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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out my complete system for beating performance anxiety, playing your best every time, and enjoying your music more.
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.
6) Set realistic expectations
One of the reasons you get nervous is that you expect too much of yourself.
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.
TAKE THE NEXT STEP
Check out my complete system for beating performance anxiety, playing your best every time, and enjoying your music more.
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.
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.
And if you'd like to go deeper, then check out Unlock Your Performance. It's my complete system for for beating performance anxiety, playing your best every time, and enjoying your music more.
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.
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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.
I will need to read through this section once more to get a better understanding of it all for myself
Yup. It’s worth coming back to these concepts several times. The deeper they sink in, the better you can apply them.
I think that all of the above tips are excellent and very helpful Mark thank you. My favourite one is numb 5, think about what the audience want.
So glad you found them helpful, Dave. And taking the audience’s perspective is one of my favourites too.
I came to the (comforting) conclusion some time ago that we all think we played worse than we actually did whilst the audience thinks we played better that we actually did!
That’s certainly true most of the time in my experience, Don. I don’t think it’s quite 100%, though. There have been a couple of times when I listened back to a recording and realised I’d played worse than I thought. But overall, the probabilities are massively in favour of the situation where I played better than I thought at the time.
Very good–what I try to do is concentrate on the message that I’m trying to get across. It would be awful to stutter when you speak so, in a similar way, it’s bad to stutter in your musical message
That’s a good one, Elisabeth. Thanks for sharing.
I have struggled w/self-belief issues my entire life,I am coming late in my life to gtr.& I want to write songs.
It’s never too late to boost self-belief, Craig. It definitely takes some effort. But I’ve seen plenty of people do it successfully.
I like No 7 Just thinking is 70/100 success when I am on stage and 30/100 haw I play .But is great to give 100/100 EVERY DAY
Nice insight, Pablo.
Yes Mark, I think this will help me greatly. I’ve sent it to Facebook. Especially for me I’m going to incorporate the one playing for the audience. Thanks again, Neal
You’re welcome, Neal. Thanks for sharing it!
It’s not about the music
The audience desires an enjoyable human experience/connection
Let yourself be vulnerable and in the moment
Tell your story – be seen, heard, felt and acknowledged – own who you are
Talk – keep the energy going – no breaks – no silence
Be open and honest with the audience
Be friendly, pleasant and charming
It’s about the people in the audience
Tell your story – you’ll be more interesting, confident & happier
Introduce the songs
Enjoy performing and the performance
Nerves mean you are excited
The odd slip doesn’t matter it’s about the feel not perfection
Say yes to the challenge of being on stage – expect it to be demanding
Own the show
The audience is on your side
Most people aren’t paying attention anyway, they’re thinking about themselves
Perform the song – don’t just sing it – Dynamics and expression
Kick down the wall – Make them feel! Good enough is not good enough.
Exaggerate your uniqueness
The dumber you feel the better you look
You’re the coolest person in the room while on stage
Do something that exceeds expectations
Fill the stage – move
Get people to watch not just listen
Keep moving forward.
I recently heard this, coming from a woman who had achieved very highly in a non-traditional (not music) field: “Act as if you can’t be fired. It gives a mindset of “I’m the best they’ve got.” You can feel that way without being arrogant, I think.
Thank you for this article, I’ve found it very interesting. I’ve been performing in front of audiences for decades now and though my hands don’t shake any more and I don’t get a knot in my stomach, I still lose concentration at pivotal moments and I perceive the people in the first row as having expressionless/critical faces which throws me right off course, even now, even last night. Once I make a mistake (usually on something that works perfectly at home) it easily leads to others because I expect to make others, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy! I’ve made progress but honestly wish I could get over this problem once and for all. My husband is constantly telling me that no-one notices, that everyone enjoyed the performance, people come up to me later to thank me enthusiastically, but I still beat myself up over mistakes and even as I’m playing think ‘That’s it, I refuse to look bad publically again’. I’ll try to apply some of your tips. Thank you.
So glad this was helpful, Gianna. If you decide you want a complete system for working on this issue rather than a selection of individual tips then you might like to check out my Unlock Your Performance course: https://playinthezone.com/unlock-your-performance/ . It’s specifically designed to tackle performance nerves and other related issues.
Hi Mark, alert, this could be lengthy. I hope it’s not big-headed to say, after decades of playing small-scale “gigs” (often just parties with/for friends or neighbours) I really don’t remember ever having performance anxiety as such – maybe I should have! As a teenager and later in life doing some amateur theatre, yes I was nervous about getting lines wrong but always came out OK, but playing music for people was never a problem. I premiered a crappy second-hand 12-string guitar doing all 8 minutes of Roy Harper’s I Hate The White Man (from memory) before a roomful of Uni friends – anxious, me? And when I became a language teacher the same (maybe excessive) self-confidence was a blessing – you need it if you’re a teacher! And that brings me to you asking what points in your list we most relate to. In my case I’d say points 5 and 7 together, the audience – what they expect and how they respond. At our language school in London I organised music nights once a month, and I was keen to introduce our foreign students to songs and songwriters they probably didn’t know (e.g. Woody Guthrie, earlyish Dylan, country, English and Celtic folk, etc.) – but years later I realised we should maybe have done less proselytising and played much more familiar stuff for them – at the time, Beatles, Stones, etc. and especially the radio hits of the time – and yes, I think sometimes we didn’t capture their attention enough and one night I got a bit annoyed, unforgiveable… So yes, unless you’re an untouchable star headliner, try to get an idea of what your next audience might respond best to, and afterwards try to analyse carefully how it went, and why. (“How was it for you…?” – !!) Next month I turn 71 and one of our local cafés in our little Catalan town is starting a monthly Sunday lunchtime “jam” that back home, back then, in Nottingham we’d politely call it a come-all-ye (other names available!) and I’m already working on a repertoire, of songs in English that I’ll have to “sell” to the crowd in Catalan – again, no sweat (cocky, eh?) I’ll probably leave for later dates my medleys of blues, Elvis, Creedence, Bruce, etc., ha-haa, and I want to start work on a Beatles medley, can’t fail. Plus my own translations of some favourite Catalan (and maybe Spanish) songs. New career opening up! Time to put my new Martin strings on my Martin guitar – hey, when your surname is Martin and you play guitar… My best friend and sometime guitarist Ray Boguslawski doesn’t have that problem, except he shares his surname with an illustrious Polish poet and when he worked for a good while in Poland he had to field off lots of excited questions…)
Emm, I think that’s more than enough, Mark, thanks for your patience if you’ve got this far and I hope some of this has been interesting.
In a nutshell, our “results” are down in a very large part to what’s good and not so good in our own personality. Self-confident or overbearing? Reserved or cowardly?
(And in our next tedious, yawn-provoking programme…)
Cheers and many, many thanks for your terrific work. Writing all this has no doubt helped me a bit, I hope some of it might help others.
Best to ya. Paul Martin