This article was contributed by Julian Harnish of findyourmelody.com.

Performance anxiety, called stage fright in some situations, is the increased fear and anxiety that comes with performing in front of an audience. The audience may be real or perceived as people often feel performance anxiety while performing in front of a camera. 

Performance anxiety is common in all areas of life, but pianists and musicians are especially prone to it under the pressure of big performances.

In this article, we will explore the causes of performance anxiety, and 5 tips that will prepare you for an excellent next performance.

Related: Parent’s Guide To Piano Recitals

What Causes Performance Anxiety and Stage Fright

Noa Kageyama is a performance psychologist and Juilliard faculty member. He speculates that performance anxiety arises when the likely chance of failure seems greater than your current skill level. He says, “Basically, your brain tries to calculate the odds that you’ll nail this performance, and the odds that you’ll fall on your face. If your brain decides that you are probably going to do really well, you won’t feel anxious.” 


There are several factors that lead to performance anxiety including:

  • Familiarity of the material
  • Size of the audience
  • Duration of the performance
  • Importance of the performance (playing for friends vs at a student recital vs at carnegie hall)
  • Experience performing

For example, imagine performing with an orchestra and discovering that you prepared the wrong piece. Naturally you would have a huge amount of performance anxiety because you are unfamiliar with the material, the audience is large, the performance is important, and the duration of the performance is long. 

This actually happened to world class pianist Maria Joao Pires. She prepared one Mozart piano concerto, but was greeted with the sounds of an entirely different concerto. You can see signs of stress and performance anxiety in her body language as she places her hands on her face, and furrows her eyebrows. (Fortunately she nailed her performance). 

5 Tips to Overcome Stage Fright

With proper training the added adrenaline and energy that accompanies stage fright can become an asset. The following tips will teach you how to overcome your stage fright. 

Tip 1: Prepare For Your Lesson

Many people have performance anxiety while working with their teachers; this can lead to underperforming in lessons. Most of us students can relate to saying or thinking, “I could play it right by myself! Why can’t I play it for you?” Here are some ways to prepare better for your lessons.

Warm-up before your lesson. So this is obvious, but it took me until my senior year of college before I did it consistently. If it helps, think of your lesson as officially starting 30 minutes before you meet with your teacher. In those 30 minutes you can warm up on the piano, play through your pieces (don’t get bogged down fixing mistakes), and take a moment to get relaxed and excited for this opportunity to continue your growth as a musician. Then you can drive, or walk to the studio. Find some heavy mittens if the weather is cold to keep your hands warm.

Develop clear objectives with your teacher each week. It was always intimidating going to a lesson not knowing if my teacher would ask me to play a piece I hadn’t prepared. Instead, ask your teacher to brainstorm objectives with you for the next week of lessons, so that you know exactly what to expect. 

Perform your practice objective the day before lesson. At the very least perform the piece/objective for yourself, better yet perform in front of a camera or friend to increase the stakes.

Tip 2: Improve memory – Create mental chunks of the piece

If you are comfortable with your memory of the piece, you will feel less likely to fail, and that will decrease performance anxiety. One way to improve your memory, is to “chunk” your music into meaningful groups.

Chunking in psychology is the process of organizing individual pieces of information into larger more meaningful groupings. For example, if I asked you to memorize the following items:

Cat, dog, ferret, lemon, apple, cherry

You would naturally chunk the information into the categories of “pets” and “fruit.” You would think:

(Pets) – cat, dog, ferret

(Fruits) – lemon, apple, cherry

In music, you can chunk the scales and chords that you see. 

For example if you are learning the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven (below), you could chunk the whole first measure into the grouping of “C# minor chord.” 

If you are a beginner you can still use chunking. Mary Had a Little Lamb (below) has notes that “weave around” (first measure),“stay the same” (second measure), and “leap” (third measure). If you remember “weave around,” “stay the same,” and “leap,” it will be easier to memorize the first line of music.

Tip 3: Improve memory –  Create Mental Checkpoints

Another memorization practice that I follow is creating mental checkpoints in a piece. This keeps me from relying too heavily on muscle memory. 

To create checkpoints, place post-it notes at the beginning of the most important sections (example below). These are your checkpoints. I shoot for a check point every 10-30 seconds – more in the challenging sections.

Now see if you can start right on each checkpoint without looking at the music. 

To take it a step further, start at one checkpoint, play for a bit, and then intentionally mess up. Then see if you can start at the next checkpoint without consulting your music.

If you can, you will be much more likely to recover during a higher stakes performance.

For example, when I performed the Schumann piano concerto for my college orchestra, I created mental checkpoints once every 15-30 seconds for the entire 15 min long first movement.

Throughout the most challenging section I had a mental checkpoint every 4 measures. When I got to the performance, I messed up during that section!… But then I got back on. Had I not practiced my mental checkpoints, I imagine I would have train-wrecked and the whole orchestra would have fallen with me. You can view the mess up and recovery below (starting at 7:25).

Tip 4: Incrementally Build Confidence with Practice Performances.

We’ve talked about tips to improve your memory, but you still may be overly-anxious for your coming performance. It’s time to build some confidence!

Performance anxiety is sometimes classified as a subset of Social Anxiety Disorder (although if you have performance anxiety on occasion that doesn’t necessarily mean you have social anxiety disorder). 

A common feedback loop in social anxiety disorder is avoiding anxiety inducing situations. The avoidance prevents people from gathering new evidence that they can succeed. 

Similarly, if you routinely avoid performances, then you won’t gather the evidence that you can perform well. 

Avoidance may be subtle. Sometimes I avoid performances by procrastinating and not practicing my piece. Other times I avoid by becoming overly perfectionistic and detail-oriented (by becoming hyper detail-oriented, I can avoid performing the whole piece for myself). 

To get out of the negative loop, you can follow a plan to put yourself in increasingly challenging performance situations. For example:

  • Perform the piece for yourself
  • Perform In front of a camera or pet
  • Perform for a family member
  • Perform for a small group of friends
  • Perform the public concert!

You can also put yourself in performance situations by routinely practicing/jamming with musicians at a similar level to you, playing at churches, or playing at retirement communities and nursing homes.

Tip 5: Create a Pre-performance Ritual

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, speaks of the power of a pre-performance ritual. He was a pitcher for his team in college; his 20-25 minute routine was a specific sequence of jogging, stretches, and pre-game pitches. As he puts it in his book, “my pre-game routine started a cascade of internal events that pulled me into the right frame of mind and made it more likely that I would succeed.”

Even if you are feeling crummy, anxious, or unmotivated at the beginning of the day, a pre-performance ritual can help you snap into the right mindset.

The pre-performance ritual I use involves these three elements typically in this order.

Exercise – perhaps a short jog, to get blood flowing to my arm muscles and to my brain. And burn off some of the excess adrenaline.

Piano Warm-Up Scales, arpeggios, etc so that I am re-acquainted with the instrument. (I rarely play my pieces immediately before a performance, because I think it psyches me out).

Meditation – This calms my nerves and refocusses the extra energy on the task at hand. I visualize/audiate the sounds and emotions I want to create.

By the end of this routine, I feel alert but relaxed. I’m ready to perform!

Conclusion

Stage fright and performance anxiety is intimidating for even the most experienced musicians. To decrease performance anxiety try warming up fully before your lesson. To improve your memory create mental checkpoints and analyze meaningful “chunks” such as scales and chords. To prepare for a performance create a pre-performance ritual to curb anxieties and focus your mind, and try boosting your confidence incrementally with performances of increasing stakes. 

Best wishes in your next performance!

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Julian Harnish is the creator of findyourmelody.com, a piano blog with a particular emphasis on the psychology of effective and enjoyable practice. He studied Math and Piano Performance in college, and has a particular appreciation for the choral music of Eric Whittacre and Ola Gjeilo. 

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