Advice for performance nerves?

November 19, 2019, 11:20 AM · As some of you may remember, I returned to the violin last November after a 45 year hiatus. Since then I've only played for my teacher and the occasional kind friend willing to listen to this returning beginner.

On 12/14 I've agreed, with my teacher's encouragement, to play Christmas music at a friends party. My teacher will play the keyboard for me. There shouldn't be more than 20 people at a time if that many. It should be, basically, background music (I sincerely hope). This is not a recital.

I've not played in front of more than one person since I was 12. I am now 60...any advice? This is certainly not even close to what all of you do, but for me at my current level, I'm already nervous. Probably a nip of Slivovitz prior isn't the best idea :)

Replies (24)

November 19, 2019, 11:43 AM · All you need to know is that they are friends enjoying a party and that background music is what it says on the can - music for providing an agreeable ambience. Nobody will be listening critically, only with pleasure. So just relax and enjoy the party!
Edited: November 19, 2019, 2:12 PM · It really comes with time and experience. Also, the amount of nerves depends for me on how prepared I feel, on who the audience/setting is, on how exposed the music is, and on how many other people I'm playing with / how close I am to being in the position of soloist. And then there are a number of surprise elements that I likely can't even name. Sometimes, you might be surprised with how nervous you are, and sometimes you might be surprised with nervous you AREN'T.

Trust in the amount of work you have put in and try and enjoy the atmosphere and the surprises. You are likely to be much more aware of any mistakes you make and be harder on yourself than anyone listening, and that's all good, because it is a sign that you care. You are giving people a sincere gift, and giving is a selfless act, so trust your own sincerity and it should help take yourself out of your own head and self-consciousness to some extent.

Stay away from the booze.

November 19, 2019, 2:36 PM · What Trevor and Christian say is very important -- the listeners are friends, so they're already inclined to think well of you and your music. Also remember that you'll be background music, so people will only be listening with half an ear -- the other half will be listening to the conversation they're involved in. Talk to the host beforehand and ask him not to make a big deal of the music when you're ready to begin. Just sort of start playing, don't let him make a big announcement or everybody will stop talking and turn to watch you, which might be unnerving.

Also remember that you're doing something they can't do, and you're sharing your gift of music with them.

You're right that imbibing some alcohol beforehand won't be the best thing to do. Encouraging the listeners to drink up might be a good thing -- I've always had the thought about audiences "the drunker you get the better I sound."

A couple of practical thoughts -- be sure you get there early to pick out the best place to stand to protect yourself and your stand. I realize you'll have to be next to the piano. If the host only has an upright piano it'll be up against a wall, so pick the end of the piano to stand at which will be furthest from the flow of traffic so that klutzy audience members won't knock your music stand into your violin. Look out for things which your bow might hit if you sway a little bit while you're playing.

Have a glass of water handy and sip from it occasionally in between the songs -- it's easy to be so nervous that your mouth gets dry and that can be something you think about which distracts your attention from the music.

Dress comfortably and cool -- that many people packed into a living room can raise the temperature quickly.

And try to enjoy yourself -- the music you'll be playing is music you love.

Edited: November 19, 2019, 8:49 PM · Thanks to all of you for the good advice!

Good idea about asking the hostess to not make a big deal when we start playing.

I am SO glad that my teacher volunteered to play for me. Much better than playing solo the first time I play around more than 1-2 people. He has also picked Christmas songs that are much easier than what we're currently working on (Gavotte from Mignon in Suzuki 2) and I now understand why. Controlling my nerves will be challenging enough without trying to play more challenging music at the same time - and they won't know that they are very easy pieces.

November 19, 2019, 4:54 PM · One more thought is to practice performing, including running up/down stairs to get your heart rate up before practicing, walking out, taking a bow before practicing, and then playing from beginning to end without stopping, no matter what. Playing with live recordings like on YouTube can also help simulate the feeling of performing. As others have said, it is as much a mental game as anything else. Turn nervousness into excitement.
November 19, 2019, 8:50 PM · Turn nervousness into excitement...I like that!
Edited: November 20, 2019, 7:36 AM · Bone-crunching fatigue often helps reduce nerves. Do you have a round of really stressful errands to take your mind off music before you play?
November 20, 2019, 8:09 PM · Stephen - lol not always; sometimes fatigue makes one more vulnerable to them!
Edited: November 21, 2019, 1:07 AM · My experience with these kinds of things is that the novelty of hearing one's friend (or especially one's work colleague) playing a musical instrument is commonly sufficient to bring all other party activities to a crashing halt, resulting in a recital-like atmosphere. But the bigger (and better lubricated) the party, the less this tends to be true. If that happens, you can prepare something funny to say, like "Now I'm going to play about 2 hours worth of Christmas tunes. So if you all just stand there and listen to me, all the beautiful food and drinks will go to waste. I expect conversation to resume in earnest about 10 seconds into my first tune! That way I can make a lot of mistakes and you won't notice."

Some have suggested you avoid alcohol before playing and I agree. But I'll take it a step further and suggest that you try and get your friends really fractured. Just be aware that sometimes people start to make really weird requests like "Mr. Bojangles" when they tie one on.

November 21, 2019, 5:09 AM · Paul, I like that comment you suggest. I think that using humor to diffuse a tense situation is a wonderful way to disarm things. Towards getting the guests a bit loopy on the drinks you could remind them "Drink up -- the drunker you get the better I'll sound."

But mostly it's important in situations like the holiday party to keep one's own self-humor. Save the self-criticism for the practice room or the lesson room. When performing in public, forget about the mistakes as soon as you realize you've made them, and simply focus on the atmosphere you're creating.

One thing I've found that helps me is to not over-practice before hand. Don't run over all the songs an hour before the party. By the day of the event you've either learned them or not, one more run-through without the audience present won't significantly improve things. I call it the "fine edge of unpreparedness" which leaves me concentrating just a bit more on my playing when it actually counts and I do better overall than if I over-practice what I'll be performing. On those occasions when I have done that I find that I concentrate a bit less, feeling over-confident, and I tend to either make mistakes or at least not sound as good when I play.

A little bit of nerves can be a good thing to keep the focus on the music rather than letting the mind wander trying to figure out if the audience is really liking what we're playing.

November 21, 2019, 8:53 AM · I don't recommend having big stressful things before a performance. Been there, done that, will avoid wherever possible in the future... I think it depends on your levels of stress tolerance and adaptability, and resiliency in general. I do have to say though, it did keep me super focused on doing my absolute best with the music - distracted energy and all.

Edited: November 21, 2019, 10:06 AM · "Nerves" affect different people in different ways and can effect any one in different ways in different situations. In fact if you are doing something you have never done before there is no way to predict what your autonomous reactions will be.

One thing I might suggest for this Christmas situation is to start out by playing familiar carols with your pianist and ask the listeners to sing the first few of them along with your playing. Then once you launch into "background" playing it might just feel like a continuation of what you have been doing.

November 21, 2019, 12:43 PM · I really appreciate the comments, thank you! I do tend to over-think which is likely not a surprise.

It will help that my teacher is playing for me, and we really aren't playing many pieces. Probably will play them several times as folks come and go.

November 22, 2019, 5:34 PM · Hi,

Catherine, the more you'll do concert and recital, the less you'll be stressed!
What you're gonna do looks like "background" music.
So don't try to catch the audience's attention.
And remember that in these types of "public concert", people are sympathic and they won't hate you if your B is a bit out of tune!
Hope I've gelp!


November 22, 2019, 8:53 PM · I think it's all part of the journey and nerves are part of what we live with. I do think it our reaction to nerves can be practiced so that we are not so overwhelmed by it. But for most performers, we just get a little more used to it, it doesn't go away. Here is a little joke I recently posted:

If you suffer from performance anxiety, ask your teacher if purphorrmingoffen [p?r-'f?r-mi?-'?-f?n] is right for you. According to recent clinical trials, purphorrminoffen is the most effective and readily available antidote to performance anxiety on the market today.

Regular dosing advised.

Side effects may include shaking, dizziness and loss of motor control. Signs of a serious allergic reaction include sweaty palms and crippling self-doubt. If you experience any of these symptoms, continue purphorrmingoffen and consider doubling the dosage.

All joking aside, take a look at to see some tips on how to "practice" for stage fright.

November 24, 2019, 10:32 AM · One of the sure ways to make nerves worse is to perform music that is difficult. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling spiral down: "I'll probably mess up. See? I messed up."

I think the best way to calm nerves is a very graduated entry into performance. Start with music that is very easy, and slowly progress. Don't ever let someone talk you into starting with something that is difficult or awkward or beyond your level. That will just reinforce fear.

November 26, 2019, 9:26 PM · Exposure therapy is a treatment for fear - it should lessen with experience. So if you perform those pieces in front of any others in advance, it would probably help.
November 26, 2019, 9:51 PM · Thankfully the pieces are quite easy. I now understand why my teacher insisted on those pieces, and my listeners won't know that they are simple. So far I've only been able to play them in front of 2 people, but I figure I will be nervous that day either way. Thankfully it's a pretty small room which I think will help!
November 26, 2019, 11:52 PM · I would say to establish a routine before recital, that you will do before all future recitals. If you do a routine that "causes" a bad experience, then switch it up. I would recommend a banana and maybe a warm hand wash.
November 27, 2019, 12:22 AM · Another thing is that if you are able to engage the pieces musically, find (or imagine) someone in the back row that you need to communicate them to. It is like speaking a piece of prose that needs to be understood, compared to reciting a group of syllables aloud while worrying only about your accent, breath control, etc.

That will shift your attention from details you are doing correctly or incorrectly, and onto the effect of what you do.

Edited: December 14, 2019, 7:14 PM · My little "event" was today, and it went fine. No real performance anxiety, much to my surprise, and from all reports was well received. These were just a quite simple carols to dip my toes back into the performance waters in a very small way, the first time since 1973. My teacher (and accompanist) carefully selected very easy pieces for me several levels below my current playing level. I didn't understand why at first, I do now!

I thought this would be a "background music" type of thing, but it most certainly was not. I had a fully attentive audience and they sang along with me - but there were only about 10-12 people present at the time. I want to do this again, and my teacher agrees.

This certainly is far less than what any of you do without thinking about it, but it's a beginning. Thanks for your advice, it all helped!

December 14, 2019, 9:20 PM · Congratulations! I’m glad that it was a good experience.
December 14, 2019, 10:30 PM · Woo hoo! Way to go! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
December 15, 2019, 5:43 AM · Congratulations, Catherine! I'm glad it went well and equally glad that you enjoyed it enough to want to do more of it. Getting used to performing takes time and repetition. In my opinion performing should always be a level or two below the level you're actively working on. I'm happy you understand why your teacher chose the music he/she did. And that's why we keep working to advance our level of playing -- so that a wider assortment of performable music opens up for us.

Well done!

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