Music Performance Anxiety

June 6, 2018, 2:30 PM · As a child I never enjoyed playing in public, this seems to have been the case for as long as I can remember. Roll the clock forward and after many years playing for myself, I’m trying to play more in public. The trouble is I seem to be just as nervous as I ever was. On the scale of nervousness low to high: orchestra, quartet, solo, solo on stage for competition. The latter was a couple of days ago and the adrenaline hijacked my performance. My arms were like dead weights...not a pleasant experience and I seriously considered leaving the stage about 5 lines into the piece. I was well prepared, knew the piece, had play many dummy runs to various audiences but it didn’t help me play my best.

I’m looking for suggestions/recommendation for programs (over the internet) that work to help me conquer this.

Thank you

Replies (29)

June 6, 2018, 3:53 PM · There are lots of threads on this site and resources elsewhere on the internet about performance anxiety. Search them up.
June 6, 2018, 3:54 PM · Buy and read the book "The Inner Game of Music." It is the best approach to the psychology of performance that I know of.
June 6, 2018, 4:08 PM · My response on this subject was 5th down at this link 10 years ago:

But that was 10 years ago and I don't try to do solos any more just stay buried in an orchestra for performances and do chamber music sessions for fun.

June 6, 2018, 5:40 PM · I've heard good things about Kato Havas books. I know some people dislike this approach, but I think it's still worth looking at.
June 6, 2018, 7:27 PM · Many years ago I was in a relationship with a well known (in Spain) pianist. She told me that on the day of her first important audition she was so nervous that she froze. Her arms would not move. She failed and would not be able to play for one year or more. Then she went back to the piano but was terrified of it happening again and just thinking about it made her miss notes.

The way she treated her stagefright was busking. Not for money, but she went daily to play in streets and stations. According to her, that helped her very fast to be able to put a psychological wall allowing her to erase the audience from the consciousness and concentrate in the music itself.

This is just one story and one swallow doesn't make a summer but if you find the idea interesting, there's little to lose.

June 6, 2018, 8:43 PM · I'll make my usual recommendation: Bulletproof Musician.
June 6, 2018, 10:43 PM · 1. Perform in front of a camera and people a lot. You can read all you want and theorize about it (all those above mentioned are excellent and standard classroom text) but you just gotta do it. You'll develop a thicker skin.

2. In each performance, acknowledge your performance anxiety in your mind, and observe where in the body you specifically tense up. Your job in the next performance is to figure out how not tense those muscles under stress.

June 7, 2018, 7:23 AM · As Dorian says, actually performing (a lot, like every week) is really the only way to begin to inure yourself to phobia of the stage.

Performing only once in a while, and on new pieces, will NOT do it.

Neither will reading books nor trying to imagine the audience in their underwear. Only relentless and regular performance, especially of pieces you know really well. And this still may not work. Only a very tiny percentage of even highly-trained trained musicians are emotionally suited to the stage. Unfortunately, I've seen many, many musicians who have spent their lives forcing themselves to do something that was never in their nature.

Edited: June 7, 2018, 8:11 AM · I'm sorry to disagree, but I bought and
read, "The Inner Game of Music"
I'm sure some people will find it useful, but I found it tedious, pretentious, and a waste of money.
June 7, 2018, 8:28 AM · Just like how you practice something at home over and over, and sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't, until you are getting it with more and more consistency, I think the biggest thing is just performing. Look at each performance as its own practice for subsequent performances, and try to perform as often as you can (Just not so much that you don't have time to learn the pieces well or your technique starts suffering).

Also, consider the thoughts you have around performance and what sort of pressures and black-and-white thinking patterns you may have, and start challenging those thoughts. Starting a short, daily mindfulness meditation routine may also be helpful. And some issues in performance may still relate to material that needs more work in the practice room. You have to be convinced that you can play everything in the piece so you don't tighten up around some tricky passage.

More performing has helped me. I still make mistakes, my intonation is still a work in progress, and I have sort of fallen apart in performance where it felt really high stakes, but I've gotten more comfortable (nerves are always there) and I haven't had bow shakes in probably at least a year or two. No one ever died from a bad performance.

Edited: June 7, 2018, 10:43 AM · I believe some personalities cope with this better than others. What works for one person might not work for everyone.

I have attempted to understand what's mainly behind performance anxiety. Some of it is undoubtedly unfamiliarity. You may have practiced the music in your private studio or in a small group setting. All of a sudden, you need to play it in a different place you may not be familiar with. You loose some control, because you only get one shot at it. No multiple takes. You have no say in your surroundings. You've lost control in an unfamiliar place.The situation is more formal now. The only control you have is your own playing.

You may have practiced mainly sitting down and now you play standing. This changes the dynamic some. Maybe you don't like the temperature, possibly you don't like the way the whole thing is coming together.
There could be distractions that you didn't have in rehearsal.You didn't need to dress up when practicing. Now you might be wearing uncomfortable dress clothes.Maybe you enjoy the process of practicing, playing and learning but you hate the end result of playing in public. The idea of being judged on what you do.

All of these things can play games with your head and cause you to be less effective. Though I play piano in public more than violin some of the same things apply. What has helped me is making the unfamiliar familiar. Adopting a "let go" approach. You can't control it so let go of it, flow with it. Acceptance takes off a lot of pressure.Acceptance allows molding. Resistance induces stress.

This could be more of a struggle for classical musicians because they are trained to play in large groups as a team. There is likely a protective feeling that goes along with that. A many stranded cord is harder to break.You aren't in it by yourself. You might begin to feel comfort in that. Moving into a solo position is difficult.

Musicians who travel regularly to different venues find a kind of normalcy in that. It's the frequency of doing it that results in this.Another theater, another town,the audience can be viewed as being similar. Same music. A different location that has similarities to the last.

Let go. Flow with the situation whatever it is.You will look back on it and wonder why you were tempted to let it bother you in the first place.Every time you do it makes it easier to do the next time.

June 7, 2018, 9:36 AM · Another unfortunate aspect of classical music training is that we are schooled to achieve perfection, and that perfection is all around is, taunting us. We're supposed to achieve perfection AND let go and "just make music" at the same time.

It's a duality of thinking and purpose that poses an inherent and almost unresolvable conflict, unique to classical music. It's no wonder people twist themselves into emotional pretzels.

Why would we not?

June 7, 2018, 12:14 PM · Scott, once again I'm so pleased to read your insightful comment. So true. It makes me pause and think.

It does take a special person to really enjoy performing in classical music. Many if not most of adult players I know, pros or not, experience nervousness in solo performance as OP described. I'm told by a violinist I respect very much that violin playing ultimately its' 90% psychology and 10% technique. This more and more sounds like Kung Fu or figure skating. If so, the secrete of overcoming performance anxiety may be found in the disciplines of these areas.

June 7, 2018, 12:24 PM · The whole issue of "perfection" - an artificial construct if there ever was one - isn't helped by the recording industry who will do as many takes in the studio as they believe are necessary to achieve "perfection", and even then they'll splice in bits from other takes to help things along. No wonder everyone gets a false idea of constitutes a perfect performance. For my money a perfect performance is a live once which makes the audience depart with the music singing in their hearts and heads for days to come. Technical blemishes are then irrelevant.

What I think may help is knowing that the average audience only really hears a fraction of what goes on. If you make a mistake on stage that is deafeningly obvious to you the chances are that the audience will miss it completely, and the small percentage (1% perhaps?) who do notice will likely have been there themselves and will understand.

I'll repeat the story of the concert cellist who had an unexpected memory lapse in the last movement of the Elgar concerto, which she must have performed many times. The conductor was very much on the ball. He held out his score in front of her for a few seconds, she nodded, recovered her place and the concerto completed without further incident. The only players in the orchestra who noticed this were the front desks of the cello section, in which I was playing, and the first violins. During the interval I spoke to a couple of friends in the front row of the stalls immediately in front of the soloist. They hadn't notice anything out of the ordinary, including the conductor holding out his score to help the soloist.

So there you are, don't worry about the little imperfections, unless it is a complete stoppage which may not be your fault at all. Two examples: the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto - in the last movement a wind player missed an important cue, thereby throwing the soloist off balance. She stopped, the conductor then stopped the orchestra and called out the previous rehearsal letter for the re-start, which we did and the concerto went to its conclusion without further incident. Not many in the audience noticed! The second example was when I was performing Beethoven's D major cello sonata (the 5th) in a chamber recital, and half way through the first movement the pianist turned over two pages by accident and miscorrected by turning back three! We just had to stop and restart from the beginning. The audience didn’t mind.

June 7, 2018, 1:20 PM · "During the interval I spoke to a couple of friends in the front row of the stalls immediately in front of the soloist. They hadn't notice anything out of the ordinary, including the conductor holding out his score to help the soloist..."

Yes, but that's besides the point. The point is that the PERFORMER knew she had screwed up.

In a similar vein, I saw a trend amongst fellow students in music school, and it included myself:
The inability to take a compliment. In most professions, I think people really appreciate compliments and the vindication that they're actually doing a good job. But in classical music, when people compliment us, we inwardly roll our eyes and think "moron, you don't know any better."

To us classical musicians, compliments are suspect. We know they are given out of either simple politeness, or simple ignorance. Our inner striver and perfectionist is practically screaming out to the complimenter "don't you know anything? I was totally sharp on the high G! My spicatto was uncontrolled and spiky! I didn't vibrate that low A! DON'T PATRONIZE ME YOU CRETIN!"

And all the while smiling: "gee, thanks for coming!"

This whole discussion reminds me of a short film I saw as during lifeguarding training. It was entitled "The Dangers of the Low-Head Dam." Low dams in streams and rivers and streams look innocuous, but they can be insidious . If you fall in, it's almost impossible to swim your way out. You just go around and around till you drown....

June 7, 2018, 1:43 PM · We are really touching on some root of the problem now. For me, when it comes other forms of art, say when I finish a knitted piece, I'd show it to my friends and even ask a few people with proud: "what do you think?" or "cool, isn't it?". I was looking for affirmation. I love the result, warts and all. When it comes to violin performance, "I did ok" was my best self-estimate. When people told me that I did a good job, if I believe them, I'll say "really?" Otherwise, I just thank them politely and wish the whole thing never happened.
June 7, 2018, 3:35 PM · Seems like most of these answers mostly revolve around "stop caring about so much and just play".

I did it by playing in different classrooms at my school (usually after 7pm nobody will be around) and that kind of took care of half of it.

The other half was just to play for someone, for ONCE, not caring about anything. Because I just admitted to myself that I'll never play as well in performance as I will in practice. So when I play for others no caring about anything, the high-pressure "setting" was gone.

June 7, 2018, 7:14 PM · "I saw a trend amongst fellow students in music school, and it included myself: The inability to take a compliment...To us classical musicians, compliments are suspect."

Scott, I was joking with my daughter about your perfectionism and performance anxiety comment on the way home from her school conductor's retirement concert today, and my daughter was talking about compliments just like this :-). She enjoyed reading your post just now and laughed out loud.

June 8, 2018, 6:41 AM · Scott,
I relate very much to what you say, I am a perfectionist. And Frank, yes, I care too much. So what to be done?
Edited: June 8, 2018, 7:44 AM · I think Scott hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
"Only a very tiny percentage of even highly-trained trained musicians are emotionally suited to the stage. Unfortunately, I've seen many, many musicians who have spent their lives forcing themselves to do something that was never in their nature."

I remember a concertmaster of our community orchestra being hit with bow shakes during a concert solo passage and she never played with us again. (She had never had that problem when we had performed string quartets.) I think I became the CM of that orchestra right after that.

I know it has always bothered me that from the age of about 14 to 17 I could "go up on stage" and play violin and cello in front of an audience and do what I wanted to and then just once, shortly after my 17th birthday I was suddenly and unaccountably hit with right-arm shake (when playing some old-English violin ditties for my high school English class). That shake occurred every time thereafter that I performed (solos and chamber music such that I thought I was audible) for the next 25 years. I did perform with a string quartet and piano trio and some solos through many of those years, but I had to avoid the lower half of my bow in performance. The more I performed the worse it got. Then after being introduced to Inderal I used to internally pride myself during performances on bowing all the way to the frog. For me performing was about making the music sound the way I wanted to - I never really worried (at least not to my consciousness at the time) about mistakes, my worry since age 17 had been about right arm shaking and that would also lead to some left hand stiffness once it had started. But I never had a problem performing in community orchestra, even though I was the concertmaster for 20 years (10 of which were before the Inderal). The one time I recall I did not shake was in a masterclass - my rational being there was nothing to fear from this crowd (all participants, no audience) anything I messed up would be fully understood by everyone there - and I would never expect to impress any "teacher" worth having - so that was never a fear.

Anyhow - it has now been 40 years since I discovered the utility of beta blockers for performance shakes (anxiety??) and it has been great. I remember the first of my two solo performances in front of our community orchestra - which was the first time I had tried Inderal for a solo performance (I really had no idea if it would work), I waited backstage after the intermission before my solo during whatever they played to introduce the 2nd half, thinking "OMG they have heard Perlman play this thing, what the H am I doing." Then I just went out there and did it just the way I wanted to with all "my" phrasing and never a shake and luxuriating in pushing my up-bows all the way to the frog. I did get a bit lost - but it was during an orchestral interlude - so I was the only one who knew. It was not a big thing, just Beethoven Op. 50, but it was music I had loved and wanted to solo for at least 20 years. And when the orchestra entered for the final measure - it was clear I had ended my part perfectly in tune.

I think I have had enough experience with "performance anxiety (PA)" and I've certainly read enough about it (and "how to overcome it") to know better than to give psychological advice about it. I do know that the problem seems to be different for different people and for different activities.

Here I have this life-long problem with PA related to musical performance, yet public speaking was part of my work for 50 years and never a problem after the first time I had to speak at a national meeting - when it certainly was a problem (a very unpleasant autonomous physical response). I cured that by teaching an adult technical course for a year - and I have reveled in public presentations ever since, with never the slightest concern - one vote for the psychological approach. And of course, there is the difference that when speaking you control the tempo, with music, the music controls the tempo!

June 8, 2018, 8:51 AM · What do we enjoy looking for knowing it can't be found?

There is no such thing as perfection. Only attempts at it.

Every performance is an interpretation that includes aspects of the performers individual technique.Notated music is a representation of an emotionally charged piece intended by the author. Representations are subject to interpretation. Interpretations are subjective.Perfection as an idea is subjective unless we happen to be discussing God.Who do you know who is perfect? Some might say Joshua Bell plays perfect, yet even he makes mistakes and has a bad day every now and then.

Measuring to one's own standards is that person's idea of perfection.Maybe a better word would be "standard" which we associate with the idea of perfection. It is very difficult to reach a moving target. The best we can do is to make it a goal to be the best we can be.

This common unsettled feeling comes about I think because our inner desire to attain never ends. Even if a musician is an excellent player he or she may feel inadequate because of it. Feeling inadequate is common and seldom effects a good outcome for anyone who puts in the time, practices and makes the effort to show up with enough confidence to play in public. Just my .00000000002.

June 8, 2018, 10:32 AM · Not just perfection; perfection is not enough. We are trained to search for ideal.
June 8, 2018, 12:06 PM · I think anxiety is not something to be avoided or conquered. The only way to perform with anxiety is to embrace it. I agree with Timothy that it's rooted in shame, and the only way to step up and do it anyways is to have compassion and see how it takes courage to show yourself, to make yourself vulnerable.

Observe without judgment.

Get into your body and out of your head (meditate; learn to breathe in the moment; study movement: e.g. Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, practice selective muscle relaxation.)

Watch/read Brene Brown and practice vulnerability.

June 8, 2018, 7:13 PM · "Observe without judgment"

Easy to say. However, no one EVER achieved a high level in classical music without ceaseless self-criticism.
It is a requirement for success.

The question is how one selectively turns it off on stage. When you have mental habits that you have honed over thousands of hours, they don't just go away in a high-pressure situation. If anything, we revert to whatever is habitual in our thinking.

June 8, 2018, 7:13 PM · "Observe without judgment"

Easy to say. However, no one EVER achieved a high level in classical music without ceaseless self-criticism.
It is a requirement for success.

The question is how one selectively turns it off on stage. When you have mental habits that you have honed over thousands of hours, they don't just go away in a high-pressure situation. If anything, we revert to whatever is habitual in our thinking.

Edited: June 8, 2018, 9:42 PM · "If anything, we revert to whatever is habitual in our thinking."

Exactly. Which is why we must, at every moment, make a habit of critiquing without being self-critical.

Simply observing:
"In this passage, when I move from 1st to second position, my interval between this and that finger is too wide." Upon further discrimination, "This finger shifts correctly, but I must not place that finger too high."

Being judgmental:
"It's out of tune. Why can't I play in tune. !@#$*!!! Bleepin' blipity blip!!! My left hand sucks. I have bad intonation. I'm not improving. Why did I think I could play this piece?"

It's hard work to practice noticing and interrupting knee jerk, negative emotions before they cascade into physiological responses. But it's no harder than anything else, and something which must be practiced as hard as everything else.

Edit: I should've written above, "observe without passing judgment."

Edited: June 8, 2018, 11:00 PM · Toxic Perfectionism is part the problem. I forget the name of the psychologist who called it the 3 P's; Perfectionism leads to Procrastination, which leads to Paralysis. The culture of classical/mainstream music is different from other genres; from personal experience I can report that it is much less of a problem in jazz/rock/commercial genres. Size of the audience doesn't matter; an audition committee of 3 is much worse than an outside concert audience of 20,000. Technical level matters. Be sure that your solo is 100% within your technical limits. One dangerous spot can ruin your composure for the whole evening. Repeat successful performances help. One of my jobs, a very long time ago, was playing in a restaurant 6 nights a week, every week, for a year. Any nerves disappeared after about two weeks. Bow-shake ? Lower your right shoulder - let the string hold the bow hair.
Edited: June 9, 2018, 12:10 AM · The connection between perfectionism and procrastination has been shown to be a myth.

Perfectionists tend to get more done. Anxiety is not causal, for the perfectionist, but rather a result of falling short of expectations, or at least the prospect of it.

So the problem with perfectionism is not so much the attempt to make things perfect (which leads to getting more and more done, in an endless cycle, and likely to lead to being better prepared) as it is the fear of not living up to such expectations, and the shame of being judged by some abstracted critic.

June 11, 2018, 9:37 AM · "The connection between perfectionism and procrastination has been shown to be a myth."

I don't buy that. That's why I really had to buckle down and make myself write this. I stalled for like 10 minutes.

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