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.

Comments

94 Responses

  1. 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

  2. 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!!!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!!

  5. 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!

  6. 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. 🙂

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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)?

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

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  14. 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

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