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?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that 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!

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