility on the shoulders... I agree a little kick in the b... is good but too much of it can cause even more problems!

Interesting discussion!


May 7, 2010 at 02:55 AM ·

I like some of Jim's points. If we have a choice, as in our own recital program, it helps to start with something that can actively and comfortably burn off some initial adrenilin. Some years back I had the opportunity to play a few pieces as part of a multi-act recital at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. I began with the Brahms "Sonatenzatz" (or Scherzo in C minor) which did the trick. I followed it with Ziguenerweisen. I'm glad it wasn't the other way around!

On the other hand, we often don't have a choice. Earlier this season I had to play the Meditation from "Thais" with orchestra. Indeed, that's harder than many people think, calling for a lot of sustaining control and expressivenes . I'd played it about half a dozen times before with orchestra, including my youtube performance about 5 years ago. But this time I was asked to dedicate the performance to an important dignitary in the audience - and yes, I was nervous. On top of that, as concertmaster of the orchestra in that gig, I had to wait around on stage with the rest of the orchestra as an a cappela chorus sang for about 30 minutes. So when it was finally my turn to solo, I was no longer warmed-up! But I stuck to my game plan, and afterwards a number of colleagues were kind enough to tell me that they never heard me play better. Since I was forced to wait around so long and have my engines cool, the nerves probably helped jump-start certain aspects of my playing, e.g. vibrato.

Yes, it's a very good idea to do some practicing in similar clothes to your performance clothes. And practice performing - not just passages. That includes walking out, bowing, running through an entire piece or mvt. w.o. stopping, etc. And if you're going to speak, practice more or less what you plan to say. (I say "more or less" because in my case, I don't usually have a word-for-word speech, though there are certain key phrases that I want to remember. With others, it may be different.)

As to picturing the audience in their underwear to make them seem perhaps less intimidating, I prefer to see them as they are, and reach out to them. The legendary pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, liked to focus at any given concert on just one person, whoever it might happen to be, who he felt was particularly getting him, and imagine that he was just playing for that person. Whatever works.

May 7, 2010 at 04:26 PM ·

"As to picturing the audience in their underwear to make them seem perhaps less intimidating"  I never said it worked ; ) but just that I heard this one many times and the others I told along...

I personally couldn't think of the first one as I know I would burst out laughing...  (not a good thing when you have to be focused and serious!) 

May 7, 2010 at 05:20 PM ·

How do you know the audience isn't visualizing you in your underwear?
:) Sandy

May 7, 2010 at 08:00 PM ·

OK, that isn't even funny....

:), ok it's funny, but now another odd mental image to increase the nerves?!!

May 7, 2010 at 10:17 PM ·

 So for me the two are quite connected.  I dislike both public speaking and performing in public, and they both make me feel similarly.  I had to tackle my public speaking fears when I got my PhD, and as I got more comfortable with giving scientific presentations, I also became more comfortable performing.  I found that there were some analogies between the two.  

1.  Knowing the material.  I was always given the advice about using note cards.  For me, that was terrible advice.  If I had the note cards, I would still use them as a crutch, and read from them.  I improved when I actually memorized my talks.  Then I went from memorizing the entire talk (impossible, for me, with an hour-long seminar) to just memorizing my slides, in order.  Before speaking, I'd just go through my slides, reminding myself what comes next.  It gave me something to do so I didn't think about how nervous I was.  Similarly, I also started consciously trying to memorize the music I was playing.  I didn't rely on "you'll just know it by heart if you practice it enough."  That didn't work.  Instead, like the slides for my talks, I spent some practice time on the explicit goal of committing a piece to memory.  That helps me a lot, then I'm less likely to panic if I have a small brain glitch.  I have more confidence that my fingers will know what to do anyway.

2.  Breathing.  I tend to hyperventilate when giving talks.  Sometimes I'd look up and realize a few minutes into it that I was holding my breath, and then hyperventilating to compensate.  Neither was good for feeling or projecting calm and confidence.  I do the same thing when playing the violin--if I'm not careful, I hold my breath, and then hyperventilate to compensate.  So sometimes I build in places in the music where I remember to breathe, and/or lift my chin off the chin rest during a rest to make sure I'm not clenching.

3.  Being very prepared for the performance.  Cramming for a talk, or a recital, the night before doesn't work.


May 7, 2010 at 10:23 PM ·

How do you know the audience isn't visualizing you in your underwear?
:) Sandy

They're Hanes. Let's leave it at that! ;-)

May 8, 2010 at 12:51 AM ·

Hey, wrong brand guess lol  (I'll leave it at that too!) ok I'll be more serious too!  ; )  


Sander, seriously, perhaps you nailed another modern "problem"!  (not talking of you of course!  This joke was very funny indeed!)  Generally speaking, I often wonder if the audience really go to concerts to listen to music or to visualize what you told...   You know the nowadays fashion showbiz....  (and when they are getting old, no problem they just have to pick a younger one instead... sad thing!)  Just hope the people remember to consider the music talent first no matter what! 

May 8, 2010 at 01:47 AM ·

One might think that there would be nothing left to add to this topic after all the posts above!  But I can give a slightly different one.  Like the original poster, I have no trouble speaking to an audience of a thousand (I've done it on several occasions) I even anticipate and enjoy it.   However, I am also a competetive ballroom dancer and have been someties crippled by similar performance anxiety - while not quite as bad I get a similar thing on the few occasions that I have done violin recitals.

I compete in ballroom about once a month and, hence, have had lots of opportunity to try to solve this anxiety.  One might have thought that repetition would solve it but no suchj luck.  I tired the usual things, running the situation through my head; imagining this or that, tryiing to just have fun (that worked a bit) but nothing really worked reliably.  It was then that I read that performance anxiety can be caused by texpectations of perfection.  And that hit the nail on the head for me - I wanted to be perfect for my dance partner - to not make any mistakes and that (combined with my personality) is what really made me anxious.  It was only when I discussed this with him and realized that all pefromances are flawed - every one - but its not about perfection its about presentation and (in particular in partner dancing) how you deal with the error that counts.

I am reminded of Segovia who I heard play three times.  The last one I was within a couple of yard of him - he was very old and could hardly sit on his stool.  When I actually watched his fingers and listened I realized that he was making mistakes all the time - but he did so beautiflly so that they actually added to, not distracted from the music.  

The point is that you should expect to play well, but do not pur the pressure on yourself to play perfectly.  the former is achievable, the latter is not - even the best performers have good and bad days.



May 8, 2010 at 02:47 PM ·

Thanks for starting this thread, Heather - such an important topic.

Psychologist Glenn Wilson speaks about how performance anxiety stems from three basic sources, the person, the task at hand, and the performance situation. I've applied his framework with considerable success in my teaching and workshops - I think it provides an elegant way to grasp why some of us might be jittery speakers but not players, or vice versa.

It also helps explain why each of us will need to do customized things to address whatever performance issues we encounter. Best of all, it helps us recognize that we can overcome performance problems. On The Musician's Way Blog, I've posted a number of related articles under that category 'performance anxiety.' I think you'll find them of interest:

May 8, 2010 at 04:02 PM ·

Hi Heather,

Some suggestions. As you are confident speaking then introduce your pieces with some research into the background of each piece. As well as listening to the music your audience will have learned something they did not know.

Play some chamber music as 2nd violinist.  It can be less stressful and is still a test of your performance nerves.

Make up words to go with the main melody and have them in your mind when you play.  The violin replaces your voice.  I have tried it and it can work very well   You can then combine your vocal skills with performing.  For instance Bach could take some religious sentiments to put to the melody.  I have tried that and enjoyed putting some vulgar words to a jaunty tune. The 3rd movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto for instance.  Obviously keep the swords to yourself.

The aim is to enjoy performing. Once you have an enjoyable experience you can build on it .

The ultimate experience is just letting yourself go and feeling the music flow through you. It can be the ultimate "Trip" 


May 9, 2010 at 03:05 AM ·

 heather  wrote this line that i find quite interesting.  she said:

"-Delivering information (public speaking) for me is a different goal than attempting to entertain or impart something beautiful with music.  One is practical, I’m just simply communicating information, or exchanging ideas. "

it seems that public speaking is meant for communication whereas violin playing in public carries a larger purpose: to entertain and to create something beautiful.  

perhaps at this point it will be more manageable to consider public speaking as communication in english and violin playing simply as communication in the language of music.

it takes time to master one's native tongue.  with couple years of spanish, i know my kid does not expect to wow people when we visit spain.  violinists may need to adjust accordingly levels of expectation.  it is fine to play imperfectly but with humility and grace.  audience adores that and finds it a turn off when performers take themselves too seriously which creates unpleasant tension for both the performers and the listeners.   doing more and ending up with less,,,why bother... 


May 9, 2010 at 03:59 AM ·

"play imperfectly but with humility and grace.  audience adores that and finds it a turn off when performers take themselves too seriously which creates unpleasant tension for both the performers and the listeners."

So true Al, I have notice this too!  I have a really hard time to "lie" but this is certainly an exception where I do!  I'm more the type to fake to be happy after concerts and hide to cry so to speak! 

Before I use to not be shy to say openly that I was not happy after a performance I did etc and realized how mean it was for others!  And also how unprofessionnal... (do we hear Sarah Chang, Vadim Repin and Hilary Hahn say publically that they are so ashamed they missed their shot?  Certainly not!)  Why would amateurs have more the right to say this and ruin the "good mood" of the audience!   It also can hurt those who are not even there yet and make you pass for a fussy. I learned to never do this again even though it's difficult to fake to be happy...

Thanks for reminding us of this Al!


May 9, 2010 at 10:50 AM ·

" Thanks for reminding us of this Al!

i am just sticking my foot out, trying to trip over some who are in a rush to jump over a cliff:):)

right now i am stuck in a hotel between syracuse and rochester, accompanying my older one in a weekend golf competition. nasty weather.  today will be in the 30's!

anyway, on friday, we had a chance to play an event called junior-amateur.  it is a format where junior competitors are paired with local business people who have helped sponsoring the event as a thank you.  my kid was paired up with 2 principals of a firm and another older boy from canada.  2 things stuck out:

1. the father of the older boy told me that when his kid was younger, he played much better because he was fearless.  now, close to 17 i think, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, he became more calculating and consequently tentative and error prone.

2. the 2 elder gentlemen (true to the word) were horrific golfers but showed the kids how the game is supposed to be played.  after each bad shot, which was essentially every shot they attempted, they have developed this capacity to immediately take command of the dire situation by saying something really funny or acting in such a graceful way that you just want to root for them, knowing full well the weekend warriors never learned the game well to start with, never have enough time to work on it. truly everyone walked away better off and the lasting memory will be the gifts they have brought to the game and everyone involved.   they played at much higher level.

May 9, 2010 at 03:05 PM ·


May 11, 2010 at 06:10 PM ·

I’m very glad this has turned out to be interesting to people – you all have such a range of experiences from different backgrounds, hearing stories from everyone’s lives is fantastic and helpful and I’ll  be re-reading these a few times.  ‘Play imperfectly with humility and grace’ and ‘doing more and ending up with less’ – Thank You Al for putting this into words.  I internalize the frustrations I feel when my nerves affect what I want to be able to do, but if I can impart to myself the same ‘politeness’ and respect I would offer the audience in this way, that can only be a good thing.  Right?

I’ve realized that unlike when I have to speak in front of people, I feel like I stand out being one of only a very few adult students in a sea of kids, and I admit sometimes getting suckered into listening to comments that I shouldn’t be listening to from parents or others, who are often a good chunk of the audience…why would she bother etc…..isn’t there a shock collar or something for this when this kind of thinking creeps in?

I obviously will never be a professional violin player, but I absolutely will learn to play to my best possible ability, with proper technique and as much musicality that I can muster and I have no intention of trying to shortcut any of it.  So along the way I’m going to try to embrace the uncomfort zone – play imperfectly with humility and grace (to as many turnips in their underwear as possible), and think about lots of what has been said here.

May 14, 2010 at 05:03 AM ·

I realize that not much more is being added to this thread. I read it few days ago when it was hot. Then, being a slow thinker, it didn't occur to me until later that when we do public speaking, we have so much more spontaneity and license than with a public violin performance. That is, how many of us who speak in public must do so sticking to a script--and at that, one that is familiar to the audience, such that missing a word or inflection here or there would be noticed right way? I can do public speaking OK, given the practice i get in my part-time job.  I think performing/acting with a script- something like giving the Gettysburg address - would be quite a but more nerve wracking.

May 14, 2010 at 06:09 PM ·

very late to the discussion, but I'm sure performance anxiety is a big reason why I gave up violin 30 years ago. As I return to my instrument, I looked here for ideas to reduce anxiety-- I've tried a few with success -- good advice here!

A gem I read in another discussion was that nerves may be related to ego- too much focus about yourself.  Instead, try reaching beyond yourself  and think of the performance as being about the music.  (sorry I can't give credit, anyone remember the source?)

To relate back to the public speaking, I cannot do extemporaneous (sp?)  speaking- don't have the personality/confidence.  I can, however, deliver lectures and teach topics I love to groups of people in school & library settings without anxiety.  But in a conference setting, the anxiety pops up again. 


May 14, 2010 at 06:36 PM ·

Margaret -- exactly.  There's no "right" or "wrong" in public speaking, generally.  With music, there are right notes and wrong notes, and listeners KNOW the wrong notes, and they will know when you hit them.  What's a "mistake" in public speaking -- saying "um" once?  Pausing to find the best word?  No one cares about that.

This is one of the reasons why I want to get used to winging it and improvving on my viola.  I never learned that on the piano, and performing was always a source of enormous, paralyzing stress.  On the viola, I want to study the best classical music and the proper pedagogical rep, but I also want to just be able to "speak extemporaneously" on it.  Just like extemporaneous speaking, who's to say what's a "mistake" when I'm frobbing it up as I go?  Even as a rank n00b, I still make sure to spend time at the end of my practice sessions just poking around and making pretty phrases out of nothing or listening to songs I like and trying to reproduce them or use them as jumping-off point for even teeny little phrases.  It's taken me decades and a long lacuna of pianolessness to reclaim that thing from my inner critic.  I'll be damned if I'm going to be scared of my own instrument, again.

May 14, 2010 at 09:19 PM ·

Well, thank you, Janis! I didn't really expect anyone to read what I wrote so late in the discussion. It's nice to know I'm not out in left field by myself.  Wow, winging it on the violin/viola-- what a crazy thought to classically trained musicians, but perhaps it could be part of the solution many of us (amateurs) have re. anxiety. . A fairly well-known conductor visited a local university-med school for a series of talks on teamwork-leadership, and had people who could play string instruments up on stage. They played some classical music first-- then he asked them to  wing it and create a western-cowboy type of piece together. I heard it was extremely uncomfortable for the musicians!  I'll have to ask someone who was actually there what the point of the exercise was.

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