Is it really worth it? / Performance anxiety

November 3, 2004 at 06:36 AM · I am a sophomore in college, and a violin performance major, and I have HUGE problems with performance anxiety. When I have to perform, I become utterly panic-stricken, and feel utterly humiliated, and the only thing I can focus on is, "Dear God, get me out of here!!" And since I am in survival mode, my playing sounds like crap, and I end up totally disappointed. So, how I can get past this? Does anyone else have problems with this kind of thing?

Also, I go through periods where I think about how much work and effort I've put into the violin, and how much I have to show for it (not much), and wonder if it's all really worth the effort. As a performance major, I really have no life other than practicing. So my question for those of you who have already been through the process is: Is it worth it?

Replies (40)

November 3, 2004 at 07:35 AM · It is worth it. And always will be as long as you are playing for the right reasons, whatever those may be for you. Play because you love it (even if sometimes you feel the opposite). As the violin is another vehicle for your communication, so will it convey what you are feeling if you allow it. In an ideal playing world, wrong notes shouldn't have anything to do with how you feel about playing. We all make mistakes and even if your current difficulty is that you've reached a plateau, stick with it and weather the tough practicing. You'll be glad you did. But don't beat yourself over the head about your playing. Ok, before I gag at sounding like a bad rendition of a Baz Lurhman (sp?) monologue, check out the Discussion archive topic on "Inner Judges"

November 3, 2004 at 08:46 AM · It is certainly worth it. Is this anxiety you feel under the spotlight in general or is it uniquely caused by your playing?

Duluth, MN! I know someone who's going to UMN there (freshman tho).

November 3, 2004 at 09:08 AM · Greetings,

if you can afford it :( find a good Alexander teacher. They can help you to stop the initiation of the flight/fight response.

Is it worth it? Yes. But becaus eit is worth it usic cn exist anywhere in your life with many differnet kinds of people.

Cheers,

Buri

November 3, 2004 at 03:58 PM · I have the same exact problem. Whenever I play for people, I get so shaky and my heart pounds like crazy.

Some things I've heard to help are laying down in a quiet place with a washcloth on your forehead for a little while, taking a Tums or Rolaid before playing, or just jogging a little. If it's really bad, you could go to medication, but I think you should only do that if it's uncontrollably bad.

November 3, 2004 at 04:03 PM · But, you know, if you're nervous about it, it means you really care about it (playing the violin).

November 3, 2004 at 04:55 PM · I agree that the 'worth it' factor depends on your reasoning... but then the 'right' reasons are somewhat subjective anyway. If, as Jeff says, you play for the love of playing, the effort will always be worth it, whether or not you enter music as a profession. If you play for yourself, ditto. However, if you hold the notion (and plenty of people do) that music is about giving pleasure to others, you may find that your performance demons continue to get the better of you. I'm not saying this to be negative; as you will see from the Inner Judges thread that Jeff recommended, many players fall victim to this. If you are studying the violin in order to make a career of performing, this may be the case also, and of course you'll be forever pitted against other violinists.

I think the luckiest musicians have a healthy combination of all of these perspectives; they play enough for other people to enjoy the performance experience for what it is (or should be) and learn to channel their competitive urges constructively, yet play enough for themselves that they retain a sense of proportion, and realise that at the end of the day, to play for the sake of it is enough.

I personally play only for myself and, while it saddens me that I was never able to overcome my performance demons sufficiently to forge a solo career, I do still feel the years of study were/are worth it. And I believe I'd feel this way even if I was in a non-musical profession.

November 3, 2004 at 05:13 PM · Elizabeth, the few that don't go through what you described are THE VERY LUCKY FEW. Yes, it certainly is worth the hours and hours of practice--if I think I'm nearly perfect on a piece, all I have to do is retreat into my music. Adrenaline works with your body in a performance, you have to work with it! Concentrate on hearing what your teacher told you during a performance, it will make you think about what you're doing, rather than think about being scared. And, I would ditto getting an Alexander Technique teacher, even if only to spend half an hour with you every month or so would be helpful. Otherwise, there are MYRIADS of webpages that can tell you all about AT and how to make it work for you. All the best.

November 3, 2004 at 06:07 PM · Elizabeth ,

you have given part of the answer to your problem when you you said "how much work and effort" You invest to much in performance and not enough on pure technic ,I mean

are you made conscious

that at any time your shoulder are relaxed,

that you do not forget to breath,

that you 've got a supple stance ,

of the way you organize your space ,

that you do not fix your eyes on score

and so on.

Think it over and best luck

Alain

November 3, 2004 at 06:58 PM · I had just come out of that dreadful period when I had lost every ability to play and was incredibly insecure because it was still happening to me on occasion. I came up to our 70 year old choirmaster after rehearsal and asked how to get over the panic before my next solo. He stood tall as though the world were his, far off look into the distance, slowly pointed a commanding finger to some invisible point in the night sky and slowly and deliberately said, "You focus! Over there." In case it helps. At the moment of the performance, the stage is yours and you have every right to it. You don't need to earn that right .... well, something like that.

(Doesn't stop me from having butterflies before most of my lessons. Gotta practise.)

November 3, 2004 at 07:09 PM · Two things. One, a competent professional performer and teacher once assured me that every pro has a reaction pretty close to what you described most of the time. They just learn ways to deal with it. I certainly have always had this problem, and I've been playing for 23 years (though I'm no pro). The best thing I've found for it, though, is repeat performances of the same piece. Once I've performed the same piece several times, to different audiences, then it starts to firm up. I believe the first-class pros try to do the same thing when they can. (Start a new concerto at some minor concerts, or on home turf, then play it in a major city with a first class orchestra a bunch, then tour with it, and only _then_ record it).

Second, even if your stage fright is worse than most, you might still have a career in teaching if you love the violin. I believe Dorothy Delay dropped out of performance after her debut concert due to physical inabiltiy to cope with the stage fright, and couldn't even bear to go to her students' concerts most of the time, but still managed to play the violin, make a name for herself, and teach Perlman, Midori, Chang, and many others (presumably well).

November 3, 2004 at 09:04 PM · Thanks Francis, I found your post heartening, and I'm sure others will too. Good advice about repeat performances ad nauseum when it matters (this is the only approach that's ever worked for me, even though the end result can feel somewhat mechanical). Also, I certainly appreciate the info on Dorothy DeLay; sometimes I worry that we're currently living in a climate obsessed with superstars, and that this in turn has led to an erroneous assumption that only top performers are worthy teachers. I am certainly content in my chosen teaching career and, unlike some performing teachers I know of, am not continually frustrated by a desire to be playing rather than teaching.

November 3, 2004 at 09:09 PM · Heck, the buzz in earlier times was that the best performers made terrible teachers and vice versa. Sivori said (after Paganini's death) that Paganini was probably the worst violin _teacher_ the world had ever known. He'd listen to Sivori try to play something, and then just say "play it like this!" and knock off a perfect version.

From many accounts, Heifitz's teaching abilities may have been questionable as well. On the other hand, Auer must have been an amazing teacher as well as a good performer, so it obviously goes both ways.

I wish I knew my source for the Delay info, but I know I read it in an article somewhere (not just a rumor).

November 3, 2004 at 10:55 PM · After messing up two music exams because of shaking hands I looked long and hard at how to overcome the nerves before exams. The last couple of Music exams have been good, since I've started putting a few things into practice.

Heres a couple of things which helped. (May or may not work for you)

1) One of the therapies used to treat agoraphobia sufferers and other people who get panic attacks is to identify clearly what is triggering the "panic". I considered my stuff ups in exams to be somewhat similar to panic attacks. So setting up mock exams/performances in front of people who had never heard me play before. The more critical they are, and the more you are trying to impress them, the better. Taking a moment before each "performance" to identify at what stages the panic kicked in, helped me realise that the panic was caused from fear that I would make a poor first impression. Working out ways to deal with that cognition (thought) has helped somewhat (it's still ongoing).

2) Practicing pieces to death. Although this can get boring and tedious, one of the things you are developing is "motor memories". In other words your muscles are learning to respond in a certain way without you actively thinking about it (a.k.a. 2nd nature). Walking is one such example of a motor memory. So if you do get into an exam/performance and your mind goes blank... your motor memories may still be able to kick in and get you through a basic level of performance.

3) My wise sage teacher told me not to think to much. That's one of the best bits of advice I've ever gotten. As soon as I start thinking about what the audience is thinking I start worrying... and freaking out. Although making an impression on your audience and connecting with their thoughts is essential for good perfomance (so I'm told).. I think it's important not to over-cognise it.

November 4, 2004 at 12:50 AM ·

November 4, 2004 at 07:23 AM · In my experience, thinking too much is definitely one of the worst things you can possibly do in a performance.

Carl.

November 4, 2004 at 01:57 PM · I am new to this site. Having read through the entries, I think that it is important to explore the major causes of performance anxiety...

I am not sure that practicing to death will help, although sufficient and *correct* practice will help in having better control over one's reflexes in a stressful situation. Being well rested it very important and over-practice can actually be more injurious than helpful in this regard. It is true that trying to impress people will only make matters worst since your are basing your self-esteem on impressing these unknown people and nothing is likely to come of it except increased nervousness driven by the fear of failure.

In my opinion, the root problem is multi-faceted. Understanding the causes could help you find a solution. In terms of your actual playing, remember that stressful situations expose and magnify weaknesses that are not as obvious when you are practicing under normal conditions. The most common of these is tension of some kind in your playing (usually due to an error in physical setup with the instrument or an error in movement). The second one is errors in your actual practicing. Use your performance situations to identify and deal with these. It will help much.

In terms of your physical control, a lot depends as well on your violonistic background. Violinists who have developed good reflexes based on correct practicing at an earlier age will always be better able to rely on their technique in a moment of crisis. However, remember that you can always improve your playing dramatically at any age if you understand mentally exactly what you need to do. Practicing with a mental control will give you confidence since you will know exactly what you need to do to play better, or solve problems, and it will give you the extra assurance of knowing what you are doing that makes you sound well when you are.

In terms of the psychological causes, those are more to the real root of the problem and much more difficult to handle. Monotoring negative thoughts and trying to set them aside can be useful. The major problem of nerves is usually a lack of self-esteem in general, which is hard to deal with. Just how bad depends on your upbringing and your life, musically and otherwise up to this point. Although you can work on this to a certain extent, it will never go away entirely, unfortunately. But you can learn to control it to some extent. Buri's suggestion to use the Alexander technique to control the physical response to the triggering of the fight or flight response is a good one.

Remember several things also... The fear can be there and it is normal. Accepting it can be useful, and will make it go away more quickly. Fighting it will make it worst. More importantly, remember that everyone makes mistakes. That is also normal. Accepting that can be a huge step in overcoming nerves. Playing in stressful situations more often and at close intervals can be useful, since it will make these occasions feel more "normal" and therefore easier to handle psychologically.

And finally, is it worth it? You bet!

November 4, 2004 at 04:22 PM ·

November 4, 2004 at 07:33 PM · Beautifully said Christian and right to the point.

December 17, 2004 at 01:11 AM ·

December 17, 2004 at 01:10 PM · Greetings,

"I disagree with Alexander Ithink that's trying to take a false way out, a way of avoiding issues, like taking a pill, and won't help, and might hurt."

Sorry, but Alexander lesosns have never hurt anyone. Separate from Alexander, Don Greene, who has written a number of books on performance anxiety aswell as teaching about it at Julliard and so forth, has spel t out on many ocassion that everyone suffers from nerves but one can separate the psycholical fear from the physical response.

That is what Alexnder lessons teach. Have you ever had one? (Actually ten is is a morer realistic minimum.)

Cheers,

Buri

December 17, 2004 at 02:04 PM · Hi,

I personally agree with Buri here with regards to AT.

As for my comments above regarding the reliability of a technique under stress depending on the age at which good playing principles were acquired, they were also pointed out more than 3/4 of a century ago by Carl Flesch and, I have to say, that I agree with him.

As for the "normality" of the feelings and situation and the acceptance of it, I have to say that this perspective in understanding performance anxiety is well-documented in the works of the leading cognitive psychology experts, and well-presented especially in the works of Dr. David Burns who is now head of behavorial studies at Stanford University. And understanding the psychological mechanisms of performance anxiety and learning how to view and understand them are just as important as technical preparation IMHO.

Cheers!

December 17, 2004 at 07:32 PM · what the hell is the "false way out"?

December 18, 2004 at 12:36 AM · I actually think if I concentrated to much on not getting nervous, and focusing my mine on a program like Alexander technique, it will exasperate the problem. The only ways I've found that takes care of the problem, are visiting the place your performing earlier, soak up everything you've learned from your teacher, and know that they have confidence in you, which brings confidence to yourself. And perform, and do as much auditions as you can, and learn from the mistakes you have made. The nervousness will eventually mellow out, and doing performances won't be such a big deal anymore.

December 17, 2004 at 10:32 PM · I've heard Buri write several times on this Alexander Technique. What is it? Where can I get lessons? It seems like a good idea, but I don't know where to start.

December 18, 2004 at 02:15 AM · Hi Buri,

No I haven't had a a lesson (or ten). I've only read about it. Maybe I misunderstood it without a teacher, or maybe it just wasn't for me, but it did me harm in that it steered me away from analytical thinking during practice. After that I eventually discovered that, at least for me, the best thing was to practice very analytically. It takes a lot of mental effort and concentration.

I doubt that anything is justified by the fact that it happens at Julliard. The reputation of places like that is due to the caliber of students they accept, rather than anything that happens to them there. They're no less likely to be misguided, or to "experiment" with various things.

I sincerely think the answer to the problem is in my previous post. It is very practical. Sorry I don't have a book to go with it :-)

December 18, 2004 at 02:12 AM · Greetings,

Hi Jim. So my first answer is why do it during practice?

But if you haven"t had lessons , even bloody sharp as you are, there is no way you are going to apply it by yourslef in practice. This is what I am grumbling about in my column I just wrote: people are criticizing it and saying it doesn"t work because they tried it from a book or not at all and it doesn't work. AT is transmitted by the hands of a competent teacher without words. Anythign else is not really AT and therefore not logically grounds for makest the slighest valid criticism of AT itself.

Note that I also mentioned an awful lot more places than Julliard. I haven"t doen the research so I only cited three top institutes thta use it. There is of course the Guildhall and Birminghman Music University too as Alison teaches there. But I think you will find many majpr insitiutes globally use it . And no they don"t experiment when it costs money. Most of these places are cutting back not splashing out on trends.

Your writing is very interesting so yep, I'm looking forward to your book ;),

Cheers,

Buri

December 18, 2004 at 02:09 PM · Hi,

Jim, I agree that analytical thinking is best. As for books, my references are towards things that encourage analytical thinking and understanding not only of playing, but emotions involved in all kinds of situations as well. My question to you is have you ever heard of cognitive psychology and do you know what it's about? As for AT, this is another issue. A good technique and skill that is misused is useless. I agree with Buri, seeing an AT teacher is probably best if you want to explore it. (personally, I have yet to do that)

In terms of being practical, I thought that solving issues, anything for that matter, not only with the violin in hand but with our minds and bodies was practical... hmmm.... Looking forward to your upcoming book as well! :@)

Cheers!

December 19, 2004 at 11:32 AM · Hi Buri and Christian,

Yes, my experience with AT is only from a book. If it requires a teacher to have meaning, then I don't know anything about it.

I have presented a solution which worked for me. Does cognitive psychology teach that solutions are complicated and that they only come from cognitive psychologists?

I'm new here. What are the "X" things on my posts? Is somebody telling me I'd better go back where I came from?

December 19, 2004 at 01:38 PM · Dear Jim,

I don't know anything about those X things. Sorry...

I don't disagree that the solution you have offered is good. However, personally, from my experience in playing and teaching, I have found that technique is not really just the main issue in playing. I have many students who are well-prepared and choke under pressure, and the reason is usually the mental setup more than anything.

As for cognitive psychology, it does not teach you to go to anyone. It's actually based on the idea that thoughts control emotions and is designed to be simple, not complicated. For the record here, I am not acquainted well with AT, but simply have seen it help a lot of people. Buri is the expert on that...

Cognitive psychology is particularily useful in learning to identify and possibly control negative thoughts that promote things like performance anxiety, etc.. I have found it useful because it has enabled me to identify things with myself, and in my students that lead to problems with performance stress. Working on those has been just as important with the ones who do have problems with performance anxiety if not more, then making sure that they have a rock-solid technique.

However, I will be objective here: this is just based on my personal experience in dealing with these issues for a long time as well. But, I could really be out to lunch... speaking of which, my sandwich is waiting.

Cheers!

December 19, 2004 at 11:12 PM · Hi Jim,

The X thing is the result of an attempt at self-governance. A few months ago someone kept changing names and posting the most disgusting material. Our generous hosts did not want to set themselves up as dictators and so the idea of rewards through stars was born. You'll probably get random invitations to spend your 5 stars after a while as well. The idea of the X's was that if a posting violated certain criteria, it would accumulate enough X's as to make it disappear - ergo, moderated without moderator. There are still glitches in the system. One is when people don't distinguish between "This is bad for the readership." and "I don't agree with what this person is saying." An abusive, vindictive or x-rated post would need removal pronto. Advice of the kind "You must practise the first year by hanging a brick from your instrument in order to strengthen your chin muscles, rub vaseline over your fingers, and use only your left hand thumb to play notes" would have to be removed very quickly because it misinforms and causes harm to anyone taking it seriously. Proponents and opponents of shoulder rests should not be X'd. There is a lengthy thread out there somewhere.

December 19, 2004 at 11:37 PM · Greetings,

Jim, sorry you got an `x.` I have no disagreements with your ideas on playing . Your posts contribute to the board and if I disgaree with you about something I am just going to say so. That`s where the fun is...

Cheers,

Buri

December 20, 2004 at 12:01 AM · the x is somebody being childish, i'll fix it when i can. You have interesting points Jim, its true that there is nothing like performing to make you more comfortable, but i've found when i dont play publically for a while i become inconsistant, I think there must be some state of mind to practice or something that could help with this.

December 20, 2004 at 12:41 AM · Hi,

Now I know what the X and star things are. Like everyone else, I am sorry you got those X's Jim. If I get a chance, I'll remove them as well. Like I said, your points are good, even if I have a different take. Cheers!

December 20, 2004 at 01:24 AM · Greetings,

Christian, I am curious about your use of `cognitive psychology.` I am wiondering which branch you are cming from. Tecnically speaking Cog Sci embraces AI , Memory, and five or six otehr areas. For example, my area of specialty as a cognitive psycholgist was automaticity in larning and cognition after Schiffrin and Schneider`s groundbreaking work.

Fortunately I forgot all that stuff later and have become a well rounded person by thinking about the violin and prunes all day long

Cheers,

Buri

December 20, 2004 at 04:12 AM · Dear Buri,

The Cognitive Psych. that I am referring to is the one that psychologists, such as David Burns use in identify was are called "distorted thoughts" that lead to negative feelings and self-image, and states of mind such as depression and anxiety. In his book "Feeling Good" as well as the accompanying Handbook, he devotes actually an entire chapter to performance anxiety. Although not directly related to music per say, the ideas are similar and one find that many of the "distorted thoughts" that he points that create performance anxiety are very common in musicians. I find it helpful because he gives out a series of excercises that can help you deal with this. And in teaching, it has helped me a great deal, as more often then not, when my students are under stress, many of them engage in a kind of negative self-talk that contains the various distortions pointed out by Dr. Burns.

While it may be taken with a grain of salt, it is very helpful in understanding, and possibly setting the mind free to a natural state free of of tensions caused by negative thoughts that are really unrealistic in many cases.

I have found it helpful as it increases mental and emotional awareness, and enables one to be control one's inner feelings. That is why I recommend it. I find it very applicable to things common in musicians because of the often overly developed perfectionistic attitude that seems to come with the profession.

Cheers!

December 20, 2004 at 09:46 AM · Nice discussion folks. I have to say that I agree with everyone! LOL I think you all made valid points, and I'd just like to make one more.

Distorted thoughts CAN be a result of depression or anxiety disorders (common in musicians). When one gets so discouraged about a problem that the violin doesn't hold the same interest to that person as it had previously then it MAY be that that person is depressed to some degree.

Medication is NOT a false way out. It does something similar to what was mentioned about Alexander technique (I never tried it, but have heard of it). Medication neutralizes the adrenaline response in the body.

Adrenaline is a drug and affects physical function: the heart races, hands get cold or hot, there is a rushing sound in your ears, etc. Beta blockers prevent the adrenaline from reaching the receptors. You are still as nervous, but your body won't react as it does when adrenaline hits.

In addition, there are anti-anxiety drugs that have a short term (about 6 hours) effect in the body which can be used in small doses to mitigate against the terrible anxiety which produces the adrenaline.

While I firmly believe in all the behavioral and cognitive stuff, and the experience performing, etc. that has been posted, I also believe that sometimes a habit has to be interrupted. Muscle memory is a very deep memory and sometimes that kind of anxiety becomes so ingrained that almost nothing will break through. Medication can be the thing that causes a break in the habit that allows for the other approaches to work.

Frankly, I quit the violin for ten years after becoming despondent after a big competition. I was depressed and that is a medical condition. Several years after I started playing again, I played my last solo performance with orchestra a few years ago. I took a beta blocker and a small amount of anti-anxiety meds. I have never played better in a performance and I actually ENJOYED it. I thought about all those wasted years of thinking that that was an alternative that was an "out" and not a "cure." I think that kind of black and white thinking really hurt me in the long run.

So I would highly recommend that if you are experiencing that kind of crippling anxiety, you see a good psychiatrist (medical doctor, not therapist) to rule out a medical condition, as well as trying all the great ideas above.

Lisa

December 20, 2004 at 10:28 AM · Hi Lisa,

When I said "pill" I was being figurative.

Good to hear you're better now.

:-)

December 20, 2004 at 11:30 AM · Hey Jim:

I didn't even remember that you made that comment. I actually thought your comments were really good. But many, many musicians think that medication is like cheating somehow. I did for so many years. I just wanted to point out that it can sort of break the synapse that is misfiring.

Also, I retired from playing and that's why I'm better! LOL You are right there too. I was playing for the wrong reasons and not at peace with myself. Now, I'm into my animals (which is how I wanted to spend my time from the beginning). It is amazing how dog training can inform violin teaching! (Unfortunately, violin students don't learn as well as my dogs do, but my dogs are teaching me how to be a better teacher too.) ;-)

Lisa

December 20, 2004 at 08:10 PM · What an interesting thread- I discovered that a lot of my performance anxiety went away once I started performing more than oh... once or twice a year. Once you've played a piece in public several times, you won't be so scared. And by the way, "in public" can mean for a group of friends or in your teacher's master class, or church or whatever. What counts is playing as much as possible in scary places so you get used to it. Sorry if this repeats anybody elses advice to you...

December 20, 2004 at 10:03 PM · there, that silly X is no more.

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