How to kill “The Fear” (of performing) – Part 1 – The Fundamentals

Performance anxiety can be a frightful experience for anyone that stands above sometimes even small groups of people to proclaim something. For public speaking there is Toastmasters – a group to prepare you for off the cuff public speaking in a group setting. I’m told a great group for building confidence for wedding speeches among others.

But for musicians, the resources are limited. Books aren’t readily available and the practicalities are buried in the music lessons and performance experiences to date. Young musicians may not get many opportunities to play in a group setting and can inadvertently be encouraged to dread performing. We all know “the fear”. What’s sad is that this can turn very promising music students away from their instruments or their voice and years of practice.

I struggled with performance anxiety in high school. Picking up classical music at the age of 14 (two years before TEE music), I felt I was always on the back foot despite 6 years of lessons prior. By the end of year 12 I had achieved much academically and musically. A memory blank half way through a piece at a music festival was reasonably well covered but unnerved me. It is only recently that I understand the things that make me more comfortable performing and get to experience the true rush that it should be.

Here are the fundamentals that work for me accumulated from teachers, mentors, fellow musicians and my studies. I do not claim they are my ideas, I’m not a music grad, nor a mental health professional, and I paraphrase them here as I think of them.

Reprogram your thoughts on anxiety

I must give credit to my speech therapist Thea Peterson for this one a few years ago. Following a vocal injury, she taught me many things to regain my full voice. This one resonated with me.

Turn the way you experience negative/worry feelings about making mistakes when performing into enjoyment. This is about reprogramming your thought process. Recognise your increased heart rate, adrenaline etc.  Instead of allowing your mind to tell you “I’m worried and nervous” – respond to your body that you should feel a rush and that they mean you are excited to perform. Reinforce that there will be adoration for your performance and that you only need to touch one person with a song to make the performance worthwhile. For the petrified performer, this may take some convincing but it is a good mantra nonetheless.

The role of practice

All my teachers have said, you need to practice so you’re not worried about making a mistake. True, but something is missing. We all know you can still have that awful feeling that something may go wrong part way through performing a piece. If you’ve got it bad, your brain may even tell you something ‘will’ go wrong.

So… if you have done enough practice to consistently play a piece/song/set/gig three or four times in a row without error in your own company, you should be able to pull it off in front of a group. Consider the environment around you that adds confidence to perform this piece alone without error (see Environment below).

For the busier muso’s you may genuinely not have enough time to learn a piece or whole set to this degree. Accept it. This means, accepting you will make mistakes on the fly. If you are reading a score/tab/notes while playing, be familiar with the pages and use your own handwriting to flag important points in a piece where you may not be strong.

Environment

If you are a muso that can play alone fine but gets “the fear” when people are listening you must ask yourself “what is it about me performing alone that makes me comfortable”. As a piano player, you typically learn on an upright piano. Sitting alone for hours a month, facing a wall. Maybe a guitarist learns in their bedroom, seated on the bed. A clarinetist, sitting staring down at a music stand. That’s just the way it is.

So consider, if you have the luxury, pick where you perform. If you feel comfortable on your bed, consider what makes it comfortable for you and replicate that when you’re playing for people. It might be not facing a crowd directly, facing off to one side of the stage instead of full frontal.

For me it’s having to face people and step up on a stage that can trigger the jitters. A comfy seat and no squeaky piano pedals always help me. I bring my own stool and a tube of graphite powder with me just in case to most gigs. Fortunately most of the gigs I get to accept aren’t on a stage but my reaction to stages has also improved with time.

Part 2 will cover tactics of performing …