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classical guitar performance anxiety

Practice Mindsets that Improve Your Performances

You’ve practiced hard. You’ve agreed to play for some people. You show up. And…

Was fate for or against you? Were you suprised or caught off-guard by anything?

Did the performance seem tied to you practices, or seem to be a completely different experience?

Performance Reflects Practice

It’s tempting to think of performance as something outside our practice.

But the quality of the performance is a direct reflection of the quality of practice. No accidents, no flukes, no lucky or unlucky breaks.

After the initial adrenaline wears off, we enter our “autopilot”, or default mode.

The mental habits we cultivate in our daily practice switch on, and we’re just along for the ride.

If we’re focused, detail-oriented, intentional, and calmly aware in our practices, we’ll enter that state in performance.

We get what we prepare for.

Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Performance

So if we want to perform well, and share our music, we can put the habits in place to encourage that.

We can imagine the perfect performance, and examine each element. Then we can make sure we include those in our daily practice rituals.

Prepared vs. Unprepared

Preparation includes knowing our music, but it also includes everything below as well.

This also includes making sure we have what we need by way of equipment, sleep, food, and anything else to be at our best.

Focused vs. Distracted

This is one of the big ones. Performers often hear their internal chatter for the first time in front of people.

They don’t realize that this mental dialog has been a part of every practice leading up to that moment.

But for the first time, they are fully aware and in the moment.

If we can remain aware and alert in practice, we’ll become so in performance.

Likewise, we can learn to recognize when we become distracted, then gently direct ourselves back to focus. This is the ongoing exercise that will pay of most in performance.

Ready vs. Surprised

Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get hit in the mouth.

Are we ready for the stress of performance? We know what it feels like to get anxious:

  • Your temperature rises.
  • You start to sweat.
  • Your pulse increases.
  • Your shoulders raise.
  • Your breathing quickens.
  • Your hands get shaky.
  • Your internal dialog gets critical.
  • And a hundred other little things.

So ten minutes before we play, why are we surprised by this? It’s perfectly natural. It happens to all but the most extroverted or experienced performers. And many life-long performers still have these symptoms.

Also, if we make a mistake 8 times out of 10 in practice, why should we think it will go well under stress? Ready means knowing possible pitfalls and preparing for them.

Owner vs. Victim

When we perform, we have the option of taking full responsibility for the listener’s experience.

We can own our bodies, the events leading to the performance, the environment, and every aspect of the situation.

We can take 100% ownership of the entire performance. No blame, no excuses.

Sure, the roof can fall in. But we could have chosen a different time or place.

When we take full responsibility we’re empowered. And afterward, we can feel good knowing we did our best. Next time may well be better. But taking full ownership gives us a sense of control and personal investment.

Bold vs. Tentative

Tentative performances can make listeners feel uncomfortable and distract them from the music.

Instead, the best performances are bold and committed. Even if we miss notes or have a memory slip, we can do so boldly.

We can practice boldness. We can play boldly in our daily practices, and get used to the feelings and exersions of bold playing.

To do this, notice how you use your muscles and body in other areas of life where you already feel confident. This could be in the workshop, the kitchen, the garage, the office or anywhere else.

Bring those same patterns of thought and muscle-tonus to your practice. Play loud sometimes, and trust yourself to play the right notes.  Have a positive agenda.

Listener-Centered vs. Self-Centered

When we practice, we can keep the listener in mind. This maintains an attitude of generosity and giving.

Instead of making the music about us, we can play as a gift to others.

This changes the frame of success.

When it’s about us, we give ourselves 100% to start, then subtract “points” everytime we make a mistake or have memory-slip. By the end, we may feel terrible about ourselves.

When we play as a gift, we focus more on the positive offering, and less on small mistakes. The music now has no bearing on our worth as a person. We’re simply sharing music for the enjoyment of the listener.

In daily practice, this means not cringing at mistakes. It means not judging. It means focusing on the task at hand and playing with as much intention and attention as possible.

High Energy vs. Low Energy

In a perfect world, we have all the energy we need when we perform. We have the mental and physical stamina. We have the focus and poise.

In dangerous activities (such as tightrope-walking or using power-tools), we automatically enter states of high focus and attention.

But in our daily practice, we can get away with mind-wandering and slouching.

We can train ourselves to play with high dynamic energy by practicing with purpose and intention and stay upright. We can infuse it into the music. We can form habits of high engagement.

This will become our default. This way we’ll be more comfortable, as well well as more energetic, in performances.

Specific vs. Vague

We can also use our daily practices to build the habit of focusing on specific details, and having specific outcomes in mind.

Instead of “playing with feeling”, we can make specific choices to get louder in one place and quieter in another.  We can choose how to move our hands.  We can choose how to sit.  We can get specific on which notes are melody and which are not.

Some of our best practice comes when we work to eliminate confusion.  Out with the vague and in with the specific.

Small Daily Steps

None of the above mindsets and attitudes are learned in a day.  They are built over time.  They are habits, and habits are built of repetition.

When we repeatedly remind ourselves and repeat an action, we make it a part of us.  Eventually, we don’t need to remind ourselves about it anymore.  It becomes a default pattern.

When we adopt beneficial attitudes and mindsets, we enjoy more improvement, better performances, and more fulfilling daily practices.

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18 Responses to Practice Mindsets that Improve Your Performances

  1. Carolann Kaiser January 1, 2018 at 1:30 am #

    I love your talks, Allen. Always straight to the point and helpful. Thank you so much.

    • Allen January 1, 2018 at 2:21 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Carolann!

  2. Joanne Fekete December 31, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Thank you! I’ve read many articles about performance anxiety, but this one actually makes sense to me.

    • Allen January 1, 2018 at 2:20 pm #

      That’s wonderful, Joanne! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Jude December 31, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

    Maybe it’s the tentativeness that makes me avoid amateur performances – waiting for the first or next mistake, dreading experiencing, if only in imagination, how the performer must feel. A pro makes you feel like you’re in good hands and can relax and focus on the music or dance or whatever. It’s hard to play a single-line melody on a nylon string guitar really loud, but sometimes I try, and it sounds like someone much better has taken over.

    Anyway, Happy New Year!

    • Allen January 1, 2018 at 2:20 pm #

      Thanks, Jude,
      Great observations.
      Best of luck with everything!

  4. Adrian December 31, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    This is a wise nut-shell! And extremely helpful, I can see where I tend to err, etc. A somewhat trivial question: what is it that is attached on top of your guitar?

    • Allen January 1, 2018 at 2:19 pm #

      Thanks, Adrian!
      It’s a camera I use for close-ups of the right hand.

  5. PETER HANCOCK December 30, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    That was great encouragement Thanks. Reminds me of my old footballs as a player and a coach. Again Thanks Coach

  6. PETER HANCOCK December 30, 2017 at 1:00 pm #


  7. Wallace Wadd December 30, 2017 at 11:23 am #

    This is one of the most comprehensive guides I’ve ever read dealing with “performance anxiety”; it’s detailed, focused and well written. Thanks for this important information and all your encouragement.

    • Allen December 30, 2017 at 11:28 am #

      Thanks, Wallace! I hope it’s helpful.
      All the best,

  8. Marcy Ushimaru December 30, 2017 at 9:05 am #

    Allen, do you practice meditation? I ask because many of your suggestions come straight out of Mindfulness 101, especially your second point, focus. The key to mindfulness is to focus on something (in the case of meditation, your breath) and then simply notice when your mind wanders, and gently bring it back.This is an amazing video!

    • Allen December 30, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks, Marcy,
      I don’t have a proper meditation routine, but I do try to be single-minded when doing things (to varying degrees of success).
      Thanks again,

  9. charles avalos December 30, 2017 at 7:23 am #

    I am finding out through performing in open mic recitals that my lack of focus and attention causes an inferior performance. My most serious fault seems to be forgetting what comes next and then fumbling to try to keep things going until I’m continuing the piece again. I think it’s caused by the distraction and lack of concentration worrying about all of those eyes on me.
    Perhaps being better prepared will produce enough confidence where I’m not so worried about things going wrong and better able to focus?
    This article is perfect for reminding me what I need to bring to my PRACTICE on a daily basis. Realizing what I need to bring to my practice will be what I bring to a recital.
    Trying to let it all sink in.
    Charles Avalos

    • Allen December 30, 2017 at 10:10 am #

      Thanks for sharing this, Charles!
      Better preparation may help with confidence, but more importantly, it will help you make fewer mistakes and memory slips, and recover faster when you do. And that builds confidence.

  10. Ken December 30, 2017 at 5:29 am #

    Great tips I can apply to my practice this upcoming year.
    Happy new year and thanks for the notes of encouragement.


    • Allen December 30, 2017 at 10:12 am #

      Thanks, Ken!
      Good luck!

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