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Performance Anxiety


The average person has an average of 50,000 thoughts a day. A staggering 80% of those thoughts are negative! What do we think about the most? Ourselves! So it is not surprising that Performance Anxiety is a wide spread and common problem.

How we talk to ourselves is one of the most important factors that determine how we will perform.  Thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” “no one will think I’m any good” “I’m too fat/short/ugly/tall/etc” , “people will be judging me” and the ever helpful “I am afraid I’ll get nervous” are all examples of our negative self talk before we perform.

Things get into our subconscious mind that are not good for us, things that aren’t true but ones subconscious cannot filter out what is true and what is not true. We cannot change our emotions. If we are sad because a friend has moved a way, we are sad and we have to work through that. We can, however, change our thoughts and replace negative thoughts with positive ones! We can help more positive messages get to our subconscious.

We can use self affirmations, short phrases that we repeat over and over to help us. These phrases must be positive. We must believe them, they can’t be too long or too unrealistic. Researchers have found that using self affirmations 4 to 6 weeks before a performance works the best.  The job of our subconscious mind is to do act upon what we feed it. We need to feed it positive thoughts. Self affirmations need to be repeated many times, several times a day The morning is an especially receptive time for self affirmations.

Instead of “I’m not good enough” we can tell ourselves “I play well” or “I am good enough” . We can tell ourselves “Next month I will play beautifully” or “I am feeling calm about my performance”

We need to compliment ourselves more, we are too used to pointing out our failings. Perhaps we feel conceited if we ‘blow our own horn’ or worry about being arrogant. One is not arrogant until one puts down someone or something else as a way of complimenting oneself. Positive self compliments are a way we can nurture ourselves. 

Sometimes we don’t receive compliments from others well. We all need to say “Thank you” when complimented, and leave it at that!

Some ideas:

Compliment notebook– write down, for a month, all the compliments you receive. 

Buy a dictionary, a black pen and some small stickers – put a sticker on all the words you like that are positive and cross out the words that are negative

Make small cue cards with your affirmations on them and carry them with you. 


We can help ourselves by creating a protective barrier around ourselves during performance. We imagine something safe and protective around us, a force field, a waterfall, plexi- glass, whatever suits us. It is something that protects us from anything negative but lets any and all positive energy inside. The barrier lets our sound out, our music. We can still interact with others we may be playing with, it creates a safe barrier around us yet lets us create the music we want to. It surrounds us but does not impede movement, it is safe. You need to take your protective barrier with you during practise to get used to it, don’t just create for the first time as you are performing!

Perfectionism is not our friend. There is no such thing as a perfect performance, there are too many variables and perceptions of perfection. One needs to strive for excellence, to be great at what one does, to do an awesome job, but not to be perfect. A recording may possibly be perfect but only after the producers and mixers and others tweak this and tweak that and retake many, many times and do their electronic magic. We are not machines, being perfect is incompatible with being human.

We can strive to do our personal best, we can work towards excellence. We also have to remember that a performance happens on one day, at one specific time. Many variables can get in the way; we are not feeling well, we got stuck in traffic, something unexpected happens, the list is endless. These variables can affect our performance. We can only play at our optimal level, at that time, on that day.  We cannot expect perfection, it is unrealistic and unattainable.  We don’t expect others to be perfect, we say they were wonderful, terrific, fabulous, excellent, great and awesome, not perfect.  

Keep things in perspective. If you make a mistake it is not the end of the world, it is not a catastrophe, it is not awful. In the grand scheme of things it is simply a small error. An earthquake or tsunami can be catastrophic, a death in the family is awful. A mistake in playing ones piece is simply a mistake. Nothing more, nothing less, and it is how we handle mistakes that determines how our performance will go. Think about the worst case scenario before a performance. What will actually happen if we make a mistake? The ceiling won’t fall in, the audience won’t leave, they won’t start throwing rotten tomatoes at you. As mentioned earlier, some won’t even notice (unless you bring it to their attention) and those that do will quickly forget it or really not care as they want the overall experience of enjoying your music. 

The more prepared we are, the better we will perform. Practice is important and it is also important to know that you can practice what your performance will be like, You can relax and visualize the stage, the music and how you will play. You can mentally go over the score, you can sing the piece in your head, you can go over, in minute detail, a trouble passage, all without your instrument. At a flute Master class Robert Aitken once said that playing music is 10% practice and 90% in your head.

Also we need to know that when we perform we are often in a strange or different place and that there may be different distractions that we do not encounter during practice. Those distractions, whether they are sounds or visual distractions, can cause us to lose focus and let anxiety take hold. It is a good idea, leading up to a performance, to practice with distractions and in a different place than usual. Have a friend or family member come into your practice area, sit down, make some noise, walk around, say something to you and so on. Play through your piece(s) in a different room or venue altogether. Ask a friend if you can play at their house, ask the local church if you can use their sanctuary to practice, play at your school somewhere, try playing in your backyard if the weather is good! 

Performance anxiety need not be inevitable. You can learn the tools to help yourself with positive thoughts and simple self affirmations being a starting point.


Some things you can do before a performance: 

(these are mainly anecdotal ideas but they seem to help!)

Leading up to the performance:

Positive affirmations – have a few ready and keep telling yourself them. I will play my best, I am good enough, I can do this and so on.

 Go over the performance in your mind .. Relax and see the performance in your mind’s eye and see it how you want it to be. 

Play for a friend or family member, try to make it as real a performance as you can. Have the stand set up. Walk into the room with your music, set it on the stand. If it is with piano accompaniment, pretend to look at your accompanist before you start, just as you would in the real performance. Bow after you finish. Practice walking on and off the ‘stage’.

Practice with distractions – get a friend to help who will try to distract you during a run through of your piece(s).

Run your piece in a different room or place – this will help you feel more comfortable outside of your usual practice area

Record yourself on a camcorder. This is a very useful tool for getting ready for performance. This is a way you can hear yourself as others will hear you. It is different listening in the audience than hearing yourself as you play. Some things that you think must be noticeable may not be and you may see or hear something you would like to ‘fix’ that you didn’t hear as you played.

Try using a mental protective barrier as mentioned earlier. Decide what it might be and practice feeling comfortable with it

The day of the performance:

Eat bananas – there are no scientific studies to prove that eating a banana an hour or so before a performance will help but many people swear by it!

Take B complex vitamins the morning before, night before and the morning of a performance – B complex vitamins are often considered “stress’ vitamins as one of their primary roles in the body is to keep the nervous system functioning well. Don’t buy them off the shelf at the local drug store, buy them at a health food store. Ask for assistance because there are many kinds and some are much better made and have ingredients that are more readily used by the body. They may be a bit more expensive but are well worth it! 

Deep breathing – when we feel anxious or stressed we tend to breath more shallowly, try to find a place to sit or stand just before your performance. Take several deep, long breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. You must do this slowly, perhaps even count as you breath, in for 4 slow counts, out for 4 slow counts. The extra oxygen will help you and will calm you down.

Eat well the day of a performance, avoid overly greasy foods, fast foods or sugary foods. If you are a wind player, avoid dairy.

Stay connected to the music, remember people are there to enjoy themselves and listen to music. Many times you will be playing for people who do not know your repertoire intimately, they wont notice small slips or errors should they occur, they want the overall experience of the music. If you are being examined or marked in any way, remember, the examiner/adjudicator wants you to do well, they are also looking at the overall performance, they are on your side.

If an error occurs, move on, DO NOT dwell on it. Your audience, whoever they might be, will not be focusing 100% on your playing 100% of the time, people’s minds wander and often they won’t even register that you made a mistake unless you make a big deal of it. If you go on and keep playing your best they may never notice, or it may have been something that brought them back to focusing on your playing but they have no idea what brought them back from thinking about what they were making for supper or that they still have to walk the dog when they get home!

If you feel like your mind is wandering, focus on the music, the look of the notes, notice the feel of your instrument vibrating with the music, the sound you want to make, stay connected to the music and the here and now. If you hear a noise or see something out of the corner of your eye, ignore it, you can process it later, have an expectation that there will be some distractions and know that you can ignore them.

Be well prepared and strive for excellence, not perfection. Do your best and feel good that you shared your music with others


Michelle Coon

(Thank you to Helen Spielman whose Performance Anxiety workshop inspired this article)




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