Anxiety during Lessons

October 7, 2019, 2:06 PM · I recently got a new violin teacher and I have been struggling with nerves before every lesson. I have been studying with them for about two months, which is the longest I have had a one instructor since February. A little before our first lesson, I had a mild panic attack, which I didn't realize until later. They are a very nice individual and I know they are here to help me succeed but I still feel unreasonably nervous. I talked with them about it briefly and it got a little better. But in our last lesson, I felt nervous like I hadn't ever before. My performance nerves were more mild. It was fairly obvious to them and they talked to my parent, concerned that I wanted to quit violin, which is not the case. Even though I know it's not true, I always think that they think I should already know what's wrong with this or why would I bother to play this if it's sounds like that. I am more self conscious about my playing in my lessons than I ever have before and it's really discouraging. I am constantly feeling unprepared for my lessons despite having practicing efficiently more than I ever have. Even with my nerves, I have without a doubt, improved since I started lessons and would like to continue to do so without all the anxiety. Can anyone help?

Replies (27)

Edited: October 7, 2019, 2:35 PM · In lesson, do you start with pieces right away? My teacher and I always start with scales, arppegios or Schradiecks first to warm up. It makes you feel less nervous when you play pieces after.

Do you feel like the teacher is pushing you too hard with pieces a bit overwhelming for your ability? A good test for this is during playing, do you constantly think of the technique side (the hard shift, the fast 16th note passage) instead of phrasing and dynamic then the piece might be too hard for you.

Also, don't beat yourself up over this. Everyone is playing worse in lesson and performance compared to practice time.

October 7, 2019, 2:38 PM · I have lesson-nerves too, but it is less now than it used to be. I try to remind myself that I'm nervous because this is important to me, and I want to do my best. It sometimes helps.

I like Jess's suggestion, as this is what I've been trying to do with my teacher when they ask what I want to start with (there's usually an agenda, and they let me pick how to start). I always pick the tech work first - it helps that I do tech work first when practicing at home and puts me at ease.

October 7, 2019, 2:54 PM · Everyone plays worse at lessons than they do when practicing. It's the notion that we only have one shot to get it right at the moment, I suspect. I do tell my teacher when something has gone well previously but I screwed it up now. It's essentially an indication that something hasn't truly been stably learned. But I try to indicate if I'm currently screwing it up in a way that warrants intervention (i.e. I don't think I can readily stabilize it on my own, or I haven't really found a way to practice it efficiently), versus whether it just needs a little bit more time in the practice room.

By the way, you are the customer. You are paying them to teach you. They are not doing you a favor by deigning to teach you.

(There are some teachers where it is a real and rarified privilege to study with them, whose studios come with extremely high expectations. But they are few and far between.)

October 7, 2019, 3:12 PM · Lessons are a great liminal zone between the complete freedom of practicing and goofing-off at home and the pressure of performing. Keep going - You will get used to it.

A lot of teaching scenarios in the past with violinists that went on to big careers had a model where every lesson was a performance, which could be really frightening, but I bet performing isn't a big deal once you get used to something like that.

With that said, you should be building up your confidence over time in your lessons rather than perpetually feeling bad about your playing.

Edited: October 7, 2019, 3:25 PM · Try a little humor? Start by tuning your violin and then say, "It sounded better at home."

I've botched stuff SO BAD in my lessons that I was NAILING at home, it can be kind of dispiriting. But you just have to remember why you're there ... not to impress anyone with your performance, but to learn and be inspired. Your teacher can read past the horrific musical gaffes to what you really need to work on -- so you need to kind of trust in that. And ... are you improving? If so then that's really all the proof you need that it's working.

Also, decide ahead of time what you're going to play first, and make it something you're really comfortable with even if it's review material or a study. If your teacher asks you why, you can say some BS like you're working on your tone if you're not comfortable saying that it's to help you settle your nerves before you play the Last Rose of Summer.

October 7, 2019, 4:39 PM · Performance anxiety didn't "grab" me until I was 17 and done with lessons except for a few coaching and masterclass sessions over the following (nearly) 70 years. The problem never left me in performance situations, but I reasoned in coached and masterclass situations that no matter how well or badly I did any person worth coaching or teaching me could find flaws with my playing so why worry - I was just there to learn; there was no way I was going to impress or entertain (without telling jokes).

So - try not to worry about it and just be there to do what you can and learn all you can.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 6:13 AM · The first thing for you to remind yourself is that the teacher is there to teach and help you to achieve your best. Assuming a normal teaching enviroment, nothing worse can come out of that. So there is nothing to loose, nothing to worry about or get intimidated.

Next,

You want the best out of your education. Therefore when you leave your lessons you should have a clear understanding of what was discussed, advised or shown to you. More importantly you should remember them. If you keep yourself distracted and focus on your anxiety rather than your teacher you will not be doing yourself any favors on this part.

Always remind yourself of these...

Further; instead of regarding them as failures, try to see your mistakes as opportunities on identifying and fixing the flaws in your technique. Learning from your mistakes is a natural part of any education. Accept the fact that you will be making mistakes for a certain amount of time until everthing gets settled. Even then you will not be immune...

Be confident that your teacher already has an idea of your talent, ability and potential. Even if you were on a bad day he/she could always tell if you have been practicing or not. Or could always identify and differentiate a situational mistake from a fundamental one. Don't worry about those things. He/she already knows and understands. Don't let those things get in your head.

October 8, 2019, 6:37 AM · It's probably related to white coat syndrome.
There's a twoset joke about it - you play like a tiger at home, and you play like a pussycat in front of your teacher.
October 8, 2019, 8:42 AM · I had this happen last night, had done well at home and it was so bad at my lesson that my teacher discovered an underlying cause that we are now addressing (related to counting). In the long run my "bad night" will go far to help me continue to improve, so that's a good thing.

Keep at it, as the others have said, it will improve. Your teacher understands this dynamic, I'm quite sure.

October 8, 2019, 9:23 AM · I'm loving these responses. My favorite in-lesson joke is to say, "geez, you'd think I did not even practice this since last lesson! What is happening?!" Usually my teacher will let me play it again, and sometimes it will go better and sometimes just as badly.
October 8, 2019, 10:04 AM · My least favorite anxiety-related problem are cascading mistakes. I make one silly mistake, redouble efforts to concentrate, but that only tightens up my muscles which leads to another mistake, then another, etc. Then I stop, take a deep breath and start again with an easy passage. Sometimes that works, sometimes I screw up the "easy" passage too.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 3:37 PM · My adult students consistently have cases of the nerves at lessons (never kids, though), and I always tell them the same thing: I'm already compensating by assuming you're only playing at 70% of what you do at home.

It's unfortunate your teacher isn't more aware of typical anxietal problems and how to address them. I think making a student as comfortable as possible is one of the hallmarks of a good teacher. I often spend a good portion of the lesson just talking to students before we start playing. Asking about life, their week, etc... Partially because I like to get to know students, but also because it helps to clear our any initial nerves.

October 9, 2019, 7:07 AM · Could you clarify what you mean by “ 2 months is the longest I have had a one Instructor since February. “ ? Were there other teachers, and what happened with them?
For the first few months of my lessons , I would be exhausted afterwards for the rest of the day. Fortunately, that no longer happens..

October 9, 2019, 5:15 PM · "I have been studying with them for about two months, which is the longest I have had a one instructor since February."

This could speak to a larger underlying mental block than just performance nerves.

When I started lessons again, I had the same thing happen to me, when I would play better during practice than at lessons. Part of this may come down to the fact that my teacher can accompany me on the piano, and therefore keeps my tempo more honest in some cases, messing with your internal mental rhythm.

However, keep in mind you're not trying to please your teacher. You're there to learn about the mistakes you are making. It's possible that you could be overthinking how much your teacher cares about "playing well" vs "learning the instrument". Since you mention your parent, can we assume that you are slightly on the younger side of this forum? A good solution may be to play for your parents the piece straight through as a way to get used to the idea of playing in front of your teacher.

October 10, 2019, 3:57 PM · Emily,

A close reading of your message tells me that this problem isn't new and you, and your parent(s) are working through the available teachers.

First, how old are you? I understand that you like the violin but I also have the sense that part of your anxiety is enhanced by the presence of both the teacher as well as the parent. Is there some parental pressure that you have not mentioned? Do you think you would be more comfortable without your parent present in the lesson?

As a teacher, I like having the parent in the studio during the lesson because they are the eyes and ears when the young musician practices at home. However, I have had a few where I noticed a strain between the young musician and the parent and I ask those parents to wait in our living room during the lesson.

To me playing music is about having fun. Yes, there is a lot to learn and the violin can be frustrating, at the same time so rewarding when you learn a new skill or play a new piece. Frankly, I do not like parents who push their children into the violin because they read that it is good for children. To those coming with that attitude: I offer to teach the parent as well - if it is good for your child, then it should be good for you as well. So far no acceptance but I could imagine a time when the child out-performs the parent.

I cannot say what your particular issues are but I have a sense from your post that there is more here than just your anxieties with the teacher.

October 26, 2019, 8:00 PM · I understand completely. My worst was when I did a year or so of singing to help more learn to hear intonation better (It worked briliiantly).

My teacher was amazing. We always started off with random talking followed by voice warm ups that rely on being relaxed. Whenever I wasn't coping she'd come up with something ridiculous (like making me sing a scale or phase holding my tongue!) until we both ended up giggling. Hard to keep up anxiety while laughing. She inspired me enough that I walked in one day and told her I'd like to do grade exams, and I even wrote a song for one of them.

With my violin students, I sometimes use over- the- top metaphors and images, and/or overdramatize a message cause that gets them more focused on me thank their performance anxiety (and sometimes just gets the message across better).

Playing with others helps too. Lots of duets, even if it's just playing scales in thirds.

It really does get better!

October 26, 2019, 8:41 PM · i love my anxiety during lessons, my vibrato comes out so much better
October 26, 2019, 11:11 PM · I tell my students that they are getting important information from passages which don't go as well in the lesson as they did at home. The information is NOT that the student can't play that passage. It's that the passage in question is vulnerable. So I suggest that the student give a little extra attention to the parts that suffered in the lesson even if they sound fantastic the very next time the student plays them at home.
October 27, 2019, 7:21 PM · To Mary Ellen's point, it can be useful to explore during the lesson why something that seemed fine in practice becomes precarious under more stressful circumstances.

My teachers have emphasized the usefulness of fatigue in determining what is fragile. If you play a work that you are performing through three times (using full energy each time), by time #3 you are almost certainly quite tired, and you will begin making mistakes that result from concentration slips. Highly instructive.

Edited: October 27, 2019, 9:38 PM · I am constantly feeling unprepared for my lessons despite having practicing efficiently

I can associate with that,... every week actually, but if I know that I practiced diligently then I have no reason to feel guilty. I am where I am given what I could do and sometimes life gets in the way, it's just it. Some things take a long time to come together, and 7 days is not long time.

October 30, 2019, 6:20 PM · Can relate, but I had a professor in college who helped me enormously. For a long time I had tremendous lesson-related anxiety since childhood, but one day in college my professor stopped me during a lesson, looked very sternly at me for a good 10 seconds, then broke into a smile and said "drop it, dear. I know you're not going to play perfectly, and that's why we have these meetings". Somehow the way she said that caught me off guard in just the right way and I never felt anxious playing for her again.
October 30, 2019, 6:39 PM · @Michael Pijoan That’s awesome!
October 30, 2019, 9:33 PM · Mary Ellen, that's a great way of explaining what is happening to students! I always felt nervous for my lessons, and I think it's quite a normal part of the process. It is a performance of sort, we want our work to show in front of someone we care abo, the ut and often admire deeply. Totally human reaction. Now that I'm more on the other side, I tell my students not to worry, the more they "screw up", the more I know what I need to help them with. I also ask students to perform for the next student walking in the door, just to practice performing every week.
October 30, 2019, 9:49 PM · I don't know how old Emily is. But I can say that without exception, every single adult student I've ever had has been an absolute nervous wreck in lessons.

Maybe I should have beat them harder?

Edited: November 1, 2019, 10:44 AM · Michael - I appreciate you relaying that story.

And I appreciate the teachers here who say this is normal.

Editing to add:
When I returned, just like Paul (below), I was really nervous - more than I thought I would be. When I started working with my current teacher I was a WRECK, which was unfortunate. I'm a lot better now, especially since I've been working with this teacher for a while.

I still get sweaty cold hands, and the rather inconvenient memory loss (as in: I can play from memory at home, but in lesson I require sheet music). I used to not have cold sweaty hands in my youth, or memory loss issues as extreme as today, but what I did have was anxiety and nervousness channeled into a self-deprecating comedy act and laissez-faire attitude.

November 1, 2019, 10:02 AM · Scott I'm not a nervous wreck during my lessons but at the beginning (as a re-starter, some years ago now), I was more nervous than I thought I would be. I'm still a little nervous, but not falling-apart nervous.
November 1, 2019, 8:15 PM · I can fix that.

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