Performance Anxiety

October 7, 2020, 12:06 PM · Many players have anxiety about performing in public and in some instances, no matter how well they have prepared they get preoccupied about making mistakes. Then when they make the inevitable mistake they obsess over it and lose attention to the music they are playing after the mistake. How does a teacher train a student to keep playing and immediately forget about their error.

Dogs seem to deal with this type of thing in a fairly effective way. A case in example: dog is outside roaming around its yard. Dog sees squirrel and immediately runs after it, fully with the intent of catching it (which has never happened.)Squirrel adeptly jumps onto tree which it has done many times before and gets out of danger. Dog barks a couple of times, but then, as before knows that there is no way it is going to catch that squirrel, yet again.

At this point the dog's brain say oh drat! And dog gives itself a good shake and goes about its previous business of sniffing and marking as if nothing had ever happened. The key to this is the dog's shaking itself. That gets rid of the anxiety.

Any thoughts?

Replies (15)

October 7, 2020, 1:53 PM · Interesting observation about "shaking it off"! And, interesting question, looking forward to interesting answers.
Edited: October 8, 2020, 9:47 AM · The phenomenon of "object permanence" comes to mind. I remember learning about it in Psych 100.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object_permanence#In_animals

The dog gives up on catching the squirrel. The human knows that the squirrel is still there, that the squirrel has only so many different routes of escape, and that the squirrel cannot outrun a shotgun.

Also unaccounted for in the comparison between man and dog is our bondage to our wretched emotions. This is what we must overcome. You can read "The Inner Game of Tennis" or "Moby Dick" for thoughts on how best to assuage that angst.

October 8, 2020, 10:39 AM · My teacher refers to this as "not presiding over the train wreck". It is REALLY hard not to dwell and analyze because that's precisely what we teach ourselves to do when we practice.

I suppose the solution might be to practice NOT dwelling, in the practice room. So when we practice performing (playing through), we could video ourselves for later analysis, but deliberately focus on NOT analyzing while playing.

Edited: October 10, 2020, 10:30 AM · Stage Fright/ performance anxiety. The topic comes up frequently, and I will repeat myself.
Some of it is the music sub-culture. I only have nerves doing classical solos or auditions. The worst situation is an audition panel of three, but playing amplified solo violin in a jazz orchestra for an audience of thousands was no problem.
Technical difficulty is part of the problem. We tend to work on pieces that are right at the limits of our technique, and performing those solos is like walking on the edge of a cliff. Pieces that are actually intended for performance should be one grade level lower than where we currently are. For me, I can find some enjoyment in working on the Tchaikovsky or Brahms concertos, but I should not attempt to perform anything beyond Mozart-Mendelssohn, etc.
Experience helps a lot. The first performance of a piece will always be nervous, but if you have performed a concerto 49 times, will #50 keep you awake the night before? I never made it to that level, so I can't really say.
October 8, 2020, 6:46 PM · Joel, that reminds me of when I was in (very ) amateur theatre years ago. We were performing in the bar of a local sports club. For the dress rehearsal, for an audience of 5, I was a wreck. For the first full performance to a packed room.......fine. (and I had to play a small amount on the piano too)

Bruce, I have watched dogs do this - I don’t remember the shake - I will now pay closer attention!

October 8, 2020, 8:02 PM · I think there's no magic bullet for stage fright. People have one embarassing performance and then mull over it forever, avoiding new opportunities to play. I think pretty much everyone would see their jitters more or less disappear if they instead performed even more often. That was my experience; after a couple years I just stopped caring if I made a fool of myself.
Edited: October 9, 2020, 3:06 AM · In my case it's really weird, or not, I don't know.

First of all, I'm not shy, I don't mind asking a stranger in the street something, I don't mind asking the dependent in the shop something, and I don't mind singing this melody of a song I wanted to know the name to a friend. I have never been shy about talking/speaking out loud in class if the teacher asked something, although, the few times I didn't do the homework and the teacher was randomly asking questions, I was praying God that I was not the one. That was easy, not fear of public exposure, but fear of embarrassment as I didn't do what I was supposed to, and I could be perceived as lazy, which is bad reputation, bad feeling.

Anyways, when I started playing the violin, I had no problems at all if asked to play what I learned during the week in front of my teacher and my 3 other class mates that were present the first months. Nevertheless, all my 3 class mates really got anxious if asked to do the same, and they wanted their time to end. I even asked one of them once why he was anxious at all in the violin class when asked to play, that it was totally OK and nothing wrong could ever happen. It took 2 years for him to play with ease in front of the teacher, he told me. I can play in front of a few people without that affecting me at all, and most non-professional musicians I know can't, they get all anxious if asked to play in front of 3-4 people, some even in front of me, a person they have known for years.

Nevertheless, I had to present a topic in front of 60 persons, a few times actually, and every time I had to, I got anxious. Not heavy at all, but I was not at ease anymore. Why? I don't know, I don't have stage fright just because, I don't consider myself shy, I don't mind make some mistakes... but the thing is, that anxious feeling gets me. My hands sometimes shake, although I know it's not a big deal, I don't fear 60 people, I don't think I'm gonna die or get embarrassed, but still happens. Even my voice can sound a little different from my "regular" normal voice. The exact same experience happened when I played my 3-4 first recitals (we are talking about 2-3 years students), but anyway, it was a solo piece in front of 100 persons. That really got me anxious, I even forgot the whole piece in the middle of the performance, stopped playing, huge 2-3 seconds break down, what am I gonna do?, but I recovered and went on. I learned something: after the first few notes, or sometimes after the first 30-40 seconds, you calm down a lot. The worst is the very first note and the seconds before the beginning.

Since I'm not shy and before I play in front of 100 people I even talk to them about what I am going to play, but still the anxiety gets me, I can only come to the conclusion that it will always happen to me, no matter what, unless I suddenly start to play weekly I guess. So we, I, have to deal with that, and try to learn to control and transform that anxiety into joy, excitement, not try to suppress it and make it disappear, as I believe that will worsen the feeling.

Oh, I can also get nervous if asked to play in front of specific persons. For example, if Hilary Hahn comes to review my playing, even if it's one person, I would probably not get comfortable since I know who she is. I guess there are a set of people that even alone would get me nervous.

To sum up: instead of trying to suppress and eliminate that stage frightening, try to embrace it and transform it into joy and excitement, something good, something different. Imagine, just think for a second, that a live performance in front of 100 people delivers you the exact same experience and feeling as you playing alone in the practice room. Not cool, right? Now that would be frightening!

October 9, 2020, 7:38 AM · Oh boy, this hits home. What you describe used to happen to me just before the first note - which I would then screw up and fret over for the rest of the performance. Needless to say, it was not a route to a concerto career.

As a dreadful sufferer I have worked through so many 'fixes' and really they may work once but none are reliable. However, there are two that I have stuck with and have really improved my odds.

1. Before you start playing run through the first phrase IN YOUR HEAD as if you are playing it - all expression and everything. When you get to the end of the phrase start playing in a continuation. What this does is to get you over the threshold and 'into' the piece. I have found this to be invaluable. Of course, it assumes that you are opening but it still works if you ask your playing colleague (sonatas) to give you a moment before they start. For chamber music I find its totally different, you are part of a team even if you are playing first in a Haydn quartet and performance anxiety is far less likely.

2. ITS NOT ABOUT YOU!. If you go to a rock concert do you think the group is worrying whether you like it or not? The key to avoiding performance anxiety for me is (as mentioned above) realize that you have no interest or impact on whether the listeners like it. Its none of your business AND your job is to yes, have fun. Presumably you learned this piece because you like it (if not there is another problem) and this is just a chance for you to enjoy yourself. That may sound a bit polyanna-ish but with practice it works - and you start to understand how the players you admire do it. If you are having fun the rest of the world blots out and its just you and Mozart/Bach/Gevurdernoshen...

Edited: October 9, 2020, 10:21 AM · I've been using a beta blocker to eliminate right-arm shakes in performances where I could be heard (i.e., other than in orchestra settings) since I learned of it at the San Diego Chamber Music Workshop in 1977. Before that, from late 1951, at the age of 17, I had been plagued by that symptom of "stage fright." However, for the previously 13 years of my violin playing I would play anywhere, for any group of people with no worries or problems. Funny, the shakes began for the first time while I was playing a couple of old-English songs for my high school English class, the simplest music I had ever played for an audience.

I didn't even know what was happening, since I felt no insecurity about my playing. Every time after that when I played violin for an audience (as a soloist, and eventually even as 1st violin in string quartets) my right arm would shake and I had to limit myself to the upper 2/3 to 1/2 of the bow. It was another 10 years before it first affected my bowing as a cellist.

The only times I was not bothered by this problem was in 1973 when I participated in a masterclass. I guess my brain just told my endocrine system that I was in a group where everyone else who was better than I was would fully understand whatever when wrong - so nothing did---I don't really know.

Since I first got my doctor to prescribe Inderal (a beta blocker) for this problem in 1977 I have been able to perform many dozens of times with absolutely no stage-fright symptoms. In fact i would even consciously bow as close to the frog as I could just for my own self-satisfaction. I found a dose as low as 5mg sufficient for complete control

Years later I approached the age of 80 my right-arm-shake problems were added to by an inherited "essential tremor" which is completely independent of audience-induced performance anxiety; it even happens during practice. There are bow-hold ways of reducing the problem, but lo-and-behold, the beta-blocker pills are the first-line prescription recommended for eliminating it. For this problem a dose of 2.5 mg seems sufficient, so I cut the 10mg pills in quarters.

Back around 40 years ago "we" were set to perform the Brahms Horn Trio and I mentioned to the other 2 players that I used Inderal for my problem. The others "confessed" that they also had some problems and would like to give it a try, the pianist - with some hand shaking, and the horn player - with breath control problems (apparently physical "stage fright" hits the muscles we need most); so I cut the pill into thirds and we shared it 40 minutes before we went on stage. GREAT RESULT. (I should mention that the pianist had worked his way through college 25 years earlier playing piano - and performed concertos with our local community orchestra, of which I was concertmaster for 20 years.)

Beta blockers are serious medicine for reducing blood pressure that have a number of side effects - so one should check out the side effects on line and have a physician prescribe them you don't see a potential conflict (don't get them from a friend or your corner "drug dealer").

Different people have different effects and causes for performance anxiety. For me, from the start of the problem, my only fear has been the shaky right arm - never anything else. My career required me to give many public speaksing presentations to groups of up to several hundred people and I never had a problem (except for the very first time, at a national meeting). After that I took on teaching a physics class for technicians and had no problem ever again after the first session.

October 10, 2020, 5:51 AM · Elise Stanley, your comment on rock groups reminded me of comments by two of the Beatles (whom you would think would be just like you said -- not worried in the least whether the audience liked them). John Lennon remarked how he would often throw-up two or three times before going out on stage, he was so nervous. And George Harrison remarked that it didn't matter what he did to calm himself down before hand, meditating, smoking pot, having an alcoholic drink, the moment he took that first step towards the stage all that would be for nought and he would feel sick to his stomach hoping the show would go well.

In my own personal observations, one thing which really stands out about the Suzuki teaching method (at least as I have observed it being used by four very different people who have official Suzuki training) is that every lesson becomes a performance, with parents (who are supposed to be participating) and teacher applauding. Families of students are encouraged to organize small concerts for other family members, and having the students perform in recitals at local nursing homes all help to remove the concept of "a concert is a special event so I am scared to death I'll mess up" from students from the very beginning.

My son started on violin and played for 4 years before deciding that he preferred the trumpet and who went on to get a bachelor's in music education with trumpet as his main instrument and then a master's in trumpet performance and a graduate professional diploma in trumpet performance, used to drive his fellow students crazy because they would all be sweating bullets just before participating in a solo recital and he would be calm as could be. He'd walk out, smile at the audience, bow, play beautifully, and walk off as if it was as easy as breathing. While his fellow students would all have a deeper vibrato than they wanted because of their nerves and wouldn't look at the audience, wouldn't smile and the whole room could feel their relief as they finished, barely bowed and raced off the stage.

When they asked my son how he could be so calm, he told them he'd been performing all his life because of all the recitals and music camps we'd go to when he was very young.

When performing is "just something you do" it loses it's scary aspect. And the Suzuki method encourages that viewpoint.

When I conducted a small community orchestra we would have a 'Suzuki Concert' each Spring, following the typical Suzuki concert model of starting with pieces from later books (we started with book 4) and using a few pieces from each book down to the Twinkle Variations, with more and more students joining the orchestra onstage as we played the accompaniments. Before the concert all the young violinists would be wandering around backstage playing their pieces while right next to them someone would be playing a different piece, all obvlivious to each other, not worrying what anybody else thought. And in the concert when they would come up on stage, it was no big deal for any of them and none of them were nervous at all. They would follow the person who was leading that particular piece, play beautifully with the orchestra, and have a fun time.

That's the attitude that everybody needs to take -- it should be fun, or you shouldn't be doing it (unless you're getting paid to do it). Life's too short to do something that makes us really nervous and scared and that we can't wait for it to be over.

And we also need to remember that each time we perform for others we are doing something that nobody else on the planet can do -- share our personal performance with them. Many others can play the same piece of music, but only we can play it as we do, and that's a special gift that we need to be proud of, not scared of.

October 10, 2020, 7:26 AM · I’ve read that Hilary Hahn doesn’t get performance nerves. In one of her old blogs, she related how, at her Carnegie hall debut at the age of 16 , as she was walking down a corridor to go on stage, she passed Isaac Stern , who called out “have fun out there Hilary”
“And I did!”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to call that fun!

October 10, 2020, 8:12 AM · I was a Suzuki kid, and I can tell you that I have always been terrified to perform solo, all my life, despite having done it every other week at group lessons from the time I was six years old.

As I've grown older, I've become mentally calmer but physiologically much more unsteady with nerves. When I was young, I might have a racing heart, sweaty palms, etc. But when I became an adult, I developed arm and hand shakes as well.

Performance psychology techniques have, by and large, helped me to reduce my level of mental anxiety at performing, but the physical effects of adrenaline -- whether excitement or fear-induced -- remain unpleasant. I have learned some technical tricks for trying to adapt to a trembling arm, for instance, but because I cannot simulate the tremor in practice, it's hard to actually properly prepare such adaptations.

The phenomenon is certainly not limited to classical musicians; it afflicts musicians in all genres. And it affects all performers in general, not just in music, and not just in entertainment, per se. I am, for instance, also a nervous public speaker, despite doing it a lot.

Edited: October 10, 2020, 12:41 PM · Probably the worst experience I had of this was performing the Mozart G-Minor piano quartet. Our pianist wasn't quite secure, and managed to slip some wrong notes into her first descending scale. After that, I got increasingly anxious to the point of feeling out-of-body. I literally felt as though I were hovering a foot and a half behind myself, and was whispering instructions on how to be better. Relax wrist, elbow not too high, look at the cellist here, etc.

The other times have been in orchestral performances where I was on the edge of the stage and did not feel acoustically integrated with the group. I could hear myself all too well, and wasn't quite engaged with everyone else. That makes mistakes more likely, and induces fear that they are quite audible.

More recently, that has largely disappeared. Some of that is working on paying attention to sound rather than technique. Obviously, I'll make periodic adjustments if I think the bow angle is wrong, or I'm not paying enough attention to ring tones. But I mostly try to ignore what I am doing and pay more attention to what I am aiming at. Like driving, where you do a million things subconsciously to point the car at the middle of the highway a few miles ahead.

Another thing that sometimes helps is fatigue. If I really have learned what I wish to do with the music, spending the afternoon racing around doing errands, stressing about shaving without getting cut, etc, sometimes gets a lot of tension out of the system. When I finally go on, I really have not enough energy to make my bow shake or have my left hand get tense.

Another small factoid about anxiety: one time a few decades ago, I wrenched my back out of shape. Hips and shoulders were maybe 4 inches off kilter, and I could hardly get out of bed for a few days. I was prescribed fairly high doses of Valium and was nearly back to myself in a week. Except that the Valium left me pretty depressed. Oddly, my playing improved a lot, though. We were doing a Harbison symphony in my orchestra, and the scherzo was suddenly quite easy to rattle off. Just one 16th note-- then another-- then another... And my lesson that week was the best I have ever had, as far as my playing ability. My teacher was visibly shocked, actually.

So, if you can get rid of general anxiety, and let your knowledge come forth, something good will result.

As far as moving past mistakes, I am not quite sure what the logic is. At some point, if you can think of music as speech, you can then re-focus on what you have to say next. If you miss one word in a play, most people won't notice, if the sentences makes some sense.

Another sort of security that you don't see much anymore was in the Eastern European orchestras, such as the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Often their playing could be somewhat slovenly by western standards, and it would be easy to get wound up by that. Nevertheless, the guys on stage (and it was mostly guys) all knew that everyone else knew their lines, and that they'd end together.

October 10, 2020, 3:10 PM · I was 5 or 6 when I first appeared in a piano recital, on stage in the conservatory recital hall--with no anxiety whatsoever. I don't think I even knew the word. I was OK until I was 16, when I got nervous before a recital in the teacher's living room; so I stole a Miltown (early tranquilizer) from my mother's purse beforehand. At the recital, I sat down and launched into Mozart Fantasy, but blanked out when I got to a run. Picked up after it, and finished. On the way home, my mother said, "Erin, it's OK that you forgot the music, but did you have to swear in front of all those people?" I have no I idea what I said. Moral of the story is, don't take a tranquilizer. I have not performed in public on violin, piano or cello since my disaster 53 years ago. Sigh.
October 10, 2020, 8:31 PM · "Not presiding over the train wreck" -- Lydia I like that. Also "not presiding over the thought that maybe there could be at some point a possible train wreck" -- this would all be helpful!


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