How do I calm down and focus when playing with others?

October 13, 2021, 9:30 AM · Last night I was sitting in a hallway at the music school where I take lessons, waiting to begin a string quintet rehearsal. A young girl sat next to me and we got into a conversation.

She asked me, “How long have you been playing?”

I smiled, “A little over four years. How about you?”

She replied confidently, “eight years.” Then she looked at me. “It must be hard to learn violin at your age.”

I’m 72.


I muttered something about “it’s hard for everyone”, and hoped my rehearsal would start as soon as possible.

As blunt as she was, however, she had a point, and it leads to my discussion question.

How do I calm down and focus when playing with others?

When I’m at home and playing alone, I feel confident, relaxed, and centered. I go through my viola part in detail, counting out the rhythms, listening to the pitch, working on my physical technique and my interpretation. All is well.

Then last night I got into the rehearsal. Let’s just say, things didn’t go as I hoped. Hearing the other instruments was jarring. My pitch was dubious, I entered sections at the wrong times, I even skipped lines on the sheet music. We had to stop several times so I could be corrected.

As this went along, my focus became scattered to say the least. I felt quite humbled, and once the rehearsal ended, I quickly packed my violin in the case and left. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room.

I feel like I’m holding everyone else back. At this point, I want to toss the whole thing out the window. I’m assuming it’s a temporary feeling, but if I can’t get past this pothole in my training, what’s the point? I wanted to play violin so I could play with other people, and that seems to be a problem all by itself.

So, before I do that, do you have suggestions, techniques, and helpful words so I can get over this hump? I know the pandemic has held people back from playing in groups, and I was hoping to do this kind of thing early in 2020. Now that I’m finally playing with others, it’s proving to be quite stressful. Suggestions? Hints?

Replies (27)

October 13, 2021, 10:14 AM · I have an inkling where you're coming from.

I had a hiatus of over 30 years in my playing. When I was a teenager I played in a very serious and competent orchestra and was completely at home.

Having returned to playing in my fifties, I recently reached a level where I felt confident enough to join a local community orchestra.

I was offered the chance to play in the first violin section but decided I'd be much more comfortable hiding at the back of seconds, and so I nervously took up my place there a month ago.

I assumed the thing I would struggle with was playing in unison with everyone else, and that's exactly what happened.

So I spent some time listening to the pieces we're playing whilst reading the score and playing along (or at least fingering the part). That helped a great deal and by the second rehearsal, I was much more confident and played much better i.e. didn't get lost.

A string quintet is much more exposed than an orchestra - there's more than ten of us in seconds but I guess there's only one viola in the quintet, but to get over the sense of "where the hell are we", I think the listening and playing/fingering thing might help.

I also think that an element of "keep doing it" comes into play - it will get easier, I promise.

October 13, 2021, 11:47 AM · Do you have a teacher? Maybe more work on violin duets would be a good stepping stone. Even if it's not a teacher, playing duets with someone might be a way to ease into larger groups.
Edited: October 14, 2021, 12:06 AM · Welcome to our world. One of the things that cures some performance anxiety is simple experience. I am sure that when one of the leading soloists performs a major concerto for the first time there will be a lot of nerves. But after 20 repeat performances #21 will be less emotionally stressful.
My own experience is that learning a new instrument at the beginner's level can be faster and better for adults than for the young child. It is just at the advanced level that the early starter always has the advantage. After all, they are learning the instrument while their bodies and brains are still developing.
Edited: October 13, 2021, 1:38 PM · I suspect this was your first rehearsal? Ensemble playing takes time to get used to. My recommendation: Don't give up. Go to the next rehearsal. Try to not feel embarrassed when an error happens to you (I know: easier said than done, but mistakes happen to everyone). In the mean time when you practice focus on the passages you remember having trouble with.

All these things have happened to me (and they keep happening): Jumping lines, intonation worries (it may well be someone else who is out of tune), improvising fingerings and getting stuck, passages I have attempted dozens of times, practiced extensively at home, yet they fail when playing together with the others. There is a passage we once asked a coach to help me overcome. She worked with us for an hour, gave much useful advice but did not even try to solve my problem; apparently she did not know how to either. So to this day when this passage comes up I have to play along as far as I can stay with the others, then I drop out, wait for the end of it and rejoin.

Violin playing is multitasking: Reading the music (even if from memory), coordinate two arms/hands with completely different patterns of movement, attention to dynamics, rhythm, phrasing, articulation etc. Ensemble playing is multitasking on steroids, adding more components into the mix. You need to pay attention to what the others are playing, follow the leading voice, or lead yourself. This takes time to learn.

"Paris vaut bien une messe", said Henri IV. And learning to play chamber music is well worth a little embarrassment.

About "at your age": If people know you started playing "at your age" they will admire you for what you achieved on your instrument--against the odds as it were--and they will willingly cut you some slack* while you get the hang of ensemble playing. In fact that girl certainly meant her remark as a compliment, however clumsily she worded it.

* At any rate I think they ought to cut you some slack. Those of us who have entered the "paradise" of chamber music playing have an obligation (IMHO) to help other people get in too. It requires nothing but a bit of tolerance and patience.

October 13, 2021, 2:24 PM · I find we have to prepare everything, not only fingerings etc, but the "timeline": even in slow practice, play while tapping the beats with one's foot (!), including all rests and empty measures.

Or listen to a recording while tapping the beats on the page: eye-training!

In other words, aspects of ensemble playing which we just don't think of when alone...

October 13, 2021, 2:39 PM · You bring your life-long experiences and wisdom as a human being. To me, that's a lot more valuable than being able to play well.

If I were to be in a chamber music group, I'd rather have someone like you than my daughter who has been playing for 8 years.

Edited: October 13, 2021, 2:45 PM · First of all - congratulations on picking up this lovely instrument! At 61 (now) I returned to the violin almost 3 years ago after a 45 year hiatus. Injuries have moved me to another instrument (hoping to be able to add the violin back into the mix eventually to some degree), but I well remember experiencing this very thing when I started playing with my former teacher's small adult student ensemble (7 of us when everyone showed up). Any amount of practicing solo at home, at least for me, just isn't the same as soon as sitting down with an ensemble as that adds several other layers as you've found.

It WILL get better as you've more experience playing with others - it's a skill to be learned. I also think that the fact that many of us played almost all of 2020 and a good percentage of 2021 in isolation at home also has something to do with this.

Congratulations again and stick with it!

October 13, 2021, 2:54 PM · This reminded me of a friend of mine, he is a shakespearean actor, and has been in quite a few plays, he recently played Orlando in as you like it to an audience of 500 or so. I asked him how he stays calm and memorises the lines, his reply surprised me, he said that he personally takes a deep breath at the start and once he gets going there are no nerves, and after the first few shows the lines and nerves are all ok, he also told me that a lot of very well known actors take drugs to calm them down, not illegal but prescription, this amazed me, I thought there was some kind of secret, but apparently not, he is a lucky one were nerves are concerned.
October 13, 2021, 3:25 PM · Deep breaths.
Full lungs can block and increase stress. And think we can be "drunk" with oxygen?
I suggest breathing completely out, waiting a moment, then breathing in rather slowly to a medium level. It worked with my young students, too.

The opposite of "panic" breathing.

Edited: October 13, 2021, 3:35 PM · Greetings,
Adrian, you are right about full lungs making the problem worse. Taking a deep breathe is not quite correct because the excess intake of O2 forces out Co2 which is vita for O2 intake to the muscles. So, yes pay attention to breathing , but nice slow breathes through the noses, trying for about five or six times a minute which is what nature imntended us to do.
Anyone can play the violin well at any age . You are doing a wonderful thing which will enrich your life for years to come so don’t give up. There is always a learning curve in every human endeavor worth doing.
TRy readin the inner game of tennis. It is really a question of focusing on one thing in a non judge mental way. The initial most important thing is going to be counting and rhythm so perhaps honing in on that area will help.


October 13, 2021, 4:08 PM · @Adrian, dont doubt what you say at all, just stating what he said to me, and what works for him, maybe there is a psychological factor involved? or perhaps not. I played several gigs in my time on guitar and never suffered nerves, but I remember our singer going to the toilet about ten times before we went on.
October 13, 2021, 5:12 PM · Just as you wish all of your partners to do their best, and are gracious when they inevitably make mistakes, you should assume that they wish the same for you.

Collaborating on music is about fun and expressing yourself fully with others, and perfection is the opposite of fun.

You should strive to hold yourself and any mistakes you make like you would hold the cutest kitten in the world.

Edited: October 13, 2021, 6:43 PM · If you've joined an orchestra and have no evidence to the contrary, then it is reasonable to assume that you're neither the best nor the worst violinist in the group. Often your seat is determined as much by seniority in community orchestras as anything else. That means you don't need to feel inferior or inhibited. You'll make mistakes, and the best players will too.

If your stand partner is of similar skill and general sensibility, inviting them over to read through your parts or play some duets sounds lovely too.

I also recommend you try to find YouTubes of the pieces you're playing in orchestra so that you can read through your part while listening and eventually play along. Yes you have to be careful about tempo and pitch but these things can be overcome if there enough recordings of those pieces to choose from. You'll calm down automatically when you feel more prepared -- that's the general rule for performances. The issue is that you're treating a rehearsal as a performance, when really it's not.

October 13, 2021, 8:27 PM · Big thanks to all of you. I've calmed down since this morning. I had a good talk with my teacher, who said the same as all of you are saying - I'm doing fine, everyone feels like this at some point, it's not a performance, and we will be doing a lot more of this in the future to acclimate us to playing with others. So, thanks again. You're a great group of people.
October 13, 2021, 11:25 PM · before I first played in a community orchestra, my teacher told me I was jumping into the deep end to learn how to swim. He said you could take individual lessons for another ten years, and you still wouldn't be much more ready for it, because ensemble playing involves so many other skills than playing alone does. The only way to learn is to jump in, flail about, do the best you can, pay attention, and you'll start to pick things up and acquire the skills. It's really worth it, as playing with others is so much more fun and fulfilling! Get as much experience as you can, accept your limitations while you have them, and you'll get better and better! It will be worth it!
Edited: October 14, 2021, 12:40 AM · Agree completely with Tom.

I assure you that you are better at playing both violin and viola than I was when I first joined an orchestra. I'd been playing for a year and a half, completely self-taught, and was in as far over my head as you care to imagine from that description. I did eventually get the hang of it.

It helps to think in terms of the big picture rather than just your part: hearing the rest of the ensemble should help you rather than distract you. A significant percentage of what I pencil into my part is cues from other parts. (Not necessarily writing out the notes; usually I just mark entrances and occasionally rhythms to jog my memory.) But also don't worry too much if you're confused in the first rehearsal -- that's what rehearsal is for.

October 14, 2021, 4:15 AM · Joining a quartet or a quintet is a brave step, unless a teacher has organised a chamber group specifically for beginners.
I think an orchestra (string or otherwise) is the natural place to begin.
You play everything quietly and listen to the others.
You will hear their best and their worst. You will learn where to pitch yourself - when to play loud with confidence.
Edited: October 15, 2021, 7:46 PM · Lots of great advice in the above responses. As with anything in life, you do the best you can at any time, and treat each situation as a learning experience. If it's a negative experience, look at the other side of the coin - what's the good thing about it that you may not have noticed before?

As someone once said, "I've never made a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong."

I know that when it's my turn to reach the gates of Heaven, the first thing I'm going to do is ask for a lawyer, so that I can sue my guardian angel for malpractice.

October 15, 2021, 5:49 PM · Greetings,
Sander, finding a lawyer in heaven would indeed be a miracle. Mostly is full of viola players rewarded for their patience with violinists.

Here are two quotes I am extremely fond of:
‘Dweck shows convincingly that the most reliable predictor for long-term success is having a “growth mindset.” To actively seek and welcome feedback, be it positive or negative, is one of the most important factors for success (and happiness) in the long run.’


What is the 3-D approach to problem-solving?
A: Define a current problem in a single sentence. List three general issues relating to the problem situation. List three issues relating to the people involved. List three issues that relate specifically to you and the problem. Choose one issue from each of your three lists of three issues. Now identify one or more options that are most likely to make progress in solving the problem. It may seem quite simple, but it works. The technique works best when the coach-mentor relies entirely on questioning to encourage the learner to work through the process.

How these do, or don’t, relate to you is entirely personal of course. I think in the first case, at the end of a session, if you find yourself slumped over your case feeling angry with yourself then try to switch the whole thing to a wonderful opportunity to get some feedback. For example, approach someone in the group with more expertise and ask them how you can improve in order to make a higher level contribution to the rehearsal next time. This will not only improve your playing but also build better relations within the group by showing your willingness to contribute. Never be afraid to ask someone for help with your playing. Most players love helping other players.
The second technique is just a generalized framework you can adapt as you see fit. It is very useful in refining your issues from ‘I screwed up and now I don’t know what to do’ into something more manageable that you can take to your teacher or frame as a question here.
Good luck with your marvelous artistic endeavors,

October 15, 2021, 5:50 PM · @Gordon Shumway. I completely agree. A beginner orchestra might take the pressure way down. In a small ensemble there is no place to "hide" and requires a higher level of proficiency.
October 15, 2021, 9:23 PM · "Greetings,
Sander, finding a lawyer in heaven would indeed be a miracle. Mostly is full of viola players rewarded for their patience with violinists."

Fortunately, some lawyers are also violists. ;) Both my stand partner and I are lawyers.

October 15, 2021, 10:59 PM · not the same. Rather, a viola player who just happens to have a law related credential and perhaps a Tort bow.
Edited: October 15, 2021, 11:30 PM · >Then she looked at me. “It must be hard to learn violin at your age.”

Rude and unnecessary. This was the blurting out of an immature player/person. Certainly not worth taking to heart. Please don't "toss the whole thing out the window." I have so many adult students quit after hitting a roadblock like this, before I have any chance of talking them out of it. The only downside to learning as an adult is the self-doubt that kids are too naive to fully experience.

It's good that you're even conscious of the challenges of quartet playing. You are partaking in a very high musical art, arguably more challenging than orchestra or even solo playing. As others have undoubtedly said, it takes time to get used to, and that's only with the three particular musicians you're playing with. It will feel just as awkward to start working with a different quartet, and then take time to get used to them as well. My advice would be to take some time out of practicing your part to instead listen to several recordings of the music while following along with a score (if available). will have several public domain scores of the standard repertoire. You want to feel like you're being "caught up" in the rest of the music, more listening than playing. Everything you do is a reaction to the three musicians around you.

EDIT: I misread "quintet" as "quartet". Just add 1 to every number I mention above.

October 16, 2021, 2:27 AM · Some years ago I saw a sign in the backstage area of a concert hall:
"The rehearsals are not for you to learn your part; they are for you to learn all the other parts!"
That is even more true for chamber music. A lot of ensemble problems come from not knowing whats going in the other voices and how your part relates to that. Studying the score is an important preparation. And in some places you can write cue notes that can help you enter right in relation to what is being played before. It can also be useful to make small notes indicating who has the most important part of a certain phrase.
Don't give up - chamber music is very rewarding.
October 16, 2021, 6:10 AM · Hi Michael,

Only experience can get you free from the uncomfortable feelings - so acknowledge these feelings as simply being part of the process, that cannot be skipped.

But besides dealing with your feelings, you can analyze your musical or technical approach to find out what the actual issues are.
If this is a quintet, there is probably no leader (like a teacher or conductor). This gives you the chance to demand to repeat certain places slowly for you and everyone to figure out, in more detail. Or try to play a section with only one of the others, in order to sort it out.

This requires that you know the score and are able to narrow your problems down to some key places. I would recommend taking the score and reading it, thoroughly, maybe while listening to a recording. You don’t need to go through the whole piece- try to remember the tricky spots that gave you trouble during the rehearsal. Now find out what exactly was the problem? Did it go too fast? Were you irritated by some other player? Which one? And why? You can see the point, I think.

Then, you have to keep in mind that keeping up the concentration is a matter of training (not of age). The younger I was, the harder I found it to keep up my concentration. Even during my first years in the professional orchestra, I used to be pretty exhausted after a concert. This doesn’t happen to me, anymore, while I make much less mistakes.
So, this, again, like strengthening a muscle, just gets better, over time, by itself.
You can try to find opportunities, though, to get some rest, for your mind. If there is a passage with many bars of rest, for example, you might let your mind wander and just count with your fingers. This can be very relaxing. Or write a little note in your music when to be alert for something.
It is important to identify the perfect moment for when to think of something coming up. It varies depending on the situation, and thinking about it too early is as bad as too late.
Then, never think back while playing! Always go on. Afterwards, you can go back and work on some place. If you think, this is crucial, and later I might forget about it, then it is your turn to interrupt the rehearsal.

And last, but not least, a good matching ensemble is supportive and doesn’t make you feel uneasy or dumb. There are some players who, consciously or not, have a tendency to indirectly make you feel bad. You can observe this, for a while, and either try to ignore it, or even look for other people to play with, instead. You should always feel free to ask questions without being embarrassed.

October 17, 2021, 11:47 AM · Lets don't exaggerate: Not every first session with strangers is embarrassing nor otherwise associated with negative feelings. I have recently (not so recently any more because of the pandemic, alas...) done quite a few fill-in sessions: somebody in a regular quartet was missing and I filled in.

It was never awkward. Most people who play chamber music are pleasant individuals with whom it is easy to get along.

October 17, 2021, 11:51 AM · All of this is wonderful, constructive, and practical advice. Thank you, I'll move forward, head held high, viola in tune, and do what I've always done in the past - I'll fake till I make it.

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