Updated: May 31, 2019
You are not Alone!
Some degree of performance anxiety happens to most people. Feeling nervous shows that you care about the music and you want to play it right!
Many students and performers have been there; blank, racing mind, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing. What is happening? Performance anxiety. Performance anxiety can erase a week's worth of practice sessions and leave the student feeling confused and frustrated. Countless times throughout history, a student has cried out, "But I played it perfectly at home!".
Home Vs. Performance
Feeling self-conscious can make the most straightforward tasks incredibly difficult. If you have ever been put on the spot and forgotten your own name, your phone number or some other small piece of vital information, it is easy to see that being put on the spot to play or sing an entire piece of music would up the odds of you being unable to recall some or all aspects of the music. To combat the possibility of this happening, students may need to shift their expectations of how much practicing is "enough".
Practice—Set your Expectations
Understand that you may "feel" or "think" that you have practiced enough, but when it comes time to play or sing in front of someone else, you cannot execute the music at the same level as when you were alone. This is not a bad thing. When you play a piece in different environments, you are getting accurate feedback on how well you actually know the music. If you know the music well enough that you could be chased by a bear through the woods while simultaneously juggling and riding a unicycle and still be able to recite the lyrics or chords to the piece, chances are you have it together pretty well. Here are four basic levels of increasingly stressful situations to perform in. For some students, numbers 2. and 3. may be reversed.
Know the music well enough to play by yourself in a low or no pressure environment.
Know the music well enough to perform it correctly every time in front of your music teacher.
Know the music well enough to perform it correctly every time for your family and friends.
Know the music well enough to perform it correctly every time for other musicians and strangers.
If you can achieve step number 4., playing the music by yourself or for your teacher will be a breeze. That being said, not everyone is interested in performing for many different people. It is still important to at least be able to know the music well enough to play it correctly in front of your teacher so you can receive accurate feedback on your progress.
Everyone from scientists to navy seals to the spiritual seekers of antiquity agrees that the breath is key to mastering stressful situations. These are two variations on a similar exercise. You can do these exercises for 10-20 minutes, stop immediately if you get light headed.
Box Breath—Navy Seals
Elite navy seals use this breathing technique to manage stressful situations. Create a "box" with your breath. Breathe in for a count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four. At this stage, do not hold your breath in with your chest or neck muscles. Control the breath with your stomach, allowing your abdomen to expand out, while your chest hardly moves. Now, breathe out slowly for a count of four and then wait with no breath in your body for a count of four. Breathe in for a count of four to restart the cycle.
This exercise comes from stress management meditation masters. The premise is simple, inhale for half the time that you will spend on the exhale. An example would be breathing in for a count of four, then breathing out for a count of eight.
Try to Relax
Relaxing when about to perform can be much easier said than done. However, you may find that having a calm mind and low heart rate will help you share your music with increased levels of perfection and emotional connection with the music and to your audience.