Grace Notes: Performance Anxiety… Is there a cure?

Over the past couple of years, I have developed really bad stage fright when playing solo. This means I dread playing in class, auditioning for anything, even playing in front of my friends! I never experience this level of anxiety when playing in a group (either a chamber group or orchestra), so still enjoy those experiences, but I’ve started to avoid having to play solo violin like the plague.

I’m fine before, until the moment I stand up/walk in and see everyone looking at me. I put my violin up and my brain descends into panic mode. I’m suddenly back about a month in terms of practice and all those little nuances I’ve worked in never existed. I’m simply ‘getting through’ the piece rather than performing. As soon as I make a mistake I dwell on it far too long and my body ceases to function properly. My hands get clammy, sweaty and start to shake as my brain says ‘oh no I’ve made a mistake, everyone will have heard me make that mistake, why couldn’t I play that?…’. This then causes me to panic and get more wrong because I’m not focussed. My brain goes into overdrive so that any technical ability I may have once possessed has gone. I’m now simply clutching onto the violin and bow for dear life just trying to get to the end. My heart rate goes up and I find myself short of breath and tight-chested. When I finally reach the end of the piece I often can’t remember what happened as my brain blocks it out, and I certainly don’t enjoy the experience. All I remember are the awful mistakes I made, and worry about what people will think of me now.

This happens almost every time I play in front of someone so has become a major problem for me, and will continue to get worse if I don’t do something. So, I’ve done a bit of research into different techniques which might help. I’m going to share them here and I’ll keep you updated on which ones work and which ones don’t. Then, if you’re in the same place as me (even if you’re not a musician, it could be anxiety when giving a talk or lecture, acting, or dancing), maybe you can get your anxiety sorted sooner and enjoy performing solo again, which is something I long to do!

  1. Practice until you know the piece inside out. Learn it from memory, be able to sing it and even practice writing it out! If the piece is in your body, you can concentrate on letting go of the fear and allowing the music to take over.
  2. Perform as much as you can. Play to anyone who will listen and PERFORM (not just play) when you do! Get used to the feeling or nerves and try to channel them into emotion.
  3. Try to focus on the positives, not the mistakes (this will be particularly hard for me) and then you’ll be in a happier mind-set, which will come across to the audience/audition panel/family member.
  4. Take the time to relax and breathe before a performance. Try meditation, or just long breaths lying in semi-supine position, relaxing your whole body. This reduces the number of thoughts and emotions bombarding you, and help anxious feels to evaporate. Try taking deep breaths with your diaphragm and this will help you to calm down.
  5. Use the ‘monkey position’. By this I mean if you start to feel like your body is seizing up you bend your knees, hips and ankles which gives you a sinking feeling and will take the attention away from the tension you may be feeling elsewhere in your body. (Thinking about this, you’d look pretty silly doing it in a performance, but if it helps, I’m more than willing to try!)
  6. Accept that you will feel anxious, and then move past it.
  7. Remember: The audience are there to hear a good performance. They won’t be counting the mistakes, so neither should you.
  8. (this is the technique that interests me the most) Try visualising the performance in great detail. Imagine the feel of the instrument, the exact look of the hall, what you’ll be wearing, who is in the audience or on the panel, what the stage feels like under your feet. Then perform. Go through the whole performance in your mind, every note, every rest, every bow. By ‘doing’ the performance a few times, it should feel more familiar by the time of the actual concert, making you feel more comfortable.

Here are links to the sites (WebMD, majoring in music and anxiety coach) that I found most of the above information on. Take a look if you want slightly more in depth solution. Finally, here are two YouTube videos that share 4 techniques (that I’ve touched on above) about dealing with performance anxiety. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.

I have an audition tomorrow and I’m going to try to use some of these to see if they calm me down and help. I’ll let you know which of them help me to actually enjoy what I’m playing and be a musician, rather than a quivering wreck.

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