When you play music for other people, you are afraid that it won’t go as you planned, and you will feel pain and embarrassment. You’re afraid that people will think less of you. That’s a valid fear, because some people WILL think less of you, and that could be bad, especially if you’re a professional musician. Playing poorly in public might cause you to lose out on opportunities. If you are presenting yourself as a professional performer or teacher, your credibility depends on your ability to perform well. There is a lot riding on this.
What makes it even worse is that the fear of making mistakes will distract you from the present moment. The fear of performing will effect your breathing, your heart rate, and generally make you feel less in control of your body. The fear of making mistakes causes you to make even more mistakes.
What a horrible negative spiral! It’s surprising that anyone ever even tries to perform in public.
Is there a solution to this? Well, I can’t eliminate this problem for you, but there are some things that might help.
First, notice how you are feeling physically. Your heart rate is up. Your breathing is faster. Your hands might feel a little sweaty, or a little shaky. You might feel like you can’t sit still, and need to move around. You don’t need to fight against any of these things. Just notice your physical reaction to the situation.
Be aware of the stories you are telling yourself. Are you imagining what people in the audience might be thinking about you or your playing? Are you imagining yourself playing poorly? Running off stage, crying? Audience booing, or laughing at you? You don’t need to have an argument with yourself about how likely or unlikely these stories are to play out. But you just realize that these are nothing more than stories that you made up in your own mind. None of those things have happened yet.
After you’ve taken stock of what is going on with your body, and mind, it’s time to see if you can minimize the negative impact of the anxiety. Note that I said “minimize” and note “eliminate.” Most people can’t eliminate all of their performance anxiety. Just about everyone has at least a little bit of it every time they perform. Once in a while you hear a musician claim that they don’t get nervous at all, but if that is the case, they are in a small minority.
Often piano teachers will tell you that the way to minimize performance anxiety is to over-prepare. If you know your music inside and out, backwards and forwards, any time day or night, you will feel a lot more confident than if you don’t know it very well. However, over-preparing doesn’t address the problem of how to handle the anxiety when it comes, regardless of how prepared you are. The trouble is that this strategy rests on a false belief that if we practice enough, we will be able to be in complete control of what happens. Sorry, but you’ll never be in complete control.
So, you’re going to have to find a way to cope with the anxiety when it inevitably comes. My suggestion is that you try to build up a tolerance, by playing in front of people as much as possible. When I was an undergraduate majoring in piano in college, I gave two full recitals, and I was very nervous for both of them. I was happy with both, but both were scary and I was glad when they were over. In grad school before my first recital, my teacher recommended I perform my program several times, so I called around the state and I ended up performing it about six times before my school performance. I noticed that I was pretty relaxed when the “big day” came. Not completely relaxed, but more at ease than I had been in the past.
Sometimes piano teachers debate about things like: should you play the whole program on the day of the recital? I’ve had different teachers give me completely opposite advice on this. The answer is, it depends on you, and what works for you. The only way to find out is to try and see what happens. Each time you perform, think of it as an experiment. The more often you perform, the more data you collect. You won’t figure out what works for you after one performance. You’ll have to do it regularly, over a long period of time–maybe years. Experiment everything. What happens if you try out the piano before, versus if you don’t. What happens if you practice in the space, and what happens when you don’t. Do you feel better wearing a tie, or not? Should you wear high heels, or flats? There are a lot of things to try, so have fun!
My last piece of advice on this is that you look for safe places to perform when you are not “prepared” and don’t know what is going to happen. One way to do this is to improvise. Everyone can improvise, including the people who say “I can’t improvise.” It’s just a matter of letting yourself do it. (More on this later…)
Here’s a simple improvisation exercise that I learned from the music director at one of the churches where I worked as a pianist. For the prelude as people are coming in and getting seated, he told me to choose one of the songs from the service, and play it in a way that people can barely recognize it. I did this quite a bit, and it’s really fun. I also used to work in a voice studio where I was sight reading new music all day for each student. In both cases, the most important thing was to keep the music going. Nobody minded if I missed notes here and there, but stopping was a problem. Sight reading and improvising are two activities that teach you to be ready for all the different things that might happen.
Even if you are prepared, there are lots of things that can go wrong, which brings me back to my original advice: Perform as much as possible. The more you play in front of others, the more you will learn to trust yourself to handle whatever happens (including making mistakes). When you know you can deal with whatever situation arises, you will feel less anxiety. What do you do if you play a wrong note? What do you do if you’re using music and one of the pages is missing. Suppose it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re playing Silent Night and they turn of all the lights so you can’t see your music. What if you’re playing for an outdoor wedding, and the bride is flown in by helicopter, and your music flies everywhere? What if you start to panic and start making lots of really obvious, embarrassing mistakes? All of these things have happened to me.
Here is the too-long-didn’t-read version:
- Pay attention to how performance anxiety affects you. Just notice it, without trying to do anything about it.
- Try to build up a tolerance for performance anxiety by playing in front of people as often as possible.
- Find opportunities to play in front of people when you don’t know exactly what is going to happen. Improvising and sight-reading in public are good ways to do this.
- Treat each performance like an experiment. Gather data, make mental notes about what worked and didn’t work. Do this regularly over a period or years or decades.
I hope you find this helpful. If any of these ideas are helpful to you, please let me know. If you think I got something wrong, let me know.