9 Performance Anxiety Tips That Every Musician Should Know

It feels horrible to struggle with performance anxiety.

It can suck all the joy out of playing music.

The usual advice is that more practice will solve everything. But you’ve probably discovered that doesn’t always work.

Know that performance anxiety is common and perfectly normal. And that there are techniques which will improve things for you.

Here are 9 quick and simple tips that you can use straight away.

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1) Breathe

When you feel nervous before a gig, one of the most helpful things you can do is to consciously take a slow, deep breath.

Then take a few more.

It’s really as simple as that.

But the benefits come when you get the details right, so let’s go through them quickly. Don’t worry – they’re not difficult!

The three key details to notice are:

  • Slow
  • Deep
  • Conscious

Slow means simply that you’re not rushing things. You don’t have to be aiming for the slowest breathing possible – it wants to be at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

Deep means that you want to get your belly involved rather than only breathing into your chest. This doesn’t mean that you’re only breathing from your belly. And it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to cram as much air into your lungs as possible. Keep your breathing smooth and easy rather than forcing it.

Conscious means that you keep your full attention on your breathing throughout. Be aware when you’re breathing in and when you’re breathing out. Notice how it feels in your body.

And don’t worry about whether you’re doing all this “correctly”.

Yes, it’s possible to get better and better at this as you practice. But the most important thing is to start doing it with the intention to get the basics right.

As long as you have the right intention as you breathe then it will give you a huge benefit. If you want to go on and improve the details later – then great.

The ideal way to make this type of breathing automatic is to learn a quick pre-performance routine. As well as calming anxiety, this will also lead to better performances.

2) Choose your focus ahead of time

You probably know that, to play music well, you need the ability to keep your concentration steady in the right place.

But you might not realise that a strong focus is equally effective at reducing performance anxiety.

Trying not to think about something that’s worrying you is almost impossible.

Instead, the key is to guide your focus towards something positive. If you do that successfully, then your thoughts will automatically move away from everything else.

The secret to making this work is preparation.

Choose where you’re going to put your focus in advance, rather than hoping you’ll pick the right option when the time comes.

That way, there’s no worry or doubt about whether you made the right choice. You’re just following orders.

And practice hitting this target over a period of time. Until you automatically know where to aim without having to think about it.

That way you reduce the mental effort you need in performance, rather than making your mind work harder.

This may not come easily at first. Over time, however, it will become more and more natural to constantly check whether your focus is in the right place.

Related article: The Power of Focus

3) Remember that the physical effects are normal

When performance anxiety strikes, it can be tempting to think that there’s something wrong with you.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Your body’s response to pressure is something that has evolved over millions of years. It may not be the response you want, but it’s perfectly normal and healthy.

You should be more worried if your body didn’t react in that way. It would be an indication that something wasn’t working properly.

Once you accept this, the game changes.

If you think that performance anxiety is a huge problem, and that you should be calm, then you can fall into a destructive spiral.

Each time you try and calm yourself without success, this adds to your anxiety. It feeds off itself and just keeps getting worse.

Instead, accept that there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s fine and there’s nothing to worry about. Stop wishing that things were different.

Now:

This isn’t going to make any nerves disappear.

But the more that you accept how things are, the less those nerves will affect your performance.

You may even find that the strength of your performance anxiety decreases over time when you adopt this attitude. That would be a nice side effect, though – it’s not guaranteed and it’s not the point of the exercise.

Related article: Responses to Pressure

4) Reframe any nerves as excitement

There are several different components to performance anxiety – some physical, and some mental.

You probably notice the physical aspects more easily and pay less attention to how nerves affect your thinking. But it’s the mental side which often has the bigger impact.

Your body’s physical response when you’re nervous is very similar to when you’re excited.

What’s different is the emotional component on top. Negative emotions for nerves; positive for excitement.

This means that there are big improvements you can make without having to change your physical response at all. You just have to reframe any feeling of nerves as excitement.

Easier said than done, right?

Actually, it’s easier than you might imagine.

Amazingly enough, you don’t have to get hung up on whether this is something you truly believe at the time. Just the act of thinking “I’m excited” to yourself has been shown to have a positive impact on performance.

5) Think about what the audience wants

Would you agree that your goal should be to give the audience a great experience?

I hope so.

But it’s all too easy instead to get caught up with thoughts about how YOU want things to go.

Most musicians judge the success of a performance on their own experience. Not on how the audience felt.

I know I’ve frequently been guilty of this in the past.

Change your perspective so that you’re focused purely on giving the audience an enjoyable experience.

This is obviously good for the audience. But it’s going to help you too.

When you switch your focus to the audience’s enjoyment, you’ll find this moves your thoughts away from unhelpful things.

There’s no time to beat yourself up about past mistakes.

No time to worry about what’s coming up next.

To give them the best experience possible, you’ve got to leave that all behind. You’ve got to concentrate fully on what you’re playing right now.

Related article: Redefine Success

6) Set realistic expectations

One of the reasons you get nervous is that you expect too much of yourself.

You’re human.

Demanding a perfect performance from yourself every time is not an achievable goal. It’s definitely not a helpful goal.

If you set unreasonable targets for yourself, then it’s no surprise that you’re nervous about whether you’ll achieve them.

[You may not be setting these expectations consciously. Take a moment to ask yourself what you think counts as a successful performance – you might be surprised at how high your expectations are]

If you’re playing something that you feel you’ve mastered, then just loosen up a bit. It’s fine if it’s not perfect – the odd slip won’t matter.

If you loosen up, then you’ll feel less pressure – it will be more fun. You’ll also probably play better if you’re ok with occasional mistakes than if you’re set on avoiding them at all costs.

When you’re not chasing the idea of perfection, you may find that you give that perfect performance after all.

If you’re playing something really challenging, though, then it’s time to recalibrate your expectations.

If something is way too hard for you then expecting to play it brilliantly is unrealistic.

In that case, maybe make your goal for success just to get through it.

7) People don’t pay as much attention to you as you think

When you’re getting ready to head up on stage and perform it can feel like people will be focusing on every note you play.

But the reality is very different.

Everyone’s thoughts tend to be heavily focused in on themselves.

Scientific studies show that, as a result, people inevitably overestimate the amount of attention that others pay to them. The phenomenon even has a name: the Spotlight Effect.

And the research shows that this effect occurs just as much in performance situations as it does in everyday life.

The audience might have come along specifically to hear you perform. But remember – for a surprisingly large part of the performance their thoughts will be elsewhere.

If something doesn’t quite go to plan then most of the audience won’t be aware of this.

8) Remember that the audience is on your side

Think about it:

The audience have come along to enjoy themselves.

They’re not secretly hoping for a poor performance just so that they can criticise the flaws later.

They’re cheering you on. They want you to produce the goods.

In short, they’re on your side.

And this means that they’ll actively latch on to all the best moments in the music. They savour them in the moment – and then file them away for the pleasure of reviewing them later on.

Simultaneously, their minds filter out as many of the less-polished moments as possible. They’re not interested in dwelling on those – either now or in the future.

You might be tempted to think that the audience will be judging you.

Resist that temptation.

Remember that they’ll applaud your successes and forgive you any slips.

9) Replace unhelpful thoughts

We all get unhelpful thoughts popping into our minds from time to time. And if you’re nervous about a performance then you’ll probably get more of them.

That’s not actually a problem. It’s totally normal.

What IS a problem is if you spend time holding onto those thoughts, rather than just letting them disappear as quickly as they arrive.

Luckily, there’s a simple way to get rid of unwanted thoughts. You simply replace them with something else.

To make this easy and effective, you want to have an alternative thought prepared ahead of time.

There are many potential choices to suit different personalities and different situations. We won’t worry about that right now, though. I’m going to give you one basic example that I find is helpful for just about everyone.

If you notice unhelpful thoughts running around in your head, then simply say to yourself:

“It will be fine”

You can repeat the phrase as many times as you need to.

This works well because it’s always true, so you can always believe in it.

The consequences may seem terrible at first glance, when you’re in the grip of performance anxiety.

But when you pause and think about the bigger picture – you’ll discover that it always will be fine. Whatever the result of the performance, life goes on pretty much unchanged afterwards.

Moving forward

So there you go.

Nine quick, simple and practical things you can do to reduce performance anxiety.

Don’t attempt them all straight away, though. If you try and remember too many different, unfamiliar things at once then none of them will work well.

Pick the one that appeals to you most and start with that. When it’s working reliably then add in another. And so on.

Eventually, you’ll be able to use all of them together. Add them all up and they should hugely increase your enjoyment of performance.

Which is your favourite tip from the list? Do you have other tips that I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments below.


Oh and before I go

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  • This stuff really makes sense to me. I seem to get overwhelmed even at open mic. I’m going to try using this information . Thanks

    • Hi Kristofor. So glad you found this useful.

      It’s pretty normal to get nervous playing at open mics – don’t feel bad about it! And let us know how you get on.

  • Hi Mark. Lovely read and very helpful. All this really does make sense. One major question I have though is how do you practice this when you are in the comfort of your own home? It is hard to fake that anxiety response, but you need to be in that situation to learn how to put all this into practice. Ultimately before the big day. I find once a week at my lessons aren’t enough even.

    I have been recording my pieces, which yes this is helping there. However I found it had no influence on my actual workshop performance. I obviously perceived this as a total new threat and that anxiety came flooding back in.

    So any suggestions how to invoke that fight/flight response so you can put all your advice into practice. (I was thinking of getting a jar with a spider and sitting it on the piano, and then practice calming myself down and directing my concentration. jk:).

    • Hi Marianne. Glad you found this useful.

      Have you checked out my article on ways to add pressure to your practice yet? https://playinthezone.com/add-pressure-music-practice/ If not, have a look and see if it gives you enough to go on.

      The other thing to remember is that, although you’ll never recreate the EXACT same feelings of anxiety, anything which increases the pressure response you feel during practice is having a definite impact on your ability to perform in a pressure situation. The experience of practising under stress (rather than no pressure at all) makes a difference even if the levels of pressure in the real thing are much greater than you are able to simulate in practice.

      Hope that helps. But let me know if you have any further questions.

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