A Few Things Every Musician Ought to Know About Stage Fright

Think back to your last big audition or performance. What do you remember feeling, moments before you walked on stage?

Heart pounding in your chest? Butterflies in your stomach? Cold, clammy hands? Feeling light-headed, tight, weak, or shaky?

Perhaps you had trouble concentrating? Felt your mind racing? Doubts and fears popping into your head? A vague sense that something bad was going to happen? Kicking yourself for not practicing more?

Sound familiar?

Is It Just Me?

Well, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, you’re in good company. Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, and Luciano Pavarotti (to name a few), are reported to have struggled with performance anxiety at various points in their careers.

For what it’s worth, anxiety is pretty common even amongst professional musicians. In one survey, 96% of the orchestra musicians surveyed admitted to anxiety before performances. In another survey of 48 ICSOM orchestras, 1 out of every 4 musicians said that stage fright was a problem for them.

“Ok, fine, but the fact that Rubinstein struggled with nerves isn’t going to help me win an audition.”

Good point…but there’s more.

Will It Ever Go Away?

Well, there’s some good news and some bad news.

Bad news is that unless you’re a robot, zombie, or just don’t give a crap, you will probably experience some degree of anxiety every time you go on stage. “Say WHAT? You mean I have to suffer through this for the rest of my career?”

Well, the good news is that no, you don’t have to let your nerves control you, and you most definitely don’t have to suffer.

Have you ever had a performance when everything just “clicked?” Where you felt like you were in total control, everything just flowed easily, and you sounded great (at least until you started thinking about how well everything was going)? You may have heard of this referred to as “the zone.” Well, this magical state pretty much requires that you experience some degree of anxiety. No anxiety, no zone.

If you ever get to a point in your career where you start feeling nothing and walk on-stage as if it’s no different than going for a walk in the park (i.e. it’s just another day, another venue, and you’re just mailing it in), your audience is probably not going to get the best performance you have to offer.

Let me tell you a story that will help illustrate my point. My senior year of college, a few of us were preparing for a competition. To give us an opportunity to run through some of our repertoire, my teacher set up a small concert in one of the recital halls.

I decided to play the most challenging piece on my list – Wieniawski’s F# Minor Violin Concerto. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the piece starts out with parallel 10ths, and just gets trickier from there. Needless to say, it takes a lot of energy to stay focused through all three movements. I was feeling pretty good about it on this particular day, but was still pretty nervous. Not freaking out, but definitely a little anxious.

When it was my turn to play, I walked out on stage, smiled, and as I turned to look out into the audience, for a second, I saw nobody. What? Was this intermission? Wait, no. Sitting in the back right corner of the hall were two elderly women. My pianist stifled a giggle.

Instantly, my nerves vanished, and my heart sank. I didn’t know what to do. I seriously contemplated turning around and leaving the stage. It was finals week, after all, and I was tired and burned-out from a long semester. I really didn’t feel like playing this monster of a piece for just two people. I didn’t see the point. I tried my best to care, but I couldn’t.

As a result, the performance felt just like a casual rehearsal with my pianist. I was calm, relaxed, and didn’t experience any anxiety whatsoever. But I also sounded dull, uninspired, and ultimately, very forgettable. The musical equivalent of soggy Rice Crispies.

If you want your performance to really reach out and grab the audience, you kind of need that adrenaline to give it that extra pop and sizzle that is missing in the practice room. The problem is not adrenaline itself, but not knowing how to control, manage, and channel it effectively into your performances.

Why Do We Experience Stage Fright?

So why do we experience anxiety in some situations and not in others? If the two people sitting out in the audience were Isaac Stern and Leon Fleisher, my anxiety probably would have gone through the roof. What gives?

Well, the biopsychosocial stress model is probably the best explanation of why we experience performance anxiety.

“Anxiety is the product of a complex and dynamic cognitive appraisal process which actively balances an individual’s perceptions of resources, situational demands, and internal and external sources of feedback prior to, during, and following performances.  One’s appraisal of the demands of a performance situation (e.g. task difficulty, consequences of failure, others’ high expectations, and the perceived importance of the outcome) are compared with one’s unique individual characteristics (e.g. self-efficacy, trait anxiety, skill level, degree of preparation, and past experience), resulting in an overall assessment of the degree to which the situation poses a threat.”

What does all that mean? Basically, your brain tries to calculate the odds that you’ll nail this performance, and the odds that you’ll fall on your face. If your brain decides that you are probably going to do really well, you won’t feel anxious. Excited perhaps, but not anxious.

On the other hand, if your brain thinks there is a good chance you could crash and burn, you will probably be feeling those butterflies.

So What Can I Do About It?

Well, here are some things I’ve tried that didn’t help so much…

  • Trying not to care is not the answer (good luck trying to fool yourself anyway!).
  • Some take supplements like kava (I tried this a few times; didn’t notice a difference).
  • I used to deprive myself of sleep the night before, thinking that my being tired would balance out the adrenaline a bit. Will probably just make you cranky and tired on top of being anxious.
  • I tried drinking lots of chamomile tea before performances, even though I don’t much care for tea. This just made me paranoid about having to go to the bathroom at the worst possible time…
  • A friend told me that I should eat bananas, so I even tried this a few times. It just made me feel a little sick to my stomach (I’m weirdly finicky about banana temperature and ripeness).
  • Another friend told me to eat turkey explaining that turkey has the amino acid tryptophan in it, which supposedly makes you sleepy. But are you really in the mood to chow down on bananas, turkey, and tea 30 minutes before you go on stage?

Fact is, I haven’t seen any research evidence that the potassium in bananas makes any difference in your anxiety level before performing, and if you’re going to load up on tryptophan, it would be more efficient to eat egg whites (4x as much tryptophan as turkey), cod (3x), or parmesan cheese (2x) instead of turkey. But here too, I’ve not seen any concrete evidence that tryptophan reduces performance anxiety, let alone make you perform better.

“But wait! What about all of those people who swear that bananas, turkey, tea, etc. make them feel calmer? How do you explain their experience?”

Actually, they are probably telling the truth. These things probably do make them feel calmer. But not because of any special chemical ingredient in these foods. It’s called the placebo effect. Statistically, about one out of every three people who try something, will swear that it worked – even if it was completely bogus. Wikipedia has a nice page on the placebo effect if you’d like to read more about it.

But here’s the real kicker. A lot of people assume that reducing performance anxiety is a good thing, but in reality, the research suggests that this is actually not how things work. In fact, if you look back on your own performance history, you’ll probably be able to think of performances when you were too calm and too relaxed, and saw your playing suffer as a result.

Even more people (experts included) believe that a moderate amount of anxiety is best, and that too much or too little anxiety is bad. But…this isn’t completely true either. Some folks actually have their best performances when they’re pretty amped.

The key takeaway being, that reducing your anxiety or shooting for a moderate amount of anxiety may make you more comfortable, but not necessarily help you play better. This is why trying to relax is often not the answer. Being more comfortable being uncomfortable, is perhaps the best approach – as violinist Midori explains here .

6 Mental Skills

As you engage in more practice performances, there are a number of mental skills that can help with preparing for the unique pressure of performances and auditions. Like…

  1. Practice effectively: Learn how to practice the right way
  2. Manage nerves: Learn how to control your body’s response to adrenaline
  3. Build confidence: Learn how to build confidence
  4. Become fearless: Learn how to play more courageously (vs. playing tentatively and worrying about mistakes)
  5. Attention control: Learn how to quiet the critic in your head, stay in the moment, and focus past distractions
  6. Resilience: Learn how to stay motivated, become mentally tougher, and recover quickly from mistakes and setbacks

Once you develop these skills, you will no longer be quite as concerned about stage fright or performance anxiety. You may not be 100% comfortable, but it won’t matter so much. Your performances will speak for themselves – and they’ll feel more like an exciting challenge and a thrill than a threat!

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


94 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, and I want to say up front that all of your points are right on.

    However, I’m sure there are others out there like me who practice breathing, yoga, and take a beta blocker, only to STILL feel intense anxiety, and disappointment when the performance is so far away from your preparation level. My advice is to find ways to practice being in a performance situation. Lots of practice performances before the real one (where you force yourself into that anxiety state to see what will go wrong) is the only way I have found to make the real performance easier.

    Also, I think knowing in advance that you will be anxious is helpful – because then you’re not surprised that you’re anxious, and unprepared to deal with it.

    I might have to disagree that performances where one doesn’t really care come across badly. Sure, that CAN be true, but I find that it’s almost impossible to play my instrument without investing some serious physical energy into it. Some of the best performances I’ve given were when I was sick – and therefore didn’t have the energy to be anxious about it, and kind of had a ‘whatever’ attitude…suddenly, my preparation came through, and my brain didn’t get in the way!

      1. Hey, ive played violin for 8 years and been nervous for about 85% of my performances. This is really helpful. I will show it to my teacher. Thanks!

  2. Hello, I am a music education student at Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, WV. My emphasis is in piano. On selected Wednesdays there are afternoon recitals and each student must play in one per semester. It was my turn to play in one particular recital, and needless to say I was nervous. I played Bach Invention No. 13 and 14. I practiced very much, and I rehearsed in front of people on numerous occasions. These reahearsals went great. When it came to the performance I knew I was ready. 10 minutes before my performance I became very nervous, and started shaking. As I walked out on the stage, my fellow classmates clapped, which just made me even more nervous. I began to play, and it was great. I got through the first piece with great ease, and it felt great. It came time for me to play the second piece, and I knew I knew the piece very well. Well, I began to play and six measures in my mind went blank and I completely lost my focus. I’ve learned that when that happens I should find a good pickup spot and keep playing. As I looked up at the music great horror came to my face, realizing that for the first time in my life I didn’t know what notes were on the page. I paniced, slowly stood up and walked off stage. My mind was racing so fast I could think of nothing else to do. My hands were shaking, and I decided I could not go back out. I and my piano professor had a talk about the performance, and I had to simply forgive myself for the mistake. I know that I did my best, and that I played one piece amazingly. After I calmed down I realized that my colligues were very supportive. To me, times like these will make me stronger. I know that Vladimir Horowitz was terrified everytime he performed, even to the point that he withdrew from public performance for a time of 12 years. What we need to do as performers is know that we will have our great performances, our decent performances, and our horrible performances. Even when you have a bad performance we can only remember what the good part was, and keep performing. We must learn from our mistakes and not get caught in the mindset that we will never be able to have a good performance. Regardless of the performance, you will recieve great feedback from the people that know you can do it. I can now joke about my bad performance, knowing that next time will be better. People aren’t going to remember you for the mistakes you made, but they will remember you for the great things you can do and how hard you tried. Take my advice and you will find a way to overcome that anxiety.

    1. I experience the same situation as you except that I wasn’t nervous at all. Taking part in the Eisteddfod(a talent show competition) was what I wanted. So I signed up for the first time ever thinking I could nail this competition. I practiced hard. Both in school and at home. (I didn’t have a piano teacher nor did I have any piano lessons. I depend on my memory and my fingers.) When the big day finally arrived, I was let down when it was my turn to play on stage. I remembered the first part of my piece but after that my mind went total blank. I didn’t even know what I’m doing and the piano keys felt like strangers to me. It’s as if I never played this song before. So I start over. I stopped 3 times and at that moment I felt like giving up. I wanted to walk away from stage but my leg refused to cooperate. I tried playing the piece again from the beginning after 3 tries and now I really felt nervous. I don’t know when to press the pedal and everything just jumbles up together. It was horrible. But now I learnt that you really have to focus on the keys like ‘what should I press next?’ and that really helped me remember the song. Although my friends are supportive, they just don’t affect me. They don’t work on me. I had to motivate myself and I know I can do it. So don’t worry you’re not the only one.^^ I experienced it too.

  3. I have seen voice students repeatedly do their best in auditions when they were physically compromised in some way (not vocally of course). My theory (with no proof whatsoever) is that the body sort of naturally “rises to the occasion” and in compensating in a way for the physical issues helps the focus more.

    I appreciate your work here so much — and so do my students.

    1. Hi Stephen,

      Indeed, there’s this long-standing notion that our body (so long as we’ve been trained) has the capacity to calculate and make many small adjustments on the fly to compensate for situational variations and differences, so we can achieve the result we envision in our mind’s eye or ear.

      Thank you for the kind feedback!

    2. I’ve noticed this as well, but I think it’s for a different reason (of course, it’s just my opinion). I think that when we realize that we have a handicap, the consequences of failure are reduced because, well, neither you nor anyone else expects you to still do the best you can do. Additionally, this reduction in consequences causes “the zone” to be all the better, “after all that, and I’m still doing well, wow.” Just my thoughts

  4. In a few months I’m going to be competing on with a solo (tenor trombone) for the first time in ten years…due to nerves. Even thinking about it just about makes me shake with anxiety, but this article has helped me realise that it’s normal to be nervous. Thanks!

  5. Thank you for such a terrific article. I am a violinist as well, and I am wondering how to control the adrenaline on stage.
    When I perform, I experience all kind of situations: sometimes I fall sleep when I am performing (I don’t even have a clue about what I just did); sometimes, I begin to think -I am a violinist, Is this a violin?… sometimes I am not thinking in anything at all, and ask to myself -What I am supposed to do?
    Anyway, -is this normal? do you have a suggestion about what to think when performing?

    1. It can be pretty normal to “space out” when performing, but indeed, it’s not particularly helpful.

      As far as what to think about, the short answer is to think about things that help you play better – that help you sound the way you want to sound. One such ingredient is sound itself. To really listen intently to what we want coming out of our instrument. Something along these lines.

  6. I’m so incredibly happy that I found this website! I’m a freshman music major in college and this is my 8th year playing. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had difficulites with extreme performance anxiety. I would practice something for months until it was perfect and I could play it by memory because I had rehearsed it so much, but when it came time to actually perform my nerves would dismantle everything and all of my hard work would have been for nothing. Every performance is like this, even as I’m growing out of my other anxiety issues. It frustrates me because I know I’m a good player, but my nerves won’t let me showother peoplewhat I can do. It’s completely ruined my self-esteem and confidence as a musician to the point where I’m considering changing my major and putting away my clarinet forever. I’ve tried everything from meditating to taking medicine but nothing has helped. I just want this to go away or at least learn how to control it better. Are there any additional tips that might help me?

    1. I can really relate to your performance frustration. I thought maybe your interest in “..showing other people what I can do” is the main source of your performance problem. What if you only cared to make beautiful music, the way a flower is beautiful, whether or not anyone notices? The desire for others to see us at our amazing best can be crippling during delivery because it is a pressure-packed need. I suggest not to give any thought to those who are watching or listening; just play for music’s sake. Think about the piece the composer wrote as a gift you are going to interpret and give back…to the world and for your own listening enjoyment.

      1. That’s me. So worried about the audience and what they think. When I do have a good set, pretty sure I am comfortable with who’s watching. Tried everything. If the first couple notes out are pleasing, the whole set goes well.
        Also find there’s a balance between having an empty stomach before singing and being so hungry that my nerves are worse…. I sabotage 50% or more of my performances due to nerves…..

  7. Thank you for this great article,it really spoke to me.(sorry for the mistakes in the post,English is my second language) I am a double major student and I chose arts( playing the piano) as the second field in my university. It’s been 4 years since my first performance in front of people,and I still feel nervous and shaky and make mistakes (although improved a lot). I use Inderal before performances,but some of my professors and classmates say it is an “unethical” (do I say it right?) behavior for a professional,and that it is like Doping. Can i ask what is your opinion about this?

  8. My son William who is just 12 years old prepared the Martin Ellerby Tuba concerto for a regional competition. The other players were all 16-19. My advice was to choose something safer. Nuts to you dad he said (or something a bit more anglo saxon actually)
    He nailed it, because he was anxious but managed to channel it into his playing..very exciting performance which won him second prize with honours just behind an 18 year old brilliant cellist (who deserved to win)
    Of course he also had your nine rules in mind even though he didn’t know it!

  9. Going out for my 1st year masters recital in about an hour from now 🙂 Was searching for info on Bananas lol as I’ve heard that as well! Really great article, especially right now! Cheers, Rob

  10. This was very helpful, but I am still nervous.
    Later today I will be playing side-by-side with a Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra member in a concert at Heinz Hall and I fear that my playing will sound horrendous next to them. I have practice a lot but suddenly I feel that no level of preparation could have prepared me for this. Ahhh! I don’t know what to do.

    1. Hi Eli,

      Sorry I missed this! How did the side-by-side go? I had a mentor who kept reminding me that I can’t do better than I can do. He was great at just playing his game and doing what he could do, trusting that it would be enough. Because we can’t will ourselves to play better than we can play, and trying to do too much usually makes things worse…

  11. Thanks for such great advise.
    I’m a flautist and I have been playing for 3 years in my schools band and I’ve never had a problem with anxiety because I knew that if I wasn’t a little nervous I was mental. This week I am performing at a choir festival and I’m doing a duet with my friend Emily. My first performance we were both so nervous and had way too much anxiety. We have another performance soon but after being so nervous and messing up, neither of us want to go on stage. Is there any way to calm out nerves just enough so we can concentrate?

    1. Hi Ellie,

      There’s no real quick fix for eliminating nerves, but there are a number of skills and strategies you can learn and integrate into your preparation that can certainly make performing a different experience than it otherwise would be. Have you developed a pre-performance routine like “centering?” That would be a good place to start, if you haven’t already.

  12. What a great blog. Found it through a musician friend, and I can apply almost every topic to my area, flamenco dance.

    My problem is that I’m rarely nervous before a performance, I stay totally calm – until 5 minutes before I have to walk out on stage. Then stage fright takes hold of me, usually for the entire duration of the performance, and I’ll make mistakes that would never happen to me in practice. On stage I’ve never been able to get in “the zone”, I’m too terrified. My muscles tense up and I’m not able to dance properly, and I become exhausted and out of breath much more quickly than in practice. The legs feel heavy as lead and my feet won’t move properly!

    Nevertheless, I’ve found your posts on practice very encouraging, I will try to apply them in the future, maybe it will help me feel more secure when I perform.

    Thanks for a great blog!

  13. Great article, thanks. I’m a violinist and have suffered from a shaking bow arm but find that if I focus on breathing from the disphragm, walk on stage very slowly and really take my time tuning and then control my bow through arm weight without any tension then I don’t shake. The shaking only happens if you actively try and stop the fight or flight response, for example, really gripping the bow with the fingers,
    – no tension and acting calm and confident = no shaking

  14. I play the piano. I never feel nervous right until I walk onto the stage. When I was younger, I used to get lost in the music and space out until I played the last chord, then I was like “Oh, I’m done”. When I did this my parents always raved about my playing, saying it was full of feeling and I hit all the notes right. Now for some reason, I can’t lose myself anymore and I over think it and mess up. Today I played a piece at a rather casual recital that I am working on for my exam, and I have been practicing it every day for over a year. When I am practicing or at my lesson, I never falter, but today I got through the first two lines, then had a mind blank. I had to go back to the beginning, but I got to the same place before my fingers slipped up again, so I just ended it there. This never used to happen, and I know I’m only messing up because my hands are shaking from nerves. Help!!!

  15. Everyone gets stage fright or nervous before a performance. That is why preparation is so important. The more your prepare, the less nervous you will be.

  16. I have a show in 20 minutes and I am not memorized. I know what happens, and I’ve dealt with this before. I find that, after my first big production over the summer, remembering that this show is small helps me. Now, this isn’t not caring; this is knowing that I have successfully performed a larger part, larger monologues, harder language (it was Shakespeare). That reminds me that whatever I am thinking about how I’m going to fail and forget my lines isn’t true. That I’ve accomplished something even bigger than this!

    I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have a show that is bigger than my summer production, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

    Thanks for the article!!

  17. I’m a professional player in a leading European orchestra. We have a music director who demands things are done his way and no other; who expects perfection and performance energy in every rehearsal, yet will change his mind from rehearsal to rehearsal and pick, pick ,pick! I find (as do others) that this makes rehearsals very frightening, unrewarding from a personal perspective in that one can neither express oneself (it conflicts with his ideas…) nor experiment and by the time the performance(s) come round everyone is cranked up, exhausted, brow beaten and terrified of making mistakes. There’s no more to give. If things don’t go exactly as directed or rehearsed there are personal interrogations. There is simply no margin for taking risk. Nothing I have tried with this conductor seems to either diminish the anxiety or turn that anxiety to positive, productive good whereas with other conductors I achieve that very well; it feels entirely different. Maybe time to leave?? I

    1. That sounds like a really difficult situation. Sadly, I suspect there are more than a few others out there who can relate to your experience.

      I wish I had a solution, but I don’t know that there is much you can do to change the situation itself. At times, the only thing we can control is what we choose to focus on, and if you can manage to focus only on those things you have control over (like your breathing, what you listen to, what you pay attention to, etc.), I wonder if that might help you feel a little less powerless…

      Good luck!

  18. Thank you so much!! I have a performance tomorrow night at a gala/fundraiser event where hundreds of people will be watching me. I play the violin. I teach violin. I’ve played and performed for over thirty years of my life and still feel like I’m going to completely lose my mind before I get out on stage. It has never gone away. I always get the most horrible sweaty palms, and my biggest concern is my fingers sliding too far when I’m shifting positions. I’m also a perfectionist and very unforgivably hard on myself. But I’ve found that it usually doesn’t sound as bad as I think it did. I’m always searching for perfection in my playing. But found that really, I must let it go and try and enjoy myself and lose myself in the music. It’s just so HARD to do. I have no advice except I’ve found that if I try to enjoy it, and my piano accompanist gives me a pep talk beforehand (he always rolls his eyes at me and thinks I’m utterly ridiculous for having these awful anxiety issues) I usually do just fine. It isn’t perfection, but playing for the FUN of it. 🙂

  19. What wold you have felt if the two women in the back of the recital hall had been hot young babes?

  20. Very good points. As a professional and regularly performing concert artist, I’ve discovered that nerves, excitement, fear, anxiety and a host of unwanted crazy emotions always show up prior to and sometimes during a performance. I’ve learned to allow and focus; allow they are there and then focus on the music at hand. I do my best not to fight them because that always seems to give them even more power. But the first point is the most important-preparedness. If the body is strong and sure in the motor skills of the performance, it can power through 99% of the anxiety that accompanies artful performance.

  21. Hello.
    Okay I have crazy nerves/no confidence issues. I have that stereotype sob story where my Dad is really critical and I just want to impress him, and my old orchestra teacher hated me for some reason, but I feel like that shouldn’t be making me this screwed up. Like, even playing an easy song for my grandparents makes me nervous. (I mean, I also shake for 20 minutes if I work up the courage to raise my hand in any class so…) Anyways, whenever I play something hard where there’s pressure, I normally come out in tears. Even if I think I did okay, I start crying. (It’s super embarrassing.) But I don’t really even care about that. I just want to stop shaking in the performance. And my brain freezes so I can’t get into the song, I’m just kind of going off muscle memory. My current orchestra teacher has been working on this with me (he’s also like my therapist) and says I’d be amazing if I could just get my head out of the way and play. But I don’t really know to remove my head without literally removing my head…
    Anyways, thanks. I’ve read just about everything you’ve written and it’s helped me with practicing better and memorizing songs and stuff like that. Nerves are just my fatal flaw that I can’t seem to get a handle on.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Sounds like the nerves really get in the way of your performances. It’s not a fun feeling at the moment, and I know that right now what I’m about to say might sound impossible, but it is possible to get to a point where you can turn the nerves you feel turn into more of an excitement-like state that adds to your performance, rather than the awful feeling you try to fight off. Have you tried practicing “centering” (a.k.a. a pre-performance routine)?

  22. Interesting perspectives. I am a non-performing musician because being in front of others or the focus of attention in any way hampers my ability to play. Music is how many of us free ourselves from expectations and the demands (real and imagined) that others impose on us. Bringing that dynamic back into the communion with our souls that music provides is what I believe leads to performance anxiety…and regardless of what one poster remarked about just playing beautiful sounds, it is a performance no matter what.

    I also believe that performance anxiety is why some professional musicians have turned to mind-altering substances. Note that I don’t believe this is a good choice, but may be one underlying cause (or possibly excuse) for substance use/abuse. It wouldn’t make me a better performer (mind-altering substances would create MORE anxiety for me) but I think it does create the psychic space for some to not feel the burden of audience expectations and approval.

    I have recently just been able to use music recording software. At first my performance anxiety was such that just performing for the software even caused issues. However now that I know I can do some editing it has actually helped me relax. The problem is that in a “live” setting there is no editing. For many of us, audiences and stages are just unbearable. Fortunately I am not a professional musician so I’m not starving! Perhaps in the future I can play with others who have a similar mindset and if anyone wants to listen, that’s fine. If not it’s ok, but it could be that we just need to be sure what we’re playing really has some transcendent musical quality in first place so that the “show” resembles more of a consciousness magnet than a defined, staged event.

  23. Hey you guys I’ve experience the same things, and I have 4 performances coming up I have a Flute Ensemble Concert, My Clarinet Recital, Wind Ensemble Concert ,and I’m playing on someones Recital. All of this is next week April 21-26!!!!! When I think about all of what I have coming up it makes me float. I really need some advice on stage presence, I want to sound good, and touch my audience at the same time. This monster inside of me can make me feel shy………… Sigh

    Please Help Me

  24. Hi, i would like some quick advice for my really awful nerves.

    Here is the quick details, so I’m a high schooler and i play the violin. sometimes we are asked to play a certain part by ourselves to make sure we know what were playing in front of the whole orchestra. When my turn to play is coming up my heart just starts freaking out and my hands are not steady at all. When i try to play, even when i know the part, i can’t hold my bow steady and my fingering is pretty bad.

    My hands will literally shake violently and I can hear my heart in my head.

    Even when I know the part, and i tell myself i can do it this still happens. Please help!

    1. Hi Jenny,

      Playing in front of a whole orchestra can be nerve-wracking indeed! For what it’s worth, what you describe is actually pretty normal. That being said, I’m afraid it’s not something I can make go away in this comment box! However, there are a ton of resources out there (aside from this blog of course =) ) that can be helpful in developing the skills that will serve you well both on and off-stage, in and out of music, in high school, college, and beyond.

      Don Greene’s Fight Your Fear and Win and Jason Selk’s 10-Minute Toughness are two good places to start.

  25. Pingback: blooms today
  26. I have a big gig tonight – I have been feeling nervous today.
    I’m an experienced performer but all of a sudden I’m very anxious 🙁
    Reading all your comments have given me an understanding that we all share the same thoughts & feelings !
    That’s enough to take the edge off my nerves tonight ! And help me focus on channeling my energy in to my performance .
    So thank you all for you sharing .
    You have helped me

  27. I have stage fright but I tryed out for the talent show like a idiot and im singing but I dont even like to sing in front of my family help!!!!! Idk what to do

  28. Thank you so much for this article. I had the worst night of my life at my last gig when I suddenly had stage fright. I forgot my first song and then completely forgot the lyrics AND the tune to another. It was horrendous. Very very frightening and I wanted to give it all up but instead I put it down to not rehearsing enough. Your article made so much sense. Thank you

  29. As a vocalist, I find that stage fright helps me to perform better. Unfortunately, I have lost the ability to work up any kind of nerves for an audience of less than a few hundred. less than that, and there is no sense of the potential for failure. Without the potential for failure, there is no potential for success.

    There is nothing quite like the rush of the thunderous applause of a huge audience.

    I can always pull together a great performance, but the truly magical ones require a bit of fear to push me over the edge. It allows me to access some deeper level of performance and pushes me into the zone.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Alan.

      I might be going on a bit of a tangent here, but your point about the rush of hearing applause got me thinking. Some folks get to experience this in the context of athletics, maybe sometime even in public speaking situations, but wouldn’t it be cool if every child was able to experience how awesome it feels to work really hard, get up on stage, and perform in such a way that garners this sort of response? I feel like this would be a hugely empowering experience not just for kids, but adults too. Rather than trying to get more people to fill seats, I wonder what would happen if we could empower more people to get on stage…

  30. Fantastic site, relaxing to read that I am not the only one struggling in performances or when rehearsing with others. Reading all the blog entries and comments from others helped me to understand more about the problem. Particularly interesting is that people often refer to “had to rely on muscle memory” when being able to play well, although being close to a nervous breakdown and “being in the zone” as the opposite experience. Having experienced lately what I believe “being in the zone” might mean, though only for a few bars at a time, I get the feeling that “muscle memory” and “the zone” are actually the same thing. In both cases your brains “sings” the notes/music and activates the approbrite muscles so your body “dances” to that music. The dance is what you learned in practice. The musician taught his body to move in a certain way according to the music. So the tick in performances would be to allow your body “to dance”. Have to think more about this but I like the concept?

  31. Very nice post. For me it boils down to a simple phrase: confidence through competence. What is it exactly that makes me anxious from a particular task or event? I like to break apart the elements and analyze them one by one.

    With live performance, there are many things that can go wrong.

    When it approaches 7 or more floating concerns in your mind, I think paralysis sinks in. To combat that, I like to create checklists for myself which let me outsource my thinking and give me confidence in my processes. I have checklists for everything!

    But I still get anxious from time to time. And I think that’s not only normal, it’s a great opportunity. It means we still have things to overcome and learn.

    For me, a lot of anxiety seems to come from not having a visual memory to replay. This is why before an important meeting or date, I’ll generally drive to the location and front-load my brain with it. Familiar things feel good, so why not get a leg-up by taking some of the ‘new’ away? Gone are the basic questions — “Do I know how to get there?”, “Will I recognize the street sign?”, “Am I able to find parking?” — little things like this can add up big time and make your palms sweat.

    I vividly remember the first time I played music on stage as the frontman of my crummy rock band. It was different than sitting behind the drum kit in Jazz band all those years. I was exposed, vulnerable, flooded with adrenaline, but prepared to make some mistakes (it was rock music, come on — the whole thing was a mistake!) Jk. But after a while, I remembered what it felt like to be on stage, and the fear when way down. I was able to enjoy it. A lot!.

    I remember the looks of the people as they sipped their drinks and talked with their friends. I remembered what my guitar and hands looked like under the stage lights. As these things became memories that I survived through, fear turned into love.

    Just my two cents! Confidence through competence. Crush your fears by getting good, I say!

    Thanks for this wonderful post –

  32. Hey Noa!! What an informative post!! Before going to stage if a person feels anxiety it all depends upon him if he/ she takes it to the normally or get afraid of it. The tips you have shared are awesome that can be helpful for a person who is going to participate in an audition or a contest.

  33. In my situation I am an trumpeter just out of middle school. On Friday I have a Memorial Day assembly in which one in the four trumpets in my grade plays taps in from of 527 kids. They auditions for the part are coming up soon and I really want the part. The only problem is o have trouble just playing in from out out band. Our band only has 17 kids. Is it wrong to be scared of even that? My teacher says I can play it perfectly and if I play it like that I have the part in the bag. But once I start in from of the class I start to shake and get wrong notes. From reading this I now know that my anxiety may actually help me instead of making me fail!

  34. I have been playing professionally for almost thirty years now and in the beginning my stage fright was almost paralyzing. Even the simplest of pieces was fraught, my hands would be wet with sweat and shaking, I’d be sick to my stomach, etc. After a while I gained more confidence due to my partner and other musician friends and the amazing kindness of many, many audience members supporting me. But at a festival one day an act consisting of three very young people lately graduated from a very well respected “folk” music school went on after us. I was thrilled with their performance, they were just wonderful players… and then I noticed that fiddler was wearing a hearing aid. For some reason this triggered every bit of fear of playing that I had ever had. I ended up in a bathroom crying my eyes out and feeling very strongly that I would just never, ever play my fiddle again, I’d just stick to my easier instruments and leave it home forever.

    But, we have several pieces that depend on my fiddle, I really love them and wanted to keep playing them and I resented that fear could stop me from doing something I loved so… I turned to Emotional Freeing Technique.

    EFT is an “energy” technique whereby you can “defuse” fears or other traumatic feelings by focusing on the problem, tapping on specific acupressure points and saying phrases that relate to the issue- or you can just tap, you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to or don’t know what to say.

    It took me three days of about an hour and half each day to completely disarm my stage fright relating to fiddling. The first day I tapped I bawled my eyes out again and couldn’t even bear to have the instrument, in its case, in the same room. Next day, that wasn’t a problem but I still cried and couldn’t quite deal with looking or touching my fiddle. Next day? No problem. I opened up the case and tapped and tapped and tapped and by the end of that session all my fear was gone.

    What replaced the fear surprised me. It was the realization that even though I’ll never be a “great” fiddler, in fact I’ll always be a low to intermediate player of that marvelous instrument, but that no one else in the world will ever play the lines I play, come up with the parts I create or be able to support a song or tune the way I do. I was very interested in this development of my understanding of music in general and in my personal part to play in music, too.

    Also, the work I did on this one instance pretty much ended my stage fright. I still get anxious sometimes but it’s a “good” anxiety, more of an excitement about performing, an eagerness to get on stage and have fun with my partner and our audience- or just with each other if it’s not a great gig.

    I highly recommend learning EFT for anything that ails you. I’ve been tapping for well over 12 years now and have used it on everything that has bothered me including childhood sexual abuse issues, illnesses like colds and flus (really helps the healing process!) and all kinds of emotional problems. It’s free to learn from the net (I can post links if anyone is interested) or you can find a qualified practitioner and really get stuff done fast. The neatest thing about it is that it can be virtually pain free no matter what trauma you’re facing. Even war veterans are getting tremendous relief from severe PTSD through this silly looking technique. Do give it a try! It’s not hard to learn and you’ll know pretty fast if it’s going to work for you.

  35. This article has been most helpful to me, I’m am 12 in 7th grade and I just started because I diddent do it last year. I know how it feels to be really scared to perform in front of even my on teacher, I’m like the worst sounding person in our band, but I know everyone diddent start out to be good and that when people say practice thats the only way to get better it’s true. If I diddent practice at all I wouldn’t have caught up. So do your very best and give tour best effort, if you need up just keep playing, the audience won’t tell if you acadently played and “F” or “F#”. (Btw I play trumpet)

  36. So, I have always had a problem with controlling my nerves. This past year my nerves have gotten 10x more extreme. The other day I was asked to play a piece of music on my French horn in front of the class and I physically started shaking and I was playing all of the wrong notes. It was so embarrassing, because I know I can play that piece flawlessly. I don’t know how to calm myself down to where I can play like I practice. I’ve tried numerous techniques including eating bananas, breathing, etc. Nothing helps. Any advice or calming techniques??? It would be much appreciated.

    1. Hi Megan,
      Yes, that’s a terrible experience. Happens to me too way too often and like everyone else I try to find the answer to “Why”. I guess the trick is to take your mind off the technical side of producing the notes and music and “sing” or “feel” the music. I sense that is what great professional musicians do. The problem is that during practice we exclusively focus on the technical side of music making, which key to press for how long and stuff. But on stage that is completely secondary as the audience only hears the sound/music that comes out of your instrument. Every now and then I accidentally get into this mindset for a couple bars that I forget about focusing on reading the notes but following the music in my head and every time it blows my mind away how easy it becomes to play difficult parts. Unfortunately I snap out of this immediately when I become aware it is happening. If I find out how to actively get into this mindset I will let you know.😀

    2. Well, what has really helped me get past or heal specific instances of stage fright or performance anxiety has been a combination of things. I got beta blockers for the general stuff and that helps enough (though it really messes with the “high” of performing so I don’t like to use them) but what really helped and still helps me when I need it is Emotional Freeing Technique. It’s often called “tapping,” too. It looks and feels ridiculous when you’re first trying it but for me it’s the only reason I’m still playing fiddle. I’ll never be a great fiddler (started in my late twenties, don’t have a lot of natural aptitude and my body hates the darn thing so practice time is limited) but I can do simple things that support a song or tune. Anyway, at one point I got super discouraged to the point of simply being unable to even open the case let alone play. It’s not my main instrument (which is hurdy gurdy) but it is integral to a few of the arrangements I do with my partner and not having the instrument available was just not really going to work so… I had to face up to my issues. It took me about three hours over a period of three days using EFT and at the end of that time I was okay to play again.

      It is a process, it takes persistence and a willingness to listen to your internal voices without censorship or resistance, and a willingness to go where you need to to defuse the issue/s. That can be scary, especially on your own. I tend to love the process of pushing through crap (years of therapy and a lot of success on a wide variety of problems) so it’s not that big a deal for me anymore but if you’re just starting this process it’s often best to find someone who knows how to get you started in a gentle, non-hurtful way. BUT, if you don’t have much money, you can learn EFT off the net for free. Let me know if you’d like some links. I share them out all the time so it’s no biggie.

      Other very helpful techniques are EMDR and Tapas Acupressure Technique. Combining these with EFT can be like magic at making issues of all kinds just melt into nothing. I do hope you’ll consider giving any of these a try.

    3. Hi Megan,

      Sounds like a rough day. It’s always frustrating when things feel (and sound) so different in front of others, especially when it’s our peers. I’d be curious to know more about what has changed in the past year that may be making nerves feel worse. To see what the underlying situational factors might be that make performing feel more challenging. Something that changed with technique? Expectations? Feeling more pressure for some reason?

      There are also things that might be helpful to adjust in the practice room. For instance, how do things sound when you pick up the horn, and after a short warmup, do a recorded run-through or “mock” for a friend first thing in the morning? Rather than trying to find ways to be calmer in performance, it’s often more effective to find ways to feel more pressure in practice, so you can find ways to play closer to your best even when you’re feeling uncomfortable. Paradoxically, the more comfortable you can get with feeling nervous, the less nervous you tend to get. But this can sometimes be a slow process, gradually building successes from low-pressure situations, to high-pressure situations over time.


  37. I used to play cocktail bar music for an annual dinner in my industry — about 600 people. For me it was low to moderate pressure because I knew they weren’t really paying attention to me. They were busy chewing on the hotel’s rubber chicken.

  38. I just found this blog and, oh wow, what amazing information! Thank you, Dr. Kageyama.

    I have two thoughts.

    1. I love “stage fright”. I don’t want to ever get to the point where performing is just another day at the office. Some people jump out of airplanes, some go on roller coasters. They all feel *something*, because why do it otherwise? Why go on a roller coaster if you won’t feel the exhilaration? I don’t want to jump out of airplanes; I perform music for my high.

    2. My piano teacher taught me to start every practice session playing something at concert level. Without warming up, sit down and ~perform~ something from memory. This way, your body gets used to “performing”. I understand that instruments other than piano do require warming up (reeds, brass, etc.), so perhaps you can warm up, then wait 10 minutes, which is what you would have to do for a concert or an audition or a competition anyway, and then start your practice session at concert level. This may help your body perform in spite of your brain’s nervousness.

    1. Hi Anita,

      Great perspective (i.e. #1) – that seems to be supported by the research on “threat” vs. “challenge” states. And #2 is a great suggestion. Not always the funnest way to start a practice session, but terrific preparation for the demands of a real performance!

  39. This article is a lightweight piece of fluff…”this is how people may suffer from performance anxiety and here are a few suggestions as to remedies”.

    Please, the debilitating experience of performance anxiety is absolutely God awful, humiliating and creates a cycle leading to the total erosion of self-esteem etc. In my experience, it has led to the anxiety bleeding into other aspects of life, such that even having to attend a meeting will give me sleepless nights.

    What began as performance anxiety as a musician has grown to become performance anxiety in almost every facet of my life. In other words, for all my hard work at dealing with performance anxiety, all that has resulted over the years is my anxiety becoming worse overall…to the point that I abandoned my career as a musician.

    But when we seek some help online, all we find are articles like this, which, as some have observed, especially younger musicians, can provide some support in the realisation that one is not alone, but totally fail in their lightweight verbiage around the matter.

    Disappointing and pointless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.

You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!