How to practice for a room full of strangers?

September 10, 2011 at 01:33 AM ·

Well, my first recital is in December, a Christmas recital.  I'm excited. 

There is something I haven't thought about much; performing in front of a crowd.  It hit me the other day when I was at my lesson.  Its just me and my teacher during my lesson.  But during the lesson, the cello teacher happened to walk in the room.  He walked in to get something, but he stopped and stood in front of me while I was playing.  Suddenly, I felt so nervous.  I had no reason to be nervous at all.  I was playing one of my exercises that I had played a few times before.  My bow started to wobble due to the instant nervousness I started feeling just because he stopped to observe my playing.  I don't think he noticed.  In fact he complimented my playing.  But I was surprised how much nervousness overcame me all because one person stopped to observe me.

After my lesson, I began to think if one person made me nervous, how will I respond to a room full of people!  I've played in bands before, but that was way different.  I was a French hornist playing with a hundred other people.  This time around, I'm a student violinist playing solo to a room full of people. 

How I do practice for something like this?  I don't have a room full of people at my disposal to practice calming my nerves.  Playing for a few friends is not the same as playing for strangers.  I don't know how to practice performing for strangers, when I've never done it before and when the opportunity to do so never happens. 

Any advice please?  I'll consider all suggestions no matter how strange it might be.  I've even considered going to the park and playing under a tree to get used to strangers being around.


Replies (22)

September 10, 2011 at 02:48 AM ·

go to the park!

September 10, 2011 at 02:57 AM ·

Think in terms of playing for strangers.  Expect the unexpected visitor.  One thing that could have set off the nerves is that the cello teacher's presence was unexpected -- at least, it sounds that way to me.  If you had known in advance that he was coming, it might not have fazed you.

The park sounds like a good start.  And try to get some playing engagements at nursing homes and retirement homes and community centers -- especially if you can get a pianist or guitarist friend to team up with you.  And what about recital rooms that aren't being used at the moment?  Ask your teacher about this -- it might work.

When I was in school, I sought out not just conventional practice rooms but also spaces that weren't being used at particular hours -- unused washrooms, locker rooms, gym floors -- partly for the acoustics, partly for the large, unconfined spaces.  At the end of a session, I'd often find that some listeners had gathered.  They'd say, "Oh, we we've been here about 10 minutes, just sitting and listening."

If I could give a recital, free, every week, I'd gladly do it; but since time won't allow it, I play evening sessions in the garage.  Neighbors and passers-by say they like it.  The important thing is to keep playing for people regularly.

September 10, 2011 at 04:06 AM ·

"The important thing is to keep playing for people regularly"

That's really great advice. Play for friends, family, strangers whenever and wherever it can be the park as suggested before or your living room it doesn't have to be formal as long as you get enough experience where performing becomes second nature.

Some things to think about

1. Your teacher chose you to perform in the recital because you are ready.

2. Your nerves are a sign that you care about giving a good performance

3. People want to see you succeed and perform well

4. Sometimes a sea of faces is less nerve wracking than one or two

5. Be prepared (practice, practice, practice)

6. Don't forget to have fun



September 10, 2011 at 07:47 AM ·

 The 6 points detailed by Maurice are VERY good indeed!! I could not agree more :)

I get the 'shakes' from nerves too and I feel palpitations too!

I am an adult learner, been learning 4 and a half years and I have only played for people a total of 3 times in those 4 and a half years, twice for a very small audience of approximately 60 people and once for a 'mini audition' where 2 teachers were staring at me from behind 2 tables.

(oh and yes, took 2 violin exams too, had an examiner twice staring at me as well)


EVERY TIME I've had palpitations and felt shaky!

I agree 'exposure' must be the answer, you have to do it regularly.  I know it is the answer as out of those experiences 2 of them were close to each other.  The second time I played for the 'small audience of 60 people' it was 2 months after I played for the previous audience of 60 people and although I was still nervous I could feel a lot of difference, I was  A LOT LESS nervous just before I went on stage and on stage during my performance.  The first recital my palpitations were 'horrendous', the second recital 2 months later, no palpitations before getting on stage and on stage a lot less shaking....

So I really believe REGULAR exposure IS the answer.  (and the other things mentioned by Maurice)

September 10, 2011 at 08:07 AM ·

The answer is to start deliberately playing very badly with an awful sound, out of tune, and with lots of scratches. Then they leave the room pretty damn quickly!!!

(If was only a 'cello teacher I wouldn't worry - they know nothing!!)  (wink)

September 10, 2011 at 10:07 AM ·

Hi - I have the same issue.  And its not easy finding playing venues.  I had not thought of playing in the park, as suggested above.  Though I have a bit of an (irrational) worry that someone would steal my violin!

I live in a house facing a street that a lot of people walk down.  One thing I do is play in the front room with the window open.  I can't see the street but I have been told that people can hear.  That way you can play knowing that people are listening - but without seeing them.  I find it helps me get into a performance, rather than practise mode since I want them to like it.  But the pressure is far less because they don't have to listen or stop. 

Perhaps you could set up something similar - its 'performance lite' if you like...

September 10, 2011 at 03:36 PM ·

Great advice so far...

I've been told to think about what the worst possible outcome and the best possible outcome could be. Realize that realistically your experience is going to be somewhere in the middle.

You need to get to a point where you love sharing the music more than you fear being judged for messing up.  For me, at least, this is a very, very tough place to get to. And it's easy to get there intellectually - not so much emotionally! After the performance is over, whatever happens, take notice of it and think about it. Try to understand it - why you were nervous, why you were shaky, why you weren't nervous, why you weren't shaky. You might not figure out the answers, but at least you're thinking about the question. I agree that with more and more performance experience, your fear will lessen.

Also, if it helps at all... Having a bad performance (not that I'm wishing this on you at all!!) is kind of a rite of passage. It's the rare violinist who is 100% happy with every single performance they gave (does such a person even exist?). So if crap hits the fan, just take solace in the fact that this is going to make a great story someday, and it will help bond you to fellow musicians at cocktail parties. True fact.

Best of luck, and remember that even if things go's not the end of the world for you! So you might as well do your best to try to enjoy it! :)

September 10, 2011 at 04:39 PM ·

At the advice of my teacher, I started rehearsing the performance every night a week prior to the recital by doing this: walk into a room, take a bow, announce my name and my piece, play the whole piece just like I would at the recital, take a bow, then leave the room... It really helped even though there were no strangers in the room.  I also went to a friend's house to play for her family and her friend (a stranger and a violin teacher, gasp!) the night before. My teacher offers monthly performance group lessons for her older students (middle school and beyond), and I played my recital piece in a couple of those, so they knew how bad I was anyway! :)  The key is: rehearse as many times as you need, and play for anyone who would listen - they don't have to be strangers, however you should treat every performance as a recital , then you won't be as nervous in the real thing, at least that was the case for me.

Also remember: people in the audience are rooting for you - they are sympathetic to your nerves, and they admire your courage to put yourself out there as an adult beginner.  They couldn't care less if you mess up - you are the only one that cares!  So, try to relax and enjoy the experience. Good luck!

September 10, 2011 at 04:48 PM ·

 I'd echo the advice "playing in front of people often", that is, if you have the chance. I teach in busy music school where lots of students and parents walking in and out from time to time especially during the weekends. I'd pick the busiest moment to play something in the showroom if I'm so happened to be free.

There might be professionals walking by, but I don't care. I still play. I'm no world class violinist but just to keep me in the state of comfortable playing in front of anyone.

One thing that's interesting that when we play the violin, even the smallest mistake amplified greatly under the ear, but will mostly disappear if someone is listening merely just a meter away. Not to say we should dismiss small mistakes, but it's just a way to overcome the fear by having some quirky mindset. Once you're not worry about people noticing your mistakes anymore, you'll gain more confidence in your playing. I often tell myself - the more I worry about my mistakes, I'll make more mistakes!

September 10, 2011 at 04:49 PM ·

 Emily, I like what you said: 'You need to get to a point where you love sharing the music more than you fear being judged.....'

and yes, that IS a difficult place where to get and I have NOT got there yet!!!  when I perform (or even if I video myself knowing I am going to show the video to ANYONE) I constantly have the fear in me of being 'judged' and being judged 'negatively', as I ALWAYS JUDGE MYSELF NEGATIVELY, therefore I think others will too.  Even if I can play a piece with no 'slip ups' I still think people will think there is something wrong (ie: my tone is not right, the dynamics are not appropriate, my intonation could be better, whatever!).

I should just 'chill', I know, especially as there will ALWAYS be someone who will find faults with your performance but most importantly there will be MANY who will enjoy it IF YOU ENJOY IT to begin with.  I know full well that when we play if we play in fear/pain (like I do) it only transpires in our playing, but if we 'enjoy' what we play and when we play it then this will also transpire in our music and onto our audiences.  About time I learn how to do that and take the Gremlins out of my head!

September 10, 2011 at 05:01 PM ·

I agree with everyone so far who has told you to get out and play for people as much as possible.  Be creative about it, and certainly you can find opportunities. 

Another tip that helps my nerves is to always look out at my audience and mentally "receive" them.  Almost always, I will see people I like out there, and they are smiling at me.  Just remember that they are sending you as much mental encouragement as they can, and they are excited about you and what you are about to share with them.

On the other hand, if they truly are strangers, you can relax knowing that you have no reputation to ruin, so you can act like whoever you want to act like, and perhaps you won't see them again, either. 

September 10, 2011 at 05:09 PM ·

" I was playing one of my exercises that I had played a few times before.  My bow started to wobble due to the instant nervousness I started feeling just because he stopped to observe my playing. "

" a few times" may not be enough,,,for some people.  probably need to practice many more times to OWN it and develop the confidence through the experience.

we tend to practice casually and perform seriously.  may want to change the mentality by practicing more seriously and performing more casually.  or at least mix up the two more.



September 10, 2011 at 09:12 PM ·

Above, one of Maurice's points (#3) is truly THE main thing to focus upon; people who come to see & hear a performer are actually your biggest asset (why?) - because they "also" want you to succeed; i.e. they "also" don't want to feel that 'awkward' moment if you mess up or when you get embarrassed; thus, in my personal 23yr experience {I'm a public speaker} I've found that audiences are  "" incredibly ""  forgiving (much more than we ourselves are!).  Just know your material and, then, "play your heart out" so as to get everyone to hear the music "your way"!  

P.S. - Just by way of a true & cute anecdote to illustrate this point, once when I went out on one of my semi-annual lecture tours (27 lectures in 23 daze!), I had already criss-crossed Canada & the States twice and was lecturing every evening in another city, I found myself in the middle of one of my lectures and I "drew-a-blank"; i.e  I was lost in the middle of my speech and my notes couldn't help me because I simply didn't remember where I was. Because I walk around the podium a lot, I simply [no kidding] leaned forward and asked a coupe sitting on the front row, "What was the last thing I said?"  The audience thought I was kidding and laughed (&, of course, I never told them otherwise), but the couple gave me a few words of my last statement to kick-start my very jet-lagged & fatigued brain back into gear & I continued [successfully] on.  This may be an extreme case, but this totally confirmed for me that audiences are "truly" your > Number One Ally < and support group; so do your best and ...enjoy the ride!

September 10, 2011 at 10:42 PM ·

 Not much more to add, but you could also regularly record yourself when you play, with the intention of loading onto youtube.  I get just as nervous when I'm plying to the camera, knowing I MIGHT upload.

I also find it comforting to remember that the 'shakes' only last a few minutes.  and for me, they start about a minute after I begin performance, so knowing those paramaters I just grin and bear it.

congratulations and happy practising.

September 11, 2011 at 03:55 AM ·

Wow! some great advice so far. I have also had this problem - HEAPS! One thing I have found is helpful is to understand that some nerves are important! Yes, I know that might sound weird but you actually need some adrenaline when you perform, it does help you. Obviously you don't want so much that you get all shaky and stuff but remember you need some... focus on the piece you are playing and not on the people watching you, I mean, don't ignore them but don't worry about them. Once you start playing you can just immerse yourself in the music and forget about the people until after wards :)

The other thing is that I am assuming you are an adult beginner (as am I) and I think that sometimes this can load the pressure on a bit partly because people expect you to be really good because you are an adult and partly because there are heaps of little kids out there who have been playing since they were like 3 and are really good even though they are much younger than you... this can sometimes be a bit daunting. So don't expect too much from yourself, you know that you have only been playing for a few years (even if your audience don't know) and esp if this is one of your first performances make sure you focus on the good parts and what you were happy with and felt you did well.

Good luck and I hope it goes really well :)

September 13, 2011 at 03:24 AM ·

Any coffee shops with open mics around you. I have played at a few of them and the people there are always receptive to anything that is not bad poetry or the same old guitar song. Last time I was horrible. The host shoved a mic in my face and it really threw me. The audience was good though and people told me to keep coming back to get used to it.

September 14, 2011 at 12:32 AM ·

 Great advice!  I too have had major stage fright issues that resulted in unintentional bow arm "vibrato".  A few things I would add to the "perform frequently and often"...  

Most of us inhale right before playing the first note.  Try exhaling instead.  On the inhale, your body tends to tense and you could very well end up holding your breath for several measures.  Oh yeah, and don't forget to breath while playing.   

When you make a mistake, pretend like you meant it and keep on playing.  Think that old Sesame Street song... "Sing, sing out loud, sing out strong...".  

Memorize your performance pieces.  When the pressure is on, knowing the piece from memory (including the piano or other parts) is a great confidence booster even if you play with the sheet music.  For complex pieces, study them from the score (piano reduction) and play the pickup or key notes from the other part.  That way, if you do have a brain freeze, you are familiar with the other parts to pick it back up again.  

Rehearse in what you intend to wear at your recital.  There is nothing worse than finding out at the last moment that what you chose to wear (shoes, jacket, whatever) doesn't feel right and interferes with your freedom of movement or causes an odd buzz (like from a button).

September 15, 2011 at 07:50 AM ·

How to practice for a room full of strangers?

You could get to know the better and then they won't be strangers!! (Wink)

(Edited in case children reading ...)

September 15, 2011 at 12:40 PM ·

Wow - great advice.  Don't know that I could add much, but here goes...

When I first started voice lessons (as an adult), my teacher got on my case for "emoting" when I made a mistake.  She sternly told me "You can't help making mistakes, but you can help losing your poise."

While in college, I went to see the local symphony and their guest artist, Igor Kipnis (one of my favorites at the time).  He played a Poulenc concerto and the Brandenburg #5.  During one run in the Brandenburg, he stumbled, but he immediately recovered.

My friend took me backstage afterward to meet Mr. Kipnis.  As we shook hands, I told him that I really enjoyed the Bach.  He gave me a look like "you've got to be cruelley kidding me."  I said, no -- really -- it was inspired and brilliant.  And that it took lots of skill to recover so well.

At that point, It seemed like he started to like me.

Remember, even very fine diamonds have some sort of flaw.

September 16, 2011 at 07:06 PM ·


Good luck with your recital in December.  Last year, I was asked by my office to "contribute" the musical entertainment for our annual Christmas party.  On one level, I was excited to be asked because I wanted to showcase my talent.  On another level, I was a bit apprehensive and, all of a sudden, I could not think of one piece that I could play from beginning to end without an "issue." 

Long story short, I purchased some Christmas song books with CD accompaniment and performed a 45 minute show for my colleagues.  Although I was nervous at first, I could tell that my colleagues genuinely enjoyed watching me play.  I saw them tapping their feet, swaying to the music, and singing along.  The thundering applause at the end of the show and the compliments was well worth it!  Isn't that why we play the violin?

My advice to you is to record your practice sessions so that you can hear what you sound like.  I used a Flip Video - and I also saw what I looked like (facial expressions, mannerisms, posture, and all!).  As such, you can address any possible intonation issues, tempo, and so forth - BEFORE your recital.   If you do this, I am confident that you will do great in your recital!  Oh, one last thing -  have an encore piece ready...

All the best to you Steve!

September 20, 2011 at 05:50 PM ·


When I began solo performing a few years ago I used to shake so much I could hardly hold the instrument. These days I actually perform better with the stimulus of an audience. The great majority of people get through this, and so will you.

My own approach was to find sympathetic audiences wherever I could and get used to playing solo. These days I try and perform solo at least once a week, to keep my hand in.

As Jim suggested, you can offer free performances to local retirement homes - I've done this and found that people are very kind and appreciative. And as suggested, open mikes are good too. Plus if you play any form of traditional music sessions and clubs provide a forgiving audience. 

But my main advice is to take a step beyond the local park and consider busking - for charity if you prefer (many charities will give you a sealed collecting box if you ask). No one will really mind if you muck up, and in my experience, if you can busk you can handle any audience! The great advantage is that you can have an audience any time you please, so by the time your recital comes around you'll be a hardened pro :-) Naturally, before performing in the street, check that busking is legal where you are. On private premises I've found that shopping centres (malls) can be cooperative if you are playing for charity - particularly if it's a current emergency appeal or a popular local cause. At Xmas a group of us even busk carols in a local supermarket. But if you do give it a try, learn the basics first. Google for "busking tips and tricks" and you'll find plenty good advice. I enjoy busking, and it's a great way to raise money for good causes. Well worth considering...

September 21, 2011 at 11:55 AM ·

 i have previously posted on this thread.  instead of suggesting to the op different venues to get used to performing in public, like the rest of the board is doing, i noted that he needs to take care of his own playing  ( better).  let me elaborate on that.

i will put players into 2 groups.  1. tech ready but break down during performance in public.  2. tech not ready and therefore break down in public.

these 2 entities are not the same at all.

many readers on this forum practice many many hours daily, so from tech perspective, they have no problems and what they need is more performance experiences allowing them to get more and more comfortable on stage.  for those folks i agree with the majority of the suggestions: the more you do something, the better you get at it, so perform as much as you can.

i suspect the op is in a different group: tech not that ready, as evidenced by his upcoming first ever recital.  

as much as i would like to look forward to performance skill, i think he will be better off putting in more effort at this stage on tech skills.  your ears won't lie.  if you sound horrible because of poor tech, you can have teflon skin and ears and you still feel lousy and you still will shake because of the way you play.  

here is something a friend of mine wrote to someone asking for advice on how not to choke in golf competition.  

"They better I am mechanically, the better shots I hit. The better shots I hit, the closer to the hole I am. The closer to the hole I am, the shorter my putts. The shorter my putts, the more putts I make. The more putts I make, the lower I score. The lower I score, the more confident I am.

My version of sports psychology"

if i understand correctly, the first step is to try to be better mechanically...


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