6 Tricks for Nerves – Conquer Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety

  • Your heart is pounding in your ears…
  • You feel sweat on your palms…
  • Your hands shake…
  • Your mind races…

Now put all that aside and play beautiful music.

We’d like to play with ease and flow and heartfelt generosity. But primal survival instincts sometimes arise in performance.

Here are 6 tactics you can use to calm yourself and refocus.

Tactic #1: Be Defiant

One way to overcome nerves is to “dig in”. We can feign indignation and confront ourselves head-on.

Instead of wishing for a different experience, we can take a more assertive and aggressive stance. We can wrestle back control of our bodies and minds my sheer willpower and tenacity.

It may help to use our inner dialog (talk to ourselves) to reinforce this. Instead of the runaway nervous (usually negative and self-critical) thoughts, we can take the offensive: “Oh yeah? You want a piece of me? You think you can control me?! My focus is a mountain!”

It’s important this forceful inner voice is empowering and supportive.  Being mean or berating ourselves does not inspire beautiful playing!

Tactic #2: Slow Down

One of the common side-effects of nervousness speeding up.

With the adrenaline flowing, time slows down. We may not feel like we’re playing any faster than usual. But in fact, we may be at a considerably higher tempo.

If we intentionally slow down, we can take back control of the situation. We will improve our accuracy. We’ll have time to think. We’ll be more able to do the things we said we’d do in practice (such as dynamics).

It may feel in the moment that we’re playing too slowly. This is very rarely the case. Usually, if we listen back to a recording, it will still be faster than normal.

And even if we start the piece too fast, we can still slow down.  It’s not ideal to change tempo (speed) after we’ve started.  But it’s better than going through the whole piece faster than we can play well.

To ensure we start the piece at a proper speed, we can mentally play the first few bars before we start, hearing the piece in our head.  The first few seconds can build or shake our confidence.  So it’s worth getting the first few notes as good as possible.

Tactic #3: Play Loud

With shaky, sweaty hands and shallow breathing, we lose control of small nuances.

Trying to play delicately can become a recipe for disaster.

When our hands aren’t behaving as normal, playing loudly can get them in the right places at the right time.

The music may not be as sensitive and colorful as we’d prefer, but we’ll get through it. And after a few minutes of playing, we may be able to settle down and lighten up.

And instead of tensing to gain more volume, we can focus on letting our right-hand fingers follow through.  The larger movements will encourage us to loosen up and play with a better tone.

Tactic #4: Selective Focus

It’s our minds that cause the main trouble. We interpret a performance as life-threatening and enter “fight or flight” mode. But in fact, it’s very rare these days for an audience to bring physical harm to the performer.

Still, the mind produces fearful thoughts, which trigger the chemicals and emotions that turn our bodies clumsy and stiff.

One way to wrench back control of the mind is through selective focus.

Selective focus is focusing on a specific element of playing. Here, we direct the majority of our attention to one place.

Two effective areas of focus in performance are note-preparation and rhythm.

Selective Focus: Preparation of Each Note

When we focus intently on preparation, we direct our attention to how our right-hand fingers plant on the strings just before playing them.

If we plant our fingers securely on the strings, we’ll feel more in control.

We can focus on our right hand movements and listen to each note.

This also gets us focused on the music (instead of what the audience must be thinking). We think ahead in the music and become more aware of the present note.

Selective Focus: Rhythm

Another trustworthy focus is the rhythm.

If we focus our attention on playing as rhythmically precise as we can, we’ll sound better and feel more stable.

To prepare for this, we can make rhythmic integrity a cornerstone of our technique and repertoire practice by using a metronome and counting aloud in our daily practice.

Tactic #5: Smile

When the scene turns sour and we’re entering crisis mode, we can fool ourselves into thinking that it’s not so bad.

When we smile, we tell our nervous system that everything is okay. Our nervous system then slows our heart rate, releases excess tension, and gives us our minds back.

Do we look funny smiling as we perform? Maybe, but it’s not as bad as breaking down and falling to pieces. And many people actually prefer to watch someone with a friendly smile over someone with a look of terror. (And smiles are contagious!)

Tactic #6: Soften Your Tongue and Eyes

Much like the smile cues the body, when we soften our tongues and eyes we cue our mind to stop chattering.

We can release the back of the tongue, letting it widen over our back teeth. It may help to exhale gently from the mouth.

This quiets the internal dialog. It also releases neck and chest muscles, which in turn release excess tension in our arms and hands.

When we soften our gaze as well, we can quickly return to a calm, focused state more suited for performing.

We can release our eyes by becoming aware of our peripheral vision. This deactivates the linear, analytic thoughts (generally accepted as “left brain”). And it activates our more creative and intuitive faculties (sometimes called the “right-brain”).

Practice in Practice

To prepare for performance, we can practice the tactics above in our daily practice.

We don’t have to be in a state of anxiety to use selective focus or smile. We can play loud when our attention starts to wane. Or we can use a defiant tone with ourselves when we don’t feel like practicing something (like scales).  Like a loving parent, we can be forceful but kind.  Not a drill sergeant or scolder, but an inner authority figure.

The more we prepare, the better our chances of having a wonderful experience sharing our good work with friends.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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