What Is Performance Anxiety, Really?

My favorite violinist growing up was Itzhak Perlman, so when I recently observed a Perlman master class, you can bet that I soaked up every bit of advice he had to offer. At one point he was asked for his thoughts on how best to deal with performance anxiety, and his answer (accompanied by his trademark humor) was to “know thy enemy.” In other words, to understand how your nerves affect you in advance, so you can figure out what works and what doesn’t in the practice room instead of trying to make adjustments in the middle of a performance or audition (when you are under enough pressure as it is).

Sounds like great advice to me.

So let’s get to know our “enemy” a bit better, shall we?

What Is Performance Anxiety?

There are a lot of words out there that are used interchangeably with performance anxiety. You’ve likely encountered terms such as stage fright, music performance anxiety, stress, arousal, performance anticipation, energy, nerves, and so on.

The truth is, some of these terms technically do mean different things. But that’s a topic for some other day. Let’s just focus on the basic concept of “anxiety”.

Here is a definition:

“a negative emotional state with feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension associated with activation or arousal of the body.”

According to this definition (and it is a good one), anxiety has three parts — physical effects, mental effects, and emotional effects.

The Three Components of Anxiety

Let’s take a look at the three components of anxiety.

Somatic anxiety is your physical response to a situation. Heart pounding in your chest, blood pressure goes up, you start breathing more rapidly and shallowly, muscles get tight, cold, clammy hands, and so on.

Cognitive anxiety is your mental response to a situation. An increase in self-doubt, worries, thoughts and images of failing, loss of focus, blanking, etc.

Affective anxiety is your emotional response to a situation. You may feel a sense of fear, panic, and apprehension about the situation, for instance.

Understanding this three-part model of anxiety is important because it means that there are three separate targets that each affect our ability to play well under pressure. Of course the three are interrelated, but you can begin to see why we can’t just address one of them and expect everything to be all better.

The Two Types of Anxiety

To further complicate matters, there are two types of anxiety – state anxiety and trait anxiety. You could also think of this as situational anxiety vs. characterological anxiety. In other words, state anxiety is how stressful you perceive a situation to be, while trait anxiety is how stressed out you tend to be about everything.

For example, being nervous about an important audition would be state anxiety. Being nervous about driving, meeting new people, trying new foods, going to unfamiliar places, doing well in school/work, dating, and everything else in life would be a person who is high in trait anxiety. It’s just their personality to be stressed out and anxious in general.

I’ve worked with individuals who were worriers and stressed out in most areas of their life, but were absolutely confident on stage. Conversely, I’ve also worked with those who were a nervous mess on stage, but completely laid-back and calm off-stage. Frequently, however, I find that a musician’s tentativeness or self-doubt on-stage is reflected in some degree of tentativeness and self-doubt off-stage. Such musicians tend to doubt themselves and lack confidence, focus a great deal on how others perceive them, and have a difficult time believing in themselves.

I knew a talented young string player who was somewhat shy socially, hesitated to go up to new people, and was rather quiet in larger social settings. When asked to be more adventurous in his playing, whether it be dynamics, tempo, or articulation, he struggled to make any big changes — not because he wasn’t capable technically, but because he was afraid to make a mistake. This tentativeness came out in performances as well, as the more nervous he was, the more “safe” and tentative his playing became.

It was important for this individual to learn how to build his courage, to be able to exaggerate, and to go almost too far with his musical gestures, in order to balance out his natural tendency to retreat into a shell on-stage. Getting the student to be more adventurous in the rest of his life was also tremendously helpful, as the bigger his comfort zone became (by trying new foods, going to new places, and meeting new people, for instance), his confidence and courage to try new things musically expanded as well.

How Does This Relate To My Performing?

Just as it helps to understand the mechanics of sound production for your instrument so you can produce the exact sounds you want on demand, I feel it is important for musicians to understand what performance anxiety is, and how they respond to pressure, so they can begin to develop an effective and personalized “toolbox” of skills and strategies that will allow them to handle even the most stressful of situations.

For instance, what can you do to better handle the physical effects of anxiety? Plenty! Learn how to relax your key muscles under pressure, figure out the most reliable fingerings that are most likely to remain consistent even when you are nervous, get used to playing even with cold hands, and get better at playing well even under adverse conditions.

To combat the mental effects, you can learn how to build your confidence, increase your ability to focus and concentrate on demand, be able to quiet your mind, and see/hear yourself playing perfectly instead of seeing all of your fears play out in your mind.

Overcome the emotional effects by learning how to go for it in spite of the fear and by embracing adrenaline instead of fearing it.

A Three-Pronged Strategy

Given that performance anxiety will affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally, utilizing a comprehensive three-pronged attack will allow you to be better prepared for the full range of effects that you will experience under pressure.

Many make the mistake of putting too much emphasis on trying not to be nervous. Focus instead on developing a more effective response to the inevitable nerves. Spend more time practicing performing, rather than practicing practicing. What do I mean?

Go for a quick run around the block. With your heart pumping, and slightly out of breath, can you still nail the opening? Turn the TV or radio on in the background — can you still focus on your piece? Get dressed up and turn on a video recorder (so you can post your performance on YouTube). Allowing yourself only one shot at this – can you play everything perfectly the very first time?

Which muscles get tight under pressure? What happens to your pitch or intonation — do you tend to go flat or sharp? What happens to your sense of timing — do you rush or drag? Where do you tend to have memory slips?

“Know Thy Enemy” — good advice, no?

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

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.

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14 Responses

  1. Very nice article! I have this problem every time I get on stage, whether it’s performing a violin solo or merely giving a speech in class.

  2. Loved this article! In my last performances I´ve noticed that if I assume that there are gonna be mistakes and rather than try to play perfectly I try to give my best (even with mistakes), I can control my mind and lose my self in the music. In the other side, assuming my playing is not gonna be perfect doesn’t make me feel good…but it works in my mind, funny, isn’t it?

  3. I had a recital the other day, after a long break . The break was not because I didn’t have the opportunities but because I was avoiding performance overall. I feared it so much, I could fell a hot wave through my body only from hearing about it. And that is because I had some bad experience some years ago while being a student, I have beaten up myself so much that I decided to give up. I didn’t want to performe anymore but I couldn’t give up on music so I became a teacher and I loved it. But even though I have found apreciation and the love I needed, I didn’t feel entirely happy because of my fear and I didn’t want to transfer my feeling to my students .
    So, when I found your blog that was my light in the dark. It’s like when you really need something, you just have to find the will to knock on the door and it will open right away. I took a notebook a wrote everything that clicked with me.
    The night before the performance I cried so much and not because of it , I recalled all my bad experiences. Only then I realized I had so much anger in me and so much pain that I was ashamed to recognize. So I cried it all out,accepted it and went to my recital.When I was performing I tried to:
    Show the most authentic version of myself
    Think of only two main ideas that I want to show, relaxing my right hand and draw the melody in the most beautiful way
    Focus on music at that moment and not on my fear or others
    Go for it from the first note
    Accept my mistakes and move on etc etc
    It was hard to focus at first but then I forgot about everything around me and had so much pleasure playing on the stage, the stage that I feared for such a long time. I’m not sure if I will ever perform on a regular basis but the first step was made and for that I thank you. Your work has changed lives or at least mine.
    My deepest respect and gratitude, Olga.

    1. Hi Olga,

      Thank you for sharing your story! I’m really happy to hear that you had that moment on stage where you figured out how to enjoy playing again. Being in that state of flow when we are at our best is an experience you can totally have on a more regular basis – and it sounds like you are well on your way to figuring out how. Best wishes in the future, whether you perform more regularly or not (though I suspect you will)!

    2. Oh my gosh Olga seriously, this hit home for me HARD. Thank you so much for sharing! I am so glad you shared this. For the past few years I haven’t been performing all that much, or not as much as I did at my public school and college anyway. Although there are a lot of opportunities to join an orchestra, play in a nursing home/marketplace/hospital/school/other public place, I feared performing for these past few years mainly because I assumed getting rejected after just a couple of professional orchestra auditions somehow meant I should never perform again. I even cried before my orchestra audition because I thought I was on the chopping block and it was the end of the world if I played even one bad note for the judges. I assumed people would laugh at me if I wanted to perform again, and somehow internalized this idea that somehow my performing days were done and no one would take me seriously if I wanted to perform again. I struggled a lot with my mental health during this performing hiatus and even now I am fighting hard to overcome those doubts about my performance ability. It’s why at my recital (my first in three years) I played with so many balled up nerves. I couldn’t for the life of me shake them off because I was so focused on having a note-perfect performance and impressing my friends who attended the recital that I forgot to just be confident in myself and focus on touching people’s hearts with the music.

      Noa, also, thank you so much for this piece. Practicing is key, and it’s also just as important to practice how we’re going to perform! That’s how my teacher’s been training me because I told them I want to someday play at Carnegie Hall, as far-fetched as that dream sounds lol. Both of you have inspired me to have a clearer purpose for my practice. I think I’ll try those exercises tomorrow (e.g. playing with TV in background, recording myself, going on a run) to practice focusing on the performance. Doing so will get me out of my practice rut!

  4. Very good advice – especially the part about preparing for performance, rather than just practising in the ‘safety’ of a non-pressurised mental state.

    To the good advice, I would add the following tips:

    Normalise: The worst thing you can do when you’re feeling nervous is to worry about feeling nervous! Much better to ‘normalise’ the feelings – e.g. tell yourself that it’s normal to feel a few nerves before a big performance, and that actually it’s a good thing, as the nerves will help you to raise your performance for the big occasion.

    Channelling: Something that works very powerfully for me, is to welcome and embrace the nerves, and to mentally ‘channel’ them into helping the performance. For example, I often visualise how my nerves are going to help improve my focus, which will allow me to stay ‘in the moment’ much better, and avoid losing concentration.

    Visualise: By visualising the performance (and everything around it) in advance, you can prepare yourself much better for your performance. For example, a couple of days before your performance, imagine yourself getting up from your chair, walking onto stage, settling down at your instrument, and playing the opening bars… The more you do this before it actually happens, the less scary it will be when you actually come to do it.

    Reframe: Look at the situation in a new, more positive way – e.g. instead of saying ‘Gee I feel nervous’, tell yourself instead ‘I feel excited!’, which generates a much more positive response.

    Relaxation Exercises: There are dozens of things you can do to actively manage nerves on the day – breathing exercises, NLP techniques, visualisation exercises etc. Work out in advance what works for you, and use it as you need it.

  5. My entire life i have lived in the shadow of my father, a professional musician of 40+ years. I have always avoided his path as i had low self esteem and felt i could never live up to his expectations. I have always known i was (and am) a talented vocalist, but did everything in my power to avoid it. Slowly, I have made major personal growth over the years – corny as it sounds – through karaoke and a close association with musicians who have confirmed my talent is not delusional…i have seen enough American Idol to be sure of confirmation! It took me years to accept my talent, years to do karaoke (a joke to my dad) and when i thought i was ready to audition for a real band – i chickened out! I tried to memorize some songs i was sure i knew, but it was as if my subconcious mind was blocking my ability to remember the words. Now – i have another opportunity to audition and i am freaked out! How do i overcome this last obstacle and move on with my life?I know that it took me 40 years to get to this point and that i have missed the boat to be a vocalist professionally, but really feel the need to get onstage and perform. I am so close – yet i am at an impass!!!! What do i do?

    1. Hi Hendrik,

      Sounds like you have come a long way! A couple small suggestions come to mind –

      1) We often take great efforts to calculate the cost of action, e.g. embarrassing ourselves, failing to meet someone’s expectations, etc. but don’t take as much time to weigh the costs of inaction. You might find that the pain of not taking action might outweigh any fears you have about parental expectations…

      2) As you’ve been doing with karaoke, etc., aim to accumulate tiny wins, rather than taking giant steps forward all at once. If auditioning for a real band is too stress-inducing, audition for smaller opportunities, build up a track record of success so you can prove to yourself that you are capable of being successful at the next tiny step up from the last one.

      Keep at it!

  6. “Allowing yourself only one shot at this” but can I allow myself one shot every day?
    it’s “one shot” how often?

  7. I find this very interesting, a I’ve struggled with performance anxiety since I was six, and social anxiety for several years.
    Even if I’m just playing for my parents, it’s extremely stressful. For the past few years I’ve tried to “ignore” it, and just play through it (I am a guitarist and singer) but I am not making progress. My dad says everytime i play that I would sound better if I wasn’t so nervous.
    I also have really bad confidence issues, and it’s worst when I’m performing.
    This article looks interesting, and I’m definitely going to practice some of he things you listed, because I’m really struggling. Thanks.

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