Dealing with Performance Anxiety
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Playing a musical instrument has the power to bring so much joy and reward to our lives. There is nothing like the feeling you get from mastering an incredible piece after hours and hours of practice. Even for young or beginner students - the feeling of accomplishment gained through practice and hard work is so rewarding.
Performing can also provide us with feelings of exhilaration - nailing a performance after so much hard work is such an incredible feeling. On the flip side of that, though, even if we have worked incredibly hard and managed to gain mastery of our repertoire, we can still succumb to performance anxiety. I strongly believe that there is not a professional musician out there who has never experienced performance anxiety. It can manifest in many different ways, often physical - for me, it often means shaking legs or shaking hands (or both!), stumbling over something I KNOW in my heart that I can play without error, and mental blanks. I have even seen some young students so scared to perform that they literally freeze and refuse to even come up to the piano!
I organise recitals and different types of performance opportunities for my students several times a year. Before these performances come up, I discuss anxiety with my students and ways to mitigate it so that it doesn't overtake their whole performance. These are some of my top tips for overcoming performance anxiety:
This may seem like a simple one but deep breathing does wonders for bringing our heart rate down and making us centre ourselves in the moment. When you feel anxiety creeping up, this is one piece of advice that many people, even psychologists give: focus on your breathing. Slow it down, make it deep and purposeful. Fill your lungs completely, hold and exhale. Before you come up to play, do some deep, purposeful breaths.
#2 Be prepared
This may sound silly and obvious, however, if you are not well prepared, you will feel nervous. If you are well prepared, you may very well still feel nervous but it will be ten times worse if you do not prepare adequately before a performance. If you think that you can get up to perform and just wing it - the performance anxiety may very well kick in. If you have prepared well for a performance, you can rest assured that you have done everything possible to allow you to play well. Going into the performance with that confidence is far more desirable than going in simply hoping for the best when you know you haven't prepared.
#3 Nerves are normal
Remember that experiencing nerves in a situation like this is 100% normal. Nerves are a combination of a number of emotions and feelings; fear, anxiety, elation, passion and excitement all mixed together. It might manifest in a physical way, with jitters or shaking hands but reframe your mindset - this is normal. Breathe, you have prepared, this is exciting and exhilarating! Have the time of your life on that stage.
#4 The audience is on your side
The audience are not there to witness your failure with glee, they are there to cheer you on and enjoy the performance. They want to see a good performance and they are backing you 100% of the way. Maybe you were not completely happy with something in your performance, a phrase ending that didn't quite go according to plan, a slip of the finger, a missed bass note in a chord....chances are the audience did not notice. Unless your audience is completely filled with concert level pianist, I can assure you that those little slips went unnoticed. What matters for the audience is the overall experience. If you let those mistakes get to you and effect the way you play for the remainder of the recital, they will notice that and it will take away from the overarching mood of the performance. Remember, they are clapping for YOU!
#5 Ignore unhelpful thoughts
Allowing your mind to be taken over with negative thoughts after a minor slip or error will take away mental bandwidth from the rest of your performance. Your performance will likely suffer more. Instead, try to focus on the task at hand, ignoring those negative thoughts that try to push their way into your mind and deliver your performance with confidence. Remember, you have prepared for this and worked hard!