We are typically led to believe that being “nervous” is a bad thing. Indeed, most of the advice I’ve ever heard has been aimed at reducing anxiety. Over the years, I tried everything I could to get rid of the unpleasant feelings associated with performance anxiety. I tried eating bananas, drinking chamomile tea, imagining the audience in their underwear, sleep deprivation, practicing more, taking various supplements, and even trying to convince myself that it didn’t matter how I played. None of this, of course, took the anxiety away or did much to help me perform any better.
From studying with performance coach Don Greene when I was a graduate student at Juilliard and my own subsequent studies in performance psychology, I’ve come to understand that anxiety isn’t the problem we tend to assume it is. Things are more nuanced than this, and one of the problems is that most of us have never tried to use adrenaline to our advantage. By telling ourselves to “just relax,” we are actually doing us a disservice by implicitly confirming that the anxiety we feel is bad and to be feared.
Research on threat vs. challenge states have illustrated this in various ways, but the big question, of course, is how do you transform anxiety from a liability to an advantage?
Practice mode vs. performance mode
In the practice room, we have a tendency to practice somewhat mindlessly, merely repeating passages over and over until they sound better, making corrections, but doing so almost unconsciously. However, as soon as we walk on stage, we tend to get flooded by over-analytical thinking, criticism, excessive planning, and so on, which only serves to lead to a pre-occupation with technical details and an inability to play as freely and automatically as we are capable.
Are you familiar with the phrase “paralysis by analysis?” This is exactly what happens when we know that our every move and sound is under close scrutiny by others. The opposite of this paralyzed state is often referred to as “flow” or “the zone,” where everything just seems to “click” into place and our playing is easy, free, and effortless.
How do we make the shift from this over-analytical state to the quieter flow-like state? A tool that many athletes have used over the years is what performance psychologists refer to as a “pre-performance routine.”
“Centering” is a particular pre-performance routine that was designed in the 1970’s by sport psychologist Robert Nideffer, and adapted for performing artists by Don Greene. Centering is a way to (a) channel your nerves productively and (b) direct your focus even in extreme situations. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty quick and helps to ensure that you start each performance off on the right foot.
There are seven steps, each specifically designed to move you progressively closer to inner quiet, focus, and poise, and take you further away from fears, doubts, and self-criticism.
Step 1: Pick Your Focal Point
Select a fixed point in the distance, somewhere that feels comfortable. This point could be on your stand, the ground in front of you, or on the back row of the hall, or even could simply mean closing your eyes. A focal point helps to minimize distractions and avoid the temptation to engage in distracting, irrelevant thoughts.
Step 2: Form Your Clear Intention
A clear intention is in essence, a specific goal statement. What do you intend to do when you step out on stage? How exactly do you intend to sound? What, precisely, do you intend to communicate to the audience?
Use assertive, declarative language, such as “I am going to perform brilliantly, with passion and clear dynamic contrast,” as opposed to “I hope to play well.”
Do not use the word “don’t”. Doing so will only put the negative picture in your head and generate fears and doubt. For instance, when you say to yourself “Don’t miss the high note”, what’s the first image that pops into your mind? Missing the high note, right? What image pops into your mind when you tell yourself “Nail the high note?” Learn to focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want.
Step 3: Breathe Mindfully
One of the most powerful techniques for countering the stress response involves learning how to breathe diaphragmatically. When stressed, our bodies have a tendency to revert to shallow, rapid, chest breathing. Doing so keeps us in fight or flight mode. Diaphragmatic breathing is the most biomechanically efficient way to breathe, and furthermore, is conducive to activating what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system response which is our body’s antidote for the fight-or-flight state.
Step 4: Scan and Release Excess Tension
One of the most detrimental consequences of performance stress is muscle tension. As our thinking becomes more negative, our muscles tend to get tighter and less facile. And not just any muscles, but often the ones that we most need control over!
Scan your muscles from head to toe as you continue to breathe slowly and deeply, one muscle group at a time, releasing tension on the exhale.
If you develop a more acute awareness of muscle tension even in the practice room, and are able to control the degree of tension you experience in your playing, you will be able to retain much of this ability during a performance and will feel much more in control.
Step 5: Find Your Center
Are you familiar with the martial arts concept of ki or chi? In Eastern philosophy, chi is described as being one’s “life force” or energy. I know that sounds kooky, but if you have ever observed the movements of a great martial arts master or even some athletes or dancers, you will notice a presence, grace, and balance about them regardless of their size or physical dimensions. Not only is the feeling of being centered a very calming and reassuring one, but the mere act of searching for you center will quiet your thoughts.
Step 6: Repeat Your Process Cue
There is a tendency when stressed to hyperfocus on minute details. This may be highly desirable in the practice room, but can be paralyzing on-stage. The solution is to focus on a “process cue” or reminder of what it sounds, feels, or looks like to produce the exact sounds you want.
There are two possible ways to do this. One, you could brainstorm and experiment with words that cue up the sound/feeling/images of producing the beautiful sound, clean articulation, or solid intonation that you wish to produce. Examples of such words are smooth bowing, light fingers, even shifts, fluid, powerful, calm, or easy. It’s not the word that is important, but the resultant mental sound/feeling/image of performing exactly the way you want to that is key.
Thus, a second way to do Step 6 is to avoid using words altogether and merely hear, feel, or see yourself performing exactly as you wish.
Step 7: Direct Your Energy
By the time you have gotten to this step, you will have made the shift into a more quiet and focused mental state conducive to performing your best. You will have taken the edge off of your nerves, and in this last step you will channel the remaining energy that remains through some creative visualization into a dynamic and inspired performance. This is how you use the energy instead of trying to get rid of it.
Do a quick internal search for all of the energy that you feel in your body, and feel it gathering at your center. I often imagined my center and energy being somewhat like those plasma lamps that are sold at stores like The Sharper Image (Google “plasma lamp” if you don’t know what I’m referring to). Now, direct that energy upwards, through your torso and neck, into your head, and blast it out through your eyes or forehead like a laser beam at the focal point you identified in Step 1. Think of this beam as a conduit for your music and the energy that will convey your clear intention to the audience.
This may sound a little hokey, but have you ever met someone incredibly intense, who perhaps invades your personal space a bit, and looks at you so intensely that you feel uncomfortable and almost feel that they can see into your head and read your thoughts? That’s the same sort of energy I am talking about. Instead of trying to get rid of the energy adrenaline provides by relaxing, you can learn to channel it into your performance, and take your playing to a whole new level. Kind of like how public speakers are encouraged to use their adrenaline to project to the back of the hall or use larger physical gestures instead of trying to calm down.
When you first try to go through this routine, it may take several minutes to go through all of the steps. If you practice this for 10-15 minutes per day, however, and stick with it, you will begin to notice a difference within a week or two and find that you can center in 5-10 seconds. Some notice a difference within days. The key, like anything else, is consistency and persistence.
Many, if not all, of these elements can be shared with even the very youngest students, whether they get nervous before performances or not. Not as a means to reduce anxiety, but as a way to improve focus and clarity of musical intentions. You don’t even have to do the full routine – starting with even just one or two ingredients as the base of your new routine can be a helpful way to get started.
p.s. If you’d like more concrete techniques and strategies for learning how to “surf,” you might like Beyond Practicing – an online performance enhancement course that will provide more in-depth training on developing your own pre-performance routine and five other key mental skills that will help you become the kind of player who thrives when the pressure is on.
Domo, mahalo nui loa, and thanks for posting this very helpful information. I plan to later look into your e-work-book on “Centering”. I’m assuming that it will be similar to “being focused” but we shall see.
Again, thank you.
Yes! we have a saying in our studio: “Don’t think about elephants.”
Thanks for a series of great posts about anxiety and how to make it an asset. I’m not a musician (unless you count long-ago high school band), but I am a psychologist. I’m convinced that while severe anxiety is indeed debilitating, moderate anxiety is necessary to drive a powerful performance, or do almost anything valuable we’d rather avoid. I’ll be watching your blog for more–keep up the good work!
I wish you had a button so that I could post this on Linkedin. 🙁
Thanks, Erika. It’s a good idea…I’ll work on it.
Thank you for this great article. I will forward this to my son who wants to make singing a career and is very talented. However, his vocal performance is more inhibited by a lack of “stage presence”. He has always been shy and “stiff” in front of people. Once he begins to perform he says his anxiety disappears, but I still see his awkwardness. Can one be taught to “let go” and perform naturally when they have a general social anxiety.
I take piano from a wonderful lady who is retired from the university here. She is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about piano, but requires that we play in 2 recitals a year at her home. I will definitely try your suggestions as I always feel I play much better at home, relaxed and sort of zone out when I perform. The recital is in 2 weeks. Will let you know!!
Thanks Dr Noa.
I like the statement you made about focusing on what we want and not on what we don’t want.
I think it is the same ideology that exists in the law of attraction .i e our thoughts go a long way in determining what happens to us in terms of life experiences.If we think about bad things,then bad things will happen.Instead,we should focus on having a positive outlook,riding on the back of the anxiety that we are feeling.
Nice to hear another mention the law of attraction! I thought the same when reading through this helpful article and that particular sentence. It’s so logical.
I found your site two weeks ago. Yesterday I was able to take a voice exam without my hands shaking for the first time in two years of graduate study. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful piece – it really is about the value of nervous energy, not about trying to eliminate it!
That’s terrific, Ignatia! It takes a little practice to flip the switch from fighting to using it, but it’s a great feeling when we can use that energy to help us.
You are brilliant. You clearly described what my brain goes through all the time! I am looking forward to reading your material. I get so miserable with nerves the joy goes out of music. Thanks for writing on these topics.
Right on! I have been a performer and teacher for decades and taking control of performance anxiety, reigning it in for a positive outcome, is a frequent topic in my studios, both at university and private.
I have always repeated these same things to myself, and my students equally. For me, it’s a fluid process, not divided into steps, it’s like a beautiful long phrase with perfect direction and feel. Focusing on performance goals and success, desired sound, communicating emotion, and pure joy of playing really keeps the mind way too busy to be preoccupied with any negative thoughts or feelings. Doing that not only before a performance, but day in and day out during every practice session should be regular practice!
Interesting and lovely comment –
Dr. Robert Nideffer, the sports psychologist mentioned in the article is an expert on individuals’ performance under pressure, pressure being the key word. Under normal circumstances, one might be able to sustain the lovely flow and rich focus you describe but pressure changes the experience entirely!
Comment on my own comment – I think I erred in understanding your post. I think you and Dr. Nideffer are talking about directing one’s attention in a relaxed, right brained, within-oneself direction when confronted with adrenaline/anxiety – we do have a choice as to where we direct our attention when under stress.
So thankful for this article. I read this a few weeks ago and have found that centering has really helped me to focus and low my heart rate before my performances and auditions. I am wondering if there is any discussion on the blog for staying centered and keeping one’s heart rate down while playing? I play a wind instrument and find that even when I center beforehand, my heart rate rises as I play (in a way that it doesn’t when I’m not performing or auditioning). Any suggestions for this would be greatly appreciated.. many thanks!
Indeed, finding your center and approaching everything in a calm state can yield much better results. This claim is tried and tested.
I’ve always had a problem with nerves when playing – even for a small audience, but was able to cope as a student. Now, as a piano teacher, and especially over the past few years, nerves get in my way, even if I take a class with a teacher, so that I can learn more…… and I want to get over them.
I’ve been having difficulty playing for small audiences at masterclasses or workshops I attend once in a way and I’ve been working on learning to tackle my nerves so they don’t get in the way of my learning.
Reading your articles helped me a lot, at the last class I attended a couple of days ago – I just kept telling myself to enjoy the nerves, rather than tell myself I would not get nervous, and I was able to play – I plan on practising performing, and will be playing for audiences of 1/2 at home, more regularly, and hopefully, will be more prepared the next time I have an opportunity to attend a piano workshop / class. Thanks so much….
I used to study piano in my teen years and now, 28 years old, resumed it (adapted to squeeze in my tight schedule). I’m going to accompany my flutist friend on the piano in a charity recital next week and suddenly started to feel overwhelmed by performance anxiety. Luckily, I came accross this article. I’ll put it into practice right now.
Hi Noa, Thanks for this wonderful post! I agree with everything you say and it’s great to have so many people talking about this subject at last! I am particularly keen on ‘entering the zone’, ‘learning to surf the wave’, – ie what you call centering – being a technique we do not merely call upon for performance, but something we practice as much as our scales. I find refining the communication between left and right brain inspires such natural experience movement and phrasing that half of the grueling left brain work we feel we have to do isn’t necessary. I’d love to talk more and will certainly share and sign up for your posts. (I do a lot of work with breathing for cellists to help with performance issues, so glad to hear you mention this too) Thanks again!
thank you very much for this wonderful article and addressing this issue of NERVES when it comes to playing in fornt of an audience. 🙂 God bless you for sharing your knowledge to all .
Thank you so much for this article. I am calm while performing but prior to performances I have constant need to use the toilet. I pass a lot more water than i possibly could have drunk. then i feel tired, dehydrated and light headed. How can I work around this over active bladder issue. I have tried so many of your suggestions and yet this problem remains. All my life i have struggled with nervousness and yet performances are always good.
Would really appreciate your suggestions.
Interesting question. I’m afraid this is a new one for me. I’m not quite sure what I would recommend for this bladder issue; perhaps a physician might have some recommendations on what could be done logistically or physically? My main concern would be making sure this doesn’t pose a distraction, though the fatigue and light-headedness is certainly concerning as well.
Thanks Noa, for this brilliant article! I found it most inspiring, and i felt a lot of truth in it. I want to share my thoughts and experience about it.
I am tendentially a more analytic kind, left brain oriented. As a result, during piano lessons doubt, worry self criticism and negative projections often take over, and sometimes they reach a point where they can even disrupt focus. At those times I need to pull myself back, breathe up, distract from the negativity and try to refocus in a very short time.
In this respect your article has a lot to teach me. As you explained transforming stress and anxiety into controlled eagerness and exuberance, channelling that excess uncontrolled energy into a calm expression, has a lot to do with the attitude you have towards yourself, and the lesson/performance that you have to do. Yet I still find it hard to do in practice (today I red this just before the lesson).
To summarize some of your thoughts, I would say that one should practice with the left brain analytical skills, once the emotional image and the desired emphasis has been understood and pictured in your head, then polished up until it becomes like a story or a message that you feel ready to express, and finally giving in to the right brain where the focus is on the whole, on the flow, on the images themselves, without forgetting the help from the left brain correctly controlling timing.
Thanks for your great blogs!
Thank you so much for your advice!! As a violinist, lots of staple performance repertoire is riddled with fast technical passages, crazy jumps, intimidating double stops and chords, etc. Your second step specifically (being intentional about producing a good outcome, rather than being scared for when mistakes occur) helped me enormously in a recent recital. I’ll definitely make Centering a part of my performance routine!
Hi Noa – you say in the above article that centring is ‘highly effective’. Could you please point me to some research that backs this up – I’d be interested to find out what has already been investigated.
I think a good place to start would be searching for “pre-performance routines” in Google Scholar and exploring the various studies that show up there. But here’s a basketball one that I like that explores the consistency element of routines: https://shapeamerica.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640410701473962#.XTG0kC2ZNGE as well as an Australian football one comparing several different types of routines: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10413200.2010.491780