How to deal with Performance Anxiety

By Catherine Cowan | 23rd March 2018

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Performance Anxiety

Do you find performing music a thrill or do nerves take the joy out of it? To stress less and enjoy more has long been a goal of mine. Nowadays I feel at ease with performing in most situations but it wasn’t always so. Here are 5 ways I tackled performance anxiety.

  1.  Performing as much as possible
    At school, one piano exam a year was the only time I performed and it was simply not enough for my brain to ‘normalise’ the experience. As I got older I gathered all the opportunities I could, from joining a church group ‘performing’ to the congregation every week, to playing background music in a restaurant. There’s no doubt that the repeated experience of performing played a large part in my being able to start to relax and enjoy it. I recommend taking and making opportunities to perform, at home, at school, wherever you can. Also, why not record your playing?  Recording yourself perform a piece can create a similar feeling to playing in front of people, so can be a helpful way to get some practice.

  2. Spending time with people who are not anxious about performing
    Joining a gospel choir at college proved a turning point for me. I was surrounded by extremely enthusiastic musicians who couldn’t wait for their turn to solo and their joy at sharing the music was infectious. Performing music that you really love is also key. You’ll be less self-conscious as you focus on what a fantastic piece it is you’re sharing.

  3. Choosing a gradual path
    While some may like a ‘thrown in the deep end’ approach, most of us benefit from increasing the difficulty of a task gradually. Choosing an audience that you know will give you a warm reception is a great way to start building your confidence to perform. In our choir rehearsals we would whoop and cheer after each other’s solos as we all enjoyed and respected each other’s musicianship. The choir also gave me the opportunity to perform many times in the group before I took a simple solo, then eventually longer, more challenging solos. Perform music that’s easily manageable for you at first, before gradually increasing the difficulty.

  4. Being prepared
    I’ve written about practice in other articles. Suffice to say that the more well practised you are, the less chance nerves have of affecting your performance. Remember talent and resilience are not fixed at birth! They are grown in your practice. Violinist Pablo Sarasate (pictured), was perplexed at being hailed a ‘genius’. He responded ‘A genius? For the last 37 years I’ve practised 14 hours a day and now they call me a genius!’
    Its worthwhile practising not just your music but some popular stress busting methods too to see if they work for you.  Breathing techniques, exercise, yoga, and meditation are lauded for their ability to calm nerves. Two members of my band Vesper Walk, have a high energy ritual of ‘dancing-out’ their pre-gig nerves whereas I like to sit quietly, slowing my breathing and thoughts. We are all different and as a creative you’ll enjoy experimenting and finding what resonates with you.
    Taking life less seriously

  5. Taking life less seriously
    I see performance anxiety as the mind tricking you into feeling that you’re in harm’s way. In reality the only danger is that you might make a mistake in front of people. Deciding to allow yourself mistakes without judging is a very powerful mindset.
    Concert pianist Steven Osborne [pictured], likes to think of anxiety as a ‘friend’ and simply accept that mistakes may indeed happen. He tells himself “If these bits [of my performance] aren’t perfect, never mind. I’m not a brain surgeon; no one’s going to die. So I let go. And the funny thing is that in the next few days I find good solutions to the problems.”

    Remember a slip is nothing. What matters is there’s only one you. You are an original. No-one else can bring to the music what you do. If you can accept yourself as you are, knowing that you will continually grow and improve throughout your life, nerves will lose all their power over you.
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