10 Tips for Beating Performance Nerves

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Performance nerves affect all musicians at some time or another. For some people they can be a minor annoyance, which can be felt as nothing more than a few little butterflies in their stomach. For others, however, they can be crippling! The adrenalin can be so strong that it triggers a ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction in the body. This can result in performers physically shaking, being sick, and otherwise feeling unable to perform. This adrenalin needs to be channeled to our advantage. Used correctly it can give a performance a real edge, a sense of excitement, and a feeling of raw emotion. Here are my top 10 tips for overcoming performance nerves:

1. Know your music really well

    If you have any doubts about your ability to play the music, it is guaranteed to go wrong in performance! Iron out any creases, and focus on the bits that really worry you – it’s difficult to stop thinking about those when you’re nervous, so make sure you are confident about the whole piece.

2. Practise your ending – lots!

    It is very common for students to ‘practise’ by simply playing the piece through from start to finish. If they then decide to work on any bits specifically, it is usually towards to beginning. Add to this the fact that, when first learning a piece, people tend to start at the beginning, and it quickly transpires that the beginning has had a lot more practise than the end! Make sure you work on the ending as well – you don’t want to be worrying about the last page before you’ve even started. Ideally, you should be able to relax once you get into the piece, knowing that you can nail the ending!

3. Record yourself playing

      Practise your piece until you’re really happy with it, and then record yourself playing. You will be surprised at how much pressure this puts on you, and how nervous you suddenly feel! I have put this idea into practise recently with some of my older students – asking them to send me recordings of their playing in between lessons (see http://musicalmum.com/online-lessons/). I have already seen a marked difference in their performances – people feel more inclined to practise for a recording than for a lesson (perhaps because of the permanency of it!) This also has the added bonus of allowing you to hear your weak points.

4. Don’t overdo it

It can be tempting to cram in as much practise as you can in the days leading up to your performance – don’t! Your brain needs time to rest and process things that it has learnt, and ‘practising’ 10 minutes before you go on stage will do nothing more than stress you out and further embed mistakes. Have a good practise plan for the months and weeks leading to the performance, and allow for some rest time in the days before.

5. Practise performing

This may sound like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do this. If you were sitting an important maths exam, you would attempt some practise papers beforehand – and you would probably get better results with each paper. The same must apply to your music performance. Ask family to listen, play to your friends, and apply to play in small competitions and masterclasses. The more times you perform a piece, the easier it becomes.

6. Be careful of your caffeine and sugar intake 

Performance nerves create enough energy and adrenalin, without you adding to it through artificial means! You don’t want to increase your heart rate anymore than it is already. Keep well hydrated to avoid any mind fog, eat a well-balanced meal beforehand to prevent any weakness or sickness, and avoid any stimulants.

7. Practise on the instrument and at the venue you will be performing at

    This especially applies to pianists, who are unable to take their instrument with them. Familiarise yourself with the one you will be playing – get used to the touch, the weight, the tone, the pedals, and identify any problems with it. You don’t want to realise that the Middle C sticks, just as you are starting out your performance. Likewise, practise playing on the stage, or in the room you will be using. Different acoustics affect the way we sound – don’t be put off by this!

8. Accept your performance nerves and embrace them

    This is a tricky one, and something I have struggled to do for a long time. It is easy to feel that we should fight our performance nerves, and defeat them. We feel that they are unnatural feelings, and that we should work to not have them anymore. However, the best thing we can do with them is to let them wash over us. Worrying about feeling anxious will only make us more anxious. Accept that they are there, and ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ Once you face this fear, you realise that even the worse-case-scenario isn’t really that bad. Our nerves become much more manageable when we are not afraid of them.

9. Breathe and focus

    It is common for people to forget how to breathe when they are nervous. They find themselves holding their breath, or else hyperventilating and breathing too quickly! Either way, the brain and the body gets overwhelmed by a change in oxygen intake. Before you perform, partake in a mindfulness exercise:
    – Fill your lungs with air, breathing deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth
    – Starting from the top of your head, focus on each body part in turn. Notice any sensations you feel – tingling, tightness, relaxation, warmth, etc.
    – Try to empty your head of any other thoughts, or worries about your upcoming performance. Simply take a few moments to just ‘be’.
    This will help to calm you and focus you. The best thing you can do before you perform is to learn to relax, and not to panic.

10. Don’t get bogged down in the detail

Remember that when you are performing, you are sharing a piece of art. Don’t get caught up in worrying that your fingering isn’t ideal in bar 273, or you always mess up the trill in bar 23. It isn’t important. What’s important is telling a story, conveying a message, and sharing in something that you love. Music is subjective anyway, and even the ‘perfect’ performance won’t please everyone. Stop worrying about what your audience thinks of your playing, and instead concentrate on the beauty of the music itself. It sometimes helps to have an idea of the story you are trying to tell, to help you put the emotions you want to across, rather than panicking about your technique. Enjoy yourself, and your audience will too!

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