How Do You Cope With Performance Anxiety?

Getting nervous in a performance is not necessary a bad thing because when correctly directed, the nervousness could turn into energy and bring out an exciting performance. The causes of performance anxiety include lack of preparation, uncomfortable performance set up with the instrument or stage, afraid of making mistakes in front of audiences, unstable concentration and etc. I will discuss how experienced performers deal with performance anxiety, including goal setting, thorough preparation and the mindset towards a performance among many other suggestions.

Performing music is similar to performing sports in many ways. In his book, The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green applies many ways that professional golf players use to achieve the best performance in their game to performing music. He makes it clear that in every performance, there are the outer game and the inner game. The outer game is how the performance goes from the audience’s perspective and the inner game is how the performer felt in the show. Barry Green explains that “success in the Inner Game is very often the deciding factor between success in your outer game and failure.” [1]
The Inner Game of Music by Garry Green

P=p-i” is the Performance Equation in which, P is the performance, p is the potential and i is interference. It means that the bigger self the interference is, the less one could bring out the potential in a performance. Therefore, musicians should try to improve performance by reduce interference. Interference in the inner game include many worries such as self criticism, out of control, not enough practice, accompanist, instruments, audience, memory slips.

Green introduces the concept of “self 1” and “self 2”. Self 1 and self 2 are voices that one can hear in the head when performing or practicing. Self 1 is the self interference or self doubt that always say things that discourage the performer such as “this is out of tune, the instrument is not speaking well, I’m not well prepared, this performance is bad.” Self 2 does not worry about things that self 1 does, instead, it is the potential one has and wants to give the most musical and exciting performance.  We can think of the Performance Equation as the actual performance equals self 2 minus self 1. When self 1 interference is the least, one can bring out the most potential. So when the performer makes a mistake in the performance, he/she should not focus on that mistake which already past and could not be undone. Instead, he/she should get rid of the self criticism and be present in the rest of the performance and show as much self 2 as possible.

In order to reduce the worries that self 1 has, the musician need to be well prepared for a performance before going on stage to play. First of all, how one practice is how one perform, therefore it is very important to have enough practicing time and also practice in the right way. Some people find it helpful to set up practice time in the same period of time of the day while others find it better to practice whenever they find time. Even in the busiest days, getting as much practice as possible is important. It is also crucial to have a clear goal of each practice sessions. Keeping a practice journal is helpful for some musicians. There are many great ways to use a practice journal. One can write down the goals of the practice session and then write down how it went in the practice. Some people use a stop watch while they practice so that they could allocate enough time for different pieces or sections specially preparing for a long performance program.

Setting goals could be motivation for practice. One can set a long term goal, such as five to ten years, a two-year goal, the rest of the year, this week and today. The stronger the goals are, the more motivation the musician can get. In other words, if a musician really want to win a job in a major orchestra in the next ten years, which is a strong goal, he/she is very likely to have more motivation in practicing and would not be defeated too easily when a bad performance appears because he/she knows exactly what they are working hard for and it wouldn’t be easy but they are on the way to success.

The Art of Practicing by Madeline BruserMadeline Bruser mentions in the book The Art of Practicing that musicians should follow curiosity while practicing. She tells a story of her student performing a Bartok piece after practicing all the difficult parts systematically and the student could not remember anything except which keys come first. [2] Sometimes it is just better to follow one’s instinct to find what interests him/her most and then construct the practice session in that manner. Staying focus and aware in a practice session is very important because if the musician used to being absent-minded and doing things too mechanically, that will carry through the performance. Bruser also suggests to sing out the line in the music in the practice because it helps with hearing all the lines spontaneously in a performance.

Before a performance, musicians should always run through the entire program as if performing for people, in the practice. Whenever possible, they could ask friends and colleagues to listen to the “mock” performances so that they are used to having audiences listening. It is also helpful if they could get these practice performances recorded because they could listen to it and find out whether it is how they want it to sound in the audiences’ ears. Sometimes they would discover ensemble balance issues this way, so that they could adjust to it and during a performance they would not have to worry about that. Running through the program also help establishing the stamina for the actual performance. If the performance is 2 hours long, the musicians should build up the stamina enough for a 4 hour performances, otherwise they might injure themselves in the performance or simply cannot bring out the best of their performances. For similar reason, they should not practice too much the day of the performance, otherwise the muscles might get tense.

From practice to performance, the musician could also write an action outcome grid as suggested in the article “Imagining the Performance.” An outcome grid is a chart that has “planning, rehearsing, performing and afterwards” in the rows and “musician, performer, performing, this performance, parts of the performance and parts of the parts” in the columns. With this chart, the musician can put down what kind of musician they want to be in the planning, rehearsing, performing and afterward stages, such as “a refined technician, a scholarly type who would fit into a university setting or a probing genius.” [3] Similarly, they can think about what to expect to do in each of the stages during this performance, parts of the performance or even down to the most detail- parts of the parts. After writing the action outcome grid, they can focus on being who they want to be in their preparation.

When preparing a memorized performance, the performer should not trust muscle memory but know the notes in the music. If the visual memory is strong, they could visually see the memorized page of music when performing, but they also need the aural memory. After all, musicians are working with sound and they have to listen to how the line goes. Therefore, sometimes singing and hearing the line in the head might help with memory in a performance. Having many starting points in a piece could also help with memory in case a memory slip happens in the performance. Should there be a memory slip in the performance, the musician could get back to the next starting point in the music and continue the performance without thinking too much about what happened but focus on the music.

In Audition Success, Don Greene, suggests Brian and Veronica to do mock auditions in their practice. Weeks before the audition, they can already set up  set up “process cues” for each orchestral excerpts that they play for auditions. The “process cues” are words that link to specific excerpts that could help the musician to focus on the piece, either the sound or the emotion. For example, “posture,” “Breathe” or “flow” could be process cues for a particular piece. [4] When musicians start a piece or excerpt, they can think about the process cues that help them set the mood of the piece and whenever they lose concentration, they could focus on the process cues that help them get back into the music.Audition Success by Don Greene

Similar with setting process cues for the pieces, one could also do role playing. Imagine how one’s favorite musician would perform the same piece he/she’s performing, and act out the character. This is a very effective way to get self 1 away and to focus on the music.

Now, given the best preparation the musicians could have, they need to accept that every performances are different and that they would not be perfect every single time. They should give themselves the allowance to fail so that they would not worry too much about the notes. When a mistake happens, it is not the end of the world. Imagining the best performance they had before, it might not be the one that had least mistakes but probably one that was most exciting. The connection to the audience could not be ignored. Since no one performs the same in front of people. Sometimes the performers worry about how the audiences would receive the show. This worry is a sign of self 1 interference. If that happens, self 2 can tell the performer that audiences are not enemies but friends. The audiences are there to encourage the performer and when they are eager to listen, the performer should not bore them by overwhelmed by missed notes or even fear of being heard.

The performers can build up confidence by having a number of successful performances. The definition of successful performances could be different for each person because it could simply be playing all the right notes, or just setting up the right mood, or having the piece memorized. No matter how small or easy the goal is, if the performer could achieve it in the performance, then it is a successful one. After building up the confidence, the performer will focus on the sound of the music and becomes part of the audience to enjoy the music with other audiences.

1.       Green, Barry, The Inner Game of Music (New York: Doubleday, 1986), 11.
2.       Bruser, Madeline, The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart (New York: Bell Tower, 1997), 137.
3.       Caldwell, Robert, “Imagining The Performance,” American Music Teacher, Vol.41(3) (1991), 20-25.
Greene, Don, Audition Success: An Olympic Sports Psychologist Teaches Performing Artists How to Win (New York: Routledge, 2001), 26.


Originally written in 2012 by Julia Che