Ask a fifth-year: Preformance anxiety tips

Dear Will,

I’m a freshman performance major and have been struggling a lot with performance anxiety. You have five years of performing experience any tips?

-Trembling in Trever


Dear Trembling,

Nobody is going to get up in front of an audience and not have some sort of reaction. Performance anxiety is a completely normal phenomenon that all performers deal with when they subject themselves to the scrutiny of others. It certainly involves risk, but as a musician, it’s absolutely the most important risk you can take.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to negatively affect your performance. In fact, one of the skills you can learn is to use that adrenaline and heightened awareness to create a substantially more focused and polished performance. Here are some steps in what I’ve found to be a successful process of performance.

Preparation is clearly the first step. Not having a piece fully memorized, learned and polished is going to create massive amounts of anxiety that are going to distract you from making music. Even if you do get through the piece, you’re not truly performing if you aren’t presenting musicality and nuance at your best. Budget your time so that you feel fully prepared for the performance. If you don’t have time, be honest with your teacher and let them know you aren’t ready to perform.

Once you know a piece from top to bottom, and can perform it in a practice room and in front of a teacher several times without hesitation or error, you’re ready to perform it for an audience. The next step, which happens a day or two before the actual performance, is building up the confidence in your ability to successfully perform.

If you really have prepared it well, there’s no reason to worry that you’ll forget notes or words. This is the best time to really refine and nuance your musical and/or dramatic presentation of the piece.

The actual performance should really be the most enjoyable part of the whole process. You get to share your hard work with your peers. If you’re confident in the technical and musical preparation of the piece, you’ll find yourself much preoccupied with fear. There’s still going to be a few anxieties that nag you, such as randomly forgetting all the words, vomiting or breaking a string. They’re pointless and irrational, so take a few deep breaths and keep your mind calm and focused on a successful performance.

I’m not quite sure what races through other people’s heads when they’re mid-performance, but I’ve developed a great mental state for when I perform. The confidence and preparation that I put into my performances allows me to “let the piece go” in a sense, allowing myself to fully engage emotionally and mentally with the piece and the mind of its composer, completely unburdened by selfish and distracting thoughts.