I can give public speeches, perform in groups, and give many other kinds of public performances, but a solo piano performance has always been something I’ve struggled with.
When I started out in music I was a little nervous about letting people know that I was afraid to perform.
I wanted to keep it to myself. It’s embarrassing. No one else has to deal with this. Or so I thought. Through the years I’ve learned that just about everyone has to deal with performance anxiety at some level.
It’s not something to be embarrassed about. It’s something to work through.
Why Do We Get Performance Anxiety?
For some people with less severe forms of performance anxiety, just understanding what it is may be all that is needed to overcome it.
Fight or Flight
Back in our caveman days if a predator was chasing you, you would need to either run or defend yourself. In order to do this, our bodies have learned to send a rush of adrenaline and other chemicals to our brains. This response to danger also increases muscle tension so we would be prepared to fight hard or run fast.
Today however we don’t have to run from saber tooth tigers ready to eat us. But performing in front of a group can still cause our bodies to react as if we’re about to be eaten. It’s not very helpful now is it? Unfortunately almost all symptoms of performance anxiety are unwanted for a musician.
The audience is your enemy. That’s why your body reacts the way it does. Imagining them naked isn’t going to change that. By imagining the audience naked, you are fighting. The flight would be running out of the room screaming. Perhaps you’ve done that before. I wouldn’t blame you.
I suggest we do neither. Don’t fight and don’t run. The best way to avoid performance anxiety is to avoid the fight or flight trigger altogether. The audience is not your enemy.
Everyone in the audience, in almost all performance situations, wants you to succeed, not fail. So they are not your enemy. Yet because everyone’s attention is on you, your body perceives them as dangerous.
If you can convince your subconscious self that this is the case, your performance anxiety will go away. Pretty easy right? I wish it was. Some people may have the mental fortitude to just subconsciously see the audience as friends, but for most people, it’s not going to happen.
Almost all performers, even professional experienced performers, have some form of performance anxiety. Many strong performers argue that if used correctly it can actually be used to the performers’ benefit.
Perhaps the best way to deal with the adverse symptoms is to actually treat them individually. Let’s look at some common symptoms and find ways to deal with each.
One common symptom of performance anxiety is sweat. Sweat under the arms may be a bit embarrassing, but what can really be detrimental to a performance is sweaty hands.
This is one I always had to go through. My hands would drip. It wasn’t just because of performance anxiety, but performance anxiety was definitely a contributor.
There are antiperspirant lotions meant specifically for your hands. I always put it on before a performance, and it stops my sweaty hands every time. If this is a major struggle for you, definitely read my post where I wrote in depth about this topic.
Cold Clammy Hands
Surprisingly cold clammy hands are often made worse by sweating, and the above mentioned lotion can be effective in helping this. But what if your hands are bone dry and freezing? Your best bet before a performance is to hold something hot. You can buy hand warmers that work well. Gloves may help a little. But realize that your hands aren’t cold because it’s cold, they are cold because of poor circulation caused by the fight or flight reaction.
Solutions that help your hands stay warm may help to stop escalating anxiety before a performance, but you can’t wear gloves or hold a hand warmer when you perform. Since you didn’t fix the underlying problem, the second you let go of those hand warmers your hands will be cold again.
Controlled Breathing for Cold Hands
You’ll find that breathing is a common technique to deal with stage fright, but you’re probably not doing it right. For cold hands, try inhaling and then exhaling like you’re blowing up a balloon. While exhaling, imagine pushing open your veins and arteries. Watch the video below for an explanation of this technique. It’s meant specifically for cold hands. It works.
Memory is often one of the first things to disappear when performance anxiety kicks in. With all of those chemicals rushing to your brain, you may not be able to think straight. So what in the world can you do about it?
Don’t Stress about Specific Sections
Typically I would have a bad habit of getting a lot of anxiety before I would perform. Before the performance I would often go through the music in my head. That would in turn give me even more anxiety because inevitably I couldn’t get past the first few measures without the music. I would then have to pull out the music which stressed me out even more. If I was about to play this piece for a bunch of people without music, but I had to use music to get past a certain part, I would most definitely have a memory slip there.
And guess what? It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would always make a huge mistake at that same part. So what was my solution? Don’t go through the music in my head before the performance. Did it work? Well, yes and no. It was a band-aid. Yes I stopped making those simple mistakes early on, but it didn’t fix the underlying problem. I hadn’t memorized the music correctly to begin with.
Prepare Your Music!
You’ll often hear that proper preparation will minimize performance anxiety. For me this was almost offensive. Are you suggesting that I didn’t prepare? But wait, I’ve practiced this piece for over a year, I’ve performed it 10 times now, and I practice for hours and hours every single day. Don’t tell me I didn’t prepare. I put more preparation into it than anyone.
Regardless of how you feel about it, being unprepared is an argument that makes sense.
If you’ve ever taken a test completely unprepared, you know what that feels like. It’s not a fun feeling. So when a well meaning person tells you to prepare better, it’s coming from a place of love. While it’s true that if you’re unprepared your performance will suffer, it doesn’t mean that if you have performance anxiety you didn’t prepare enough.
Memorize Your Music Correctly First
This actually goes along with preparing properly. It doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t spend plenty of time memorizing, but perhaps you just didn’t memorize the piece correctly.
Correctly is the keyword here. When I was a student with performance anxiety, memory slips were common. But why? As I analyzed the situation I realized that if memory slips were common, I didn’t have the music memorized in the first place.
Memory slips are common to musicians that only have “muscle memory”. Muscle memory is the phenomenon of your hands just knowing where to go. You can’t play the music in your head because you don’t actually have it memorized unless you are physically playing your instrument.
You can’t think about it, or this “memory” will break down and you’ll get lost. Muscle memory breaks down whenever there is a change.
A phone rings in the audience, or there’s a loud cough, or you make a mistake, or you start thinking ahead in the music. These are all examples of a situation in which you may have a memory slip.
I’ve written extensively on how to memorize music properly. If you apply the suggestions in that post, you’ll find that memory slips will be a thing of the past. You’ll be able to play the entire piece through in your head. You’ll be able to write your music down note by note, if needed. If you can’t do this currently, you haven’t memorized correctly and you are risking memory slips.
Stop Negative Thoughts
You’re going to mess up. Really bad. So bad in fact, everyone in the audience will feel bad for you, and you’ll have to change your name. Don’t think like that! Ever hear of a self-fulfilling prophecy? The more you think negatively about your performance the more likely you are to perform poorly. Stop your negative thoughts by replacing them with other thoughts.
Preferably you want to replace the negative thoughts with positive ones about your performance, but sometimes this can be hard. Instead, just replace them with other thoughts. Any thoughts. Think about the new TV show you watched the night before, or what you’re going to have for dinner that night. The key here is to not allow negative thoughts and fears to dominate your attention.
It’s not bad to think about your performance, actually it can be one of the best things you can do, but if you can’t stop negativity, then it’s better not to think about your performance at all.
Breathe – No Really, Breathe
This was a huge light bulb moment for me. If you have performance anxiety, you know that you should breathe. One study shows that deep breathing before a performance can decrease anxiety and regulate heartbeat. But did you just take a couple deep breaths and move on? You have to have a system.
A well known breathing technique that is often used to help people get to sleep is called the 4-7-8 technique. You breathe in for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7, and then exhale for 8. Start off by doing this set of breaths four times. You can increase it as you become more familiar with it. It’s pretty simple, but very powerful.
Breathe While Performing
Maybe you already have a system of deep breathing before you perform, but have you ever taken deep breaths during your performance? For whatever reason I had never thought to do this. Breathing is a pre-performance activity right? But during performance is when we tend to hold our breath, so that’s the best time for them.
During a performance I started to get worried about a difficult section that was coming up. Instead of worrying I decided to take a slow deep breath. It felt a little awkward because the breath was not in time with the piece I was playing. I did it anyway.
Before my deep breath I thought for sure I was about to make a mistake. After I took my deep breath that feeling went away, and the performance went on. It calmed my nerves and my hands started relaxing. The difficult section came and went, and I played it just fine. Just as I had practiced. It worked so well in fact that I just kept on doing it.
Now I had a new concern though. I thought for sure everyone noticed I was taking these deep breaths and that it was distracting. I took probably 15 deep breaths during that performance. Afterward I asked a lot of people if they noticed my deep breathing. No one had a clue. It just goes to show that I was worrying too much. Deep breathing during my performance has become my best friend. It really changed the way I play.
If you’ve performed a lot, you’ll know that it is a practiced skill. You can get better at it over time. So performing as often as possible will help you practice these techniques and find others that work for you. It’s important to perform the exact piece you are going to play in front of as many people as will listen to you before your big performance.
If you make a lot of mistakes in these mock performances, stay positive. Try to avoid thinking negative thoughts, and definitely don’t say them out loud.
Wouldn’t Star Trek’s Holodeck be amazing for practicing performing? You could perform the actual piece you’re working on, in the actual room you’ll be performing, with holographic versions of your audience. You could practice all day long if you wanted.
Although our technology isn’t quite there yet, you can make your own version of the Holodeck in your mind that can help almost as much. Mental practice has been shown to be almost equal to actual physical practice. So why not go through your entire program by putting yourself mentally in the room you will be performing in? Do it in real time.
First, imagine yourself outside in the waiting area before you perform. Picture the chairs, the lighting in the room, and any other objects. Make it as detailed as possible. Are there people there? Are you talking to them? Imagine yourself doing your breathing exercises. Actually, just do them.
Then it’s time to walk in. Take your walk and give a good bow. Look at the audience. See specific people you know will be there. Imagine them smiling. They’re excited to hear you perform.
If you will be sitting, sit down and take your time. Take a couple of good deep breaths and begin. Go through all of your music in real time. Imagine yourself hitting all the right notes, and being confident. When you’re done, take your final bow and walk out.
I suggest doing practice like this when you’re by yourself, not in front of your instrument. Mental performance is also a great way to confirm that your memory is adequate for performance.
Practice like this more than once. Do it many times before the day of your performance. It will help you perform better, but it will also help you play better in general.
If you’re desperate, you’ve probably heard of beta blockers. A beta blocker is a class of drugs that basically helps to stop the fight or flight response. I would be lying if I told you I never tried them. Some people swear by them, others don’t. I tend to take the approach that there is an underlying problem that needs to be overcome and taking a drug is just masking that problem. In my experience they don’t help much anyway.
Many people believe that the extra energy that comes from stage fright will help you perform better. Forcing your body to be calm by taking a drug, can eliminate that good energy that is needed for your performance. I’m not going to tell you not to try it, a doctor in many cases will prescribe you them if you ask, but there are plenty of natural ways to help you perform your best.
Performance anxiety isn’t something you can, or should cure. You need to learn to effectively deal with, and minimize, negative symptoms while learning to work with the positive increase of energy with your performance. You must have tools that you can use when performance anxiety hits, and then use them regularly with your performances.