I have a problem.

June 5, 2020, 5:48 PM · Okay, the title of this post was a tad bit vague. I have many, many problems. This specific one, however, concerns nerves.

I started studying with a new teacher a little more than a month ago online (having withdrawn from the boarding school I asked about a few months ago). He is absolutely wonderful, insightful, and supportive, but every time I have a lesson with him, I completely tense up, and it seems that all of the progress I've made (or think I’ve made) becomes almost a figment of my imagination. I tense up (even more than usual!!), my fingers sweat, I press more, my bow shakes, etc. This never happened with my previous teacher, with whom I think I was perhaps a little *too* relaxed with (and even dared to make excuses for not practicing)...

I know my new teacher has realistic expectations for me and doesn’t expect miles of progress in a week, but perhaps it stems from an uncertainty of what he expects and is accustomed to...perhaps a fear of not measuring up to his other students (although that's ridiculous mindset since I’m here to improve, not compete). Anyway, not the point. He tells me to relax, but that just makes me more tense.

Any tips for relaxing or combating this fear? I’m sure I’m not the first — or the last, for that matter — to have issues with being nervous...

Replies (9)

June 5, 2020, 6:01 PM · The best book I know of on performance anxiety is The Inner Game of Music. Highly recommend that you read it. Good luck!
June 5, 2020, 7:11 PM · Focus on what you have to do, and to listening to yourself. Forget your audience. Fingers, bowing, bow placement, bow speed, hair on the bow, anything physical you can isolate and "observe" and strive to "do well" -- even breathing (breathe out). Especially work for "nuance".

Of course, you've done plenty of home work on the music you are playing, I'm sure.

June 6, 2020, 5:10 AM · You say this is a new teacher for you -- I have had many students over the years (woodwinds and brass) who began having lessons with me being very nervous and tense. But as the weeks went by they became much more relaxed as they understood better what I was looking for in their progress and weren't scared anymore. I'll bet that will happen to you as you have more lessons with this new teacher.

The book Mary Ellen recommends is a very good book to help us better understand what's going on inside when we play. I second her recommendation that you read it -- not only can it help you relax and play better in your lessons but you may well find it invaluable in helping you relax and do better in recitals/concerts.

June 6, 2020, 7:52 AM · I try to focus on the reality of my lessons with my teacher. For example, I just remind myself that my lesson is not a performance. I agree with David that there is often a tendency to want to impress the new teacher. Trust me: You won't. That's not because you're not a good violinist. It's because it's not really his job to be impressed. I'm sure he'll find good things to say about your playing. What what he's really saying is that he wants you to keep working on those or maybe even bring them to the fore even more when you play. And if he can't find anything to correct then you're wasting your money. If you bungle a passage or two, your teacher knows you probably nailed it when you were practicing. If they pick at the scabs in your playing, that's because they want to help you overcome those problems. And even if you "played it much better at home," your skill needs to be reliable enough to nail it when you're nervous. Just let your teacher help you do that. The only problem comes when you're making so many "unexpected mistakes" in your pieces because of nerves that you're not ever talking about musical content or the overall structure of a repertoire piece. But as David says that probably will fade away as you get used to your new teacher.
June 6, 2020, 9:10 AM · Yolanda,

Why are you playing the violin? What are your goals? What are you hoping to accomplish?

It is customary to have a certain amount of anxiety when starting with a new teacher and I'm wondering if he asked you any of those questions. Even if he didn't I suggest that you tell him about your why, goals, and aspirations. That will set the stage for the two of you to work together to accomplish your goals.

Don't be surprised if the teacher takes you way beyond your current goals and aspirations - he may see and hear something in you that you never knew you had.

June 6, 2020, 9:52 AM · You're absolutely right: not the first, not the last. I struggled with this a lot as well.
Everyone loves to get all philosophical about the issue of stage fright, but the hard truth is that you won't make any progress unless you teach your dumb ape brain that nothing is going to jump out of the shadows and kill you when you play. The best way to do this, of course, is just to rack up the hours spent performing for others. Deep breaths help, too.

I personally found a lot of benefit in recording ensembles with myself at home and posting it on social media. If there's a piece you really like that you're working on, consider sharing it with your friends. Most of your friends will like to see you play even if it "isn't very good".

June 6, 2020, 10:20 AM · It's adrenaline. It'll go away after 10 minutes or so. I suggest zooming/skyping a friend 15 minutes before your lesson and perform to them - that'll help it dissipate.
June 6, 2020, 10:23 AM · Think of it as an opportunity. When you perform, you are going to get nervous too, so any opportunity to play when nervous is an opportunity to get a little more used to it, and you totally will get more used to it.

When I first started with my teacher, I got nervous too, and it worked itself out.

Still, you simply play different in the comfort of your practice room alone compared to when any single person is listening.

June 6, 2020, 10:57 AM · What you are experiencing is commonly called "performance anxiety." I am an "expert" on this having had nearly life-long experience of it.
I think it is worth talking to your teacher about it - that alone might help to relieve your anxiety.

Every solo performance I have ever done has suffered the threat of performance anxiety EXCEPT in lesson or masterclass situations where I knew the "audience" (the teacher or "master") was experienced enough that there was no chance they would be impressed by my playing (at least I apparently convinced myself of that sufficiently that I played without anxiety).

Some people have this problem, some don't. Some take medication (usually a very small dose of a beta blocker) for it; some take it once, realize the whole problem is actually mental and are cured, some are never cured without the meds. I fit in the latter category. I was 17 years old when it first hit me. I had been playing the violin for 13** years and it struck in the lowest-threat "performance" I had ever done - playing a couple of old-English ditties for my senior-year high school English class. I had no idea what had gone wrong with my right arm. But it became a lasting problem that only got worse. It was another 10 years or so before it also struck when I performed cello solos. I learned about beta blockers as a potential "cure" 25 years after the first attack and my doctor wrote an appropriate prescription for me. Since then I have never risked a solo performance without them.

Some great artists have this problem and control it one way or another, even the ones who have been plagued by it their whole lives. The mental approach (as in The Inner Game of Music - a book that lives beside my La-Z-Boy chair) works for some, but not all.

***I started playing solos in my community when I was about 13 years old and continued (irregularly wherever I lived) for the next 70 years.)

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