It is the million dollar question that all students will ask you at one point during their education: “How can I stop feeling nervous about performing?”.
Performance anxiety is natural and students deal with exams and concerts in different ways. Some students embrace the pressure that comes with it, while others need a helping hand.
Today, we welcome Roberta Wolff back, this time to share with us her methods for dealing with performance anxiety and nerves. Roberta is a highly acclaimed UK music educator who we featured on the blog earlier this month. See her insights on How to Use Concerts in Your Piano Studio.
Take it away, Roberta!
Related: Piano Concerts and Exams- What Works Best?
The Importance of Performing
“A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.”
Before we grapple with ways of dealing with performance anxiety, it is important to understand why musicians perform. The above Chinese proverb encapsulates why everyone who plays should perform without apology.
There are many good reasons to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and perform. In my experience, an upcoming performance focuses the learning process. Musicians not only get to know their piece better but they get to know themselves better. The opportunity to master one’s own internal dialogue, with a focus on mindfulness and self-compassion, is a truly priceless life skill.
Feeling the vulnerability of performance is positive, we express our humanity, bring joy to others, and open ourselves to new experiences and new friends.
Although every student should be encouraged to perform, care should be taken to create a positive performing environment.
This is one which supports the student and allows them to develop, rather than just feel scared. Students also need to be taught how to perform.
Tackling Nerves and Performance Anxiety
There is no easy way to deal with performance anxiety. Every student approaches performing differently and will have varying experiences.
To build confidence in performing, we need a process to rely on when nerves threaten to throw us off track. Here is an easy way to remember those steps:
P – Prepare. Practise smartly and leave some time for the piece to settle in before the performance. Do several practise performances, sort out page turns, outfit, shoes and stagecraft.
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E – Establish expectations. Your performance will feel nothing like playing at home and so should not be compared to your home version. Set success criteria which guarantee you will have at least one reason to feel good post performance. For example: “My performance will be a success when I communicate my music,” or “when I reveal any weak sections which need more work before my next, bigger, recital.”
R – Regulate your breathing. Whilst we must not aim to eradicate nerves, “resistance is futile”, we can practise calm acceptance. By taking deep slow breaths we begin to learn how to channel nerves in a more useful way.
F – Foresee the outcome you wish for. Visualise your composed entrance, comfortable position at the piano, utter concentration and absorption in the music, your warm audience and a fabulous finish.
O – Observe. Don’t judge, just observe and accept. If a slip occurs or if a negative thought enters your mind, simply let it pass, and focus on the job at hand.
R – Relish. You have worked hard to prepare, and you have earned your moment. You can change nothing now so you may as well enjoy it!
M – Move on. Find something to feel good about after your performance and beyond that don’t dwell on it. Later, in your next lesson, it will be useful to reflect, objectively, on what you have learnt from the occasion.
The Perfect Performance? No such thing!
While we can aim for lots of things in a performance, it is entirely unhelpful to aim for perfection.
For starters, it is not possible.
Secondly, a perfect moment arises out of many more circumstances than those within the control of the performer.
My top ‘perfect moments’ in the audience all have one thing in common, the special element that set them apart had nothing to do with note accuracy and was not created by the performer. They include atmospheric weather, feelings I took with me to the event and sharing in something larger than just myself and the music.
When performing, we don’t know what our audience carries emotionally to the event and we can’t begin to imagine the many ways they might be touched by our playing. Let’s use this to take some weight off students’ shoulders. It is not all down to them; other factors also influence listeners’ enjoyment.
“What you think affects how you feel, and how you feel affects how you perform. If you can change your thinking, then you can change how you perform.” David Buswell, Performance Strategies for Musicians
Through a small change in outlook and by considering these steps, we can help our pupils change how they think and eventually feel about performing.
Nerves are a natural part of any musician’s pre-performance emotions. Learning how to control these nerves is important for your students so they can be motivated for exams, recitals and other concerts.
How do you tackle nerves and performance anxiety with your students? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!
thanks for sharing this informative post
i must add; having several concerts in short time makes everything A LOT if not completelly easy…
I am an amateur bandoneon player, since i was 27(42 today)…selflearned, can hardly read music…a violinist who heared there is a guy with this instrument insisted to make a band…it was horrible for first few years…and incredible to have quintet of five professional musicians…beta blocators made the trick in a way, but took all the good feelings away too…made me feel like cheating myself…the answer for me is, to have a not to hard and not too easy bike ride on the afternoon before concert(i am a MTB biker)…i guess running or any sport activity that would make me sweat would do the same trick. Had a performance two days ago and took the damn pill, since i couldn’t make the ride…
Good luck and pardon my nonative english
Thanks for sharing, what an experience. You make a great point, physical exercise is very useful before a concert. I have also found that it helps to avoid caffeine. Good luck with your peforming.
My performance in my 8th grade piano exam was poor. From the day before i had a vertigo attack making me nauseous.i almost didn’t go to the exam as in the morning I was dry retching couldn’t eat and was still dizzy. I came home afterwards and slept for hours. I was still dizzy the next morning. I have performed in concerts and never had this kind of reaction before. Needless to say I didn’t perform very well yet I can play all the requirements error free at times. I want to go on but not sure if I can stand that pressure again. The exam was exceptionally important to me as it was 47 years since I did grade 7. It was a dream to do more but I went completely deaf so had to give it up. But with Cochlear implants I can hear again and have trained myself to hear the piano even though it’s not an expectation for Cochlear implantees.
Well done for getting to your exam! You should be proud. I think every performer, at some stage, has a big issue like this. I also think it is a big part of developing as a performer. I would take it as a sign that you SHOULD still be performing. The more important something is the greater the anxiety, which is exactly what you have described. I hope you can ease yourself into playing for other people. Good luck!
I actually received a High Credit for Grade 8. I was stunned. 47 years after I did Grade 7 of which 30 or so years I was deaf and 15 years with a Cochlear. I’m now practising for C.Mus.A
What fabulous news, congratulations!
This post is a blessing. I just want to take the subject a little bit further if you will.
I’ve been taking violin lessons for 4 years now (I started when I was 15 and I had to stop them due to college) and I’m entering my 6th month in piano lessons (no, I didn’t quit violin).
It’s curious how things work: when playing solo pieces/studies (eg: Hans Sitt, Sevcik) in violin class I’m like “Mistakes. Mistakes everywhere”, even when I miss some notes by a 1/4 or 1/8 tone (you don’t need to tell me, I know it and I can’t make and keep a poker face). Same goes for playing studies to my piano teacher. But when I play duos *with* my violin teacher it’s a smooth ride. And I don’t even feel bothered by the polyphony.
Prior to all of this my mother enrolled me in guitar lessons (from 10 yrs until 14yrs). I remember that one night I was supposed to perform a classical piece. I rehearsed it every day before going to bed, tackling it measure by measure until I got to sections. I sat on that bench and my mind just went blank. I mean, completely blank. I couldn’t remember the 1st measure. Since I had the score on a stand in front of me things would be nice in normal situations, but I looked at it and I felt like an illiterate person. Yeah…it got to the point I couldn’t even read the score. So I didn’t play it.
Since I have demanding parents (to be more exact, a demanding mother, to whom getting A’s on exams are only your natural obbligation) I can probably say that perfectionism was built into me in the worst possible way. The icing on the cake: I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder about 2 years ago.
So it’s kinda hard to understand what you mean when you talk about self-compassion just because I’m still stuck with a “no pressure environment” desire that never comes into being. How would you, as a piano teacher, “shield” the students from their own parents’s views or demands when they expect some quick and probably excellent results? It’s probably that classic fast-paced society talk, in which people want to look better to others… The hour ratio is not really fair: 1-hour lessons twice in a week vs. tons of hours dealing with other people’s expectations.
Sorry not to reply sooner to your interesting comments. Teachers need to be very tactful in this situation. It is worth remembering that like all other creative arts the development of musicianship can’t be timetabled. When there is commitment and deep practice is undertaken regularly the results are out of our hands. We simply have to trust or tweak the process, it can’t be fast forwarded. I might be a great boost to write down what you learn from each practice session. This is a much more positive way to learn. Best wishes!
Excellent ideas It is worth trying on…