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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 we were having a different experience, we can take the 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!”

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.

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 we 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 minute of playing, we may be able to settle down and lighten up.

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 a 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

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 periphery vision. This deactivates the linear, analytic thoughts (generally accepted as “left brain”). And it activates our more creative and intuitive faculties (“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 we our attention starts to wane. Or we can use a defiant tone with ourselves when we don’t feel like practicing something (like scales).

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

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10 Responses to 6 Tricks for Nerves – Conquer Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety

  1. HannaH March 4, 2018 at 6:12 am #

    I dig the idea to focus upon either rhythm playing or left hand notes. As a singer & vocal coach–I have lots of mindfulness practices on stage. However I also play guitar live–so I will try this out. Thanks! Peace, HannaH

  2. David March 3, 2018 at 11:43 pm #

    Recording myself seems to put me into ‘performance mode’ with all the attendant anxieties. don’t know why, but I guess the mike becomes a kind of ‘judge and jury combined’.

    So I find this makes an ideal way of putting myself ‘in the zone’ for practicing strategies for relaxation.

  3. Bill Alpert March 3, 2018 at 3:43 pm #

    My routine is meditation, breathing and yoga. An aerobic workout before the concert to reduce excess energy. Avoidance of caffeine on the day of the performance. And perhaps the most effective: taking my music to the street. Set up in a busy location, open your case and start playing for passersby. Do this twice a week, for the long term! It has also proven to be quite profitable at times 😉

  4. Bob Vanderhoof March 3, 2018 at 8:30 am #

    Allen, great comments on a problem every player faces. To help my right hand fingers play with more projection I use a string mute I got from Strings by Mail that is for practicing rasqueado. It has made a huge difference for me.
    I would love to hear your concert. Perhaps you can post it on you tube?
    Bob V.

    • Allen March 3, 2018 at 3:52 pm #

      Thanks, Bob,
      I’m not sure it will be recorded, but we’ll see! Thanks for suggesting it!


  5. Charles Peake March 3, 2018 at 5:49 am #

    Now that is the best advice ever for performance fright.

    • Allen March 3, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

      Thanks, Charles!

  6. Nusret March 3, 2018 at 4:39 am #

    Hi Allen ;
    I would very much like to enjoy the moment under the Old Church roof filled with the music finely crafted by your ever growing ‘quality’ pollination there in Portland. Whereas it’s too far for me to be at the venue , then I wish you every success.
    I would add one final bullet point to your anti panic recipe;
    It’s an examination.
    It’s a self test.
    But, most blessed are we that we know the questions.
    It’s our Program, list of pieces we will perform.
    So, come prepared.
    Rehearse it from head to feet to the maximum extent possible.
    When you make it your own you know you’re in control. Then what is fear?
    What does it mean?
    All the best…

    • Allen March 3, 2018 at 3:51 pm #

      Thanks, Nusret! I’ll a major proponent of preparation as well.


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